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War on poverty declared, but hopes not high JAKARTA - The president of Indonesia has a very hard job. Being the first directly elected head of state of a country comprised of some 17,000 islands inhabited by the world's fourth largest population, broken down into literally hundreds of distinct languages and cultures, all further divided by five officially recognized religions, of which Islam, currently the world's most controversial, forms the vast majority, requires a juggling act of extraordinary dexterity. Include the dozens of political parties and the fine judgements that have to be made to accommodate all their special interests and it looks like a juggling act done on a high wire.

When the president's salient characteristic - that he is deliberate and painstaking in his consideration of options - is combined with political radar that will not permit him to make a move until he is convinced that he has broad support and no significant opposition, the performance becomes even trickier. So tricky in fact, that progress can virtually grind to halt in favor of preaching platitudes and making speeches that could find no serious disagreement in even the most fractious of populations. Such seems to be the case with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's presidency.

In his recent state-of-the union address, Yudhoyono announced a number of his good intentions; the one that made headlines was his intention to launch a war on poverty.

One's first reaction to SBY's latest campaign would be to observe that it would be nice if all wars were like his - no casualties, no damage, and weapons only fired for show. Certainly his "war on corruption" didn't cause any serious injuries; the president won a degree of approval (who couldn't support such a war, publicly at least?) and the business of massive embezzlement and petty graft continues with hardly a ripple. The deeply, truly corrupt barely noticed the "war" and have certainly changed absolutely nothing about their systematic looting of both private and public coffers.

The difference this time around is the cynicism that the latest declaration of war is greeted with. There is a sense in the country that SBY is sill respected by Indonesians, even that he is still liked. It is a peculiarly Indonesian trait however, to be able to admire, respect, and even to like someone while at the same time not believing him. When SBY announced his new war, he was generally applauded. Nobody seriously believes that much more than cosmetic gestures will be made, but the president is admired for having said the right thing. The simple fact that the head of state has acknowledged the existence of poverty is a refreshing change; nobody actually expects him to do anything about it.

This is not to say that nobody wants him to do anything about it; it's just that, based on past experience, expectations are minimal. Everybody knows that any war on poverty would start with a successful war on corruption. The grotesque disparity between the rich and poor is maintained and exacerbated by uncontrolled greed at the very highest levels of government.

Past heads of state and their out-of-control offspring hold vast fortunes stolen from the people of Indonesia and SBY refuses to pursue the matter. An entire dynasty built upon rapine lives in respect and luxury, while their crimes are not even discussed in polite company. If even ten percent of the stolen money currently enjoyed by the family of the man described as "the most corrupt national leader of the 20th century" were put to use properly, far more would be done to alleviate poverty than all of SBY's solemn declarations of intentions will ever do.

Any confidence we had that SBY would genuinely follow through on his anti-corruption commitments has long since been eroded; his commitment to fight poverty, inextricably connected as it is to corruption, seems even a little more hollow. When one begins to speculate about ways to combat poverty, social programs are inevitably considered. When we begin to speculate as to how those programs would be administered, images of yet another layer of civil servants lining their pockets dance in our heads. Extra pay, allowances, luxurious conferences, cars, and all the other perks will be the first things paid for out of the anti-poverty budget. Then, when money is to be distributed for emergency relief to the truly desperate, we see it being distributed in the traditional "one for you, one for me" fashion.

So, nobody really expects much from this war; one or a combination of two scenarios is probable. In the first one, nothing substantial is done. The speech itself will be the high point of the new initiative. In the second scenario, some steps are taken, but the allocated budget disappears into the black hole of corruption that characterizes the civil service. In either case, there might be some isolated cases where someone is actually helped, and government spokespeople will ensure that there is press coverage, but overall, it will be business as usual in Indonesia.

Patrick Guntensperger is a Jakarta-based political and business risk analyst and writes frequently on political and social issues. He lectures in media, communications, and ethics.

Posted in Economy @ 06 February 2007 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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