Indonesia was hit hard by the novel coronavirus that began its sweep around the world early in 2020. At the end of the summer, its death toll was the highest in East Asia and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continued to rise—causing the government to re-impose what it called “mini lockdowns.” The fallout on the economy has been swift and brutal: A small but decent growth in the economy reversed course, with experts predicting it to drop as much as 1.7% by the end of 2020.
For too many Indonesians, that economic decline translates into deepening poverty. Under the best of scenarios, the ranks of the poor are expected to expand by more than 1.3 million residents; but the more pessimistic predict the number will be closer to 20 million.
Each of those numbers is a person with a story, and one of them is Suryati. She lives in the village of Tomang in West Jakarta—part of the overall province of Jakarta, home to half of the country’s COVID-19 cases. Most adults struggle to earn a living, toiling as day laborers in construction, shopkeepers, gardeners or laundry workers. Their low incomes cause them to double and triple up, with as many as four families in one home—typically a dwelling of just 5 x 5 meters.
Suryati, who was born in Tomang, is a widow and lives in a house with her four children and the families of the two daughters who are married—totaling nine under one roof. Usually, they manage to get by. But there is no normal during the pandemic
“Neither of my sons-in-law have permanent jobs,” Suryati explains. “I try to bring in some extra money by selling gallons of drinking water and cylinders of cooking gas. And we all try to earn what we can by running errands for people. It’s not enough, though, so we’ve had to prioritize our expenses. Food comes first, especially rice. Everything else is secondary.”
Finding ‘agency’ in civic action
Suryati found both support and a sense of mission in Serikat Perjuangan Rakyat Indonesia (Indonesian People’s Struggle Union, or SPRI). The primary mission of SPRI is to assure that individuals and families with barely-subsistence incomes benefit from government social-protection programs, which were established to provide health care, food aid, education and cash support. Too often, kampung residents like Tomang are not on the approved recipient lists. For example, even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, SPRI identified about 4,000 families needing assistance who did not receive it.
“It is no secret,” notes a statement from SEKNAS FITRA, the Indonesian Forum for Budget Transparency. “The fundamental problem of (government) assistance is the accuracy of the data. (As a result), the aid is not on target.”
Both SPRI and FITRA are supported by the International Budget Partnership (IBP) through the SPARK (Strengthening Public Accountability for Results and Knowledge) initiative. The strategy is to combine IBP’s expertise in public finance with the strength and momentum of “bottom-up,” community-based movements. The goal is to improve government services for residents who too often are neglected and marginalized. Now, with the pandemic forcing dramatic shifts in government funding, another mission is to demonstrate the ability of budget-focused advocacy to assure equity in the government’s emergency response.
Then came COVID-19
When the pandemic swooped into Indonesia, it spread across almost all the provinces. The number of unemployed residents soared; for example, in Jakarta, where SPRI works, more than 60% of people surveyed by the organization reported losing their incomes—mostly those who work in the informal sector and can least afford it, notes Donny Setiawan, senior program officer for IBP’s Indonesia team.
The country’s president issued an emergency decree allowing the government to increase its deficit limit by 3% and state spending by 2.5% of GDP (US$24.6 billion), with the additional funds allocated to health care, social-welfare programs, and tax incentives and credits for businesses. This was all good news, but since the government’s database for its signature Family Hope program is chronically incomplete, it became more important than ever for SPRI and IBP to advocate for the province’s low-income residents.
With the onset of the pandemic, the tactics employed by SPRI, with IBP’s support, had to change. The physical-distancing orders meant the organization could no longer rely on mass mobilization and in-person networking. The first activity to be impacted was the social audit – a community-led review to determine whether local services promised in government budgets are being delivered as intended – SPRI had planned to launch. Typically conducted on the ground and consisting of surveys and interviews, the process had to be greatly simplified to be conducted virtually. Fortunately, IBP had worked with another partner, Inisiatif (National Center for Indonesian Leadership), since the beginning of 2019 to develop a social audit app which was quickly made fully functional and expanded to capture information on the socioeconomic impact of the virus, as well as the reach of the new entitlement programs included in the government’s COVID response.
The results of the survey are displayed on an “information map,” developed by SPRI with technical assistance by Inisiatif. The map is routinely updated using data collected by community auditors in 28 villages.
The Indonesian Family Hope program provides cash transfers to families with children up to age 15. The payments are given to parents in return for a pledge to participate in health and nutrition training, take their children to clinics when they’re ill and keep them in school. The program also provides seed money and skills training to help heads of households run their own family businesses.
Neighbors helping neighbors
Another pivotal feature of the COVID response by IBP and SPRI is a network of 35 community information and complaint “centers”—often, the homes of the same members trained as social auditors. Suryati, for example, manages one of the community centers from her living room. The centers serve as a sort of “link pin” between residents and SPRI; they collect data the organization uses to build an evidence base and report on service delivery to the government, but they also allow staff members and volunteers with education and aid.
Donny explains that the community center managers take resident complaints to the relevant government institutions. In addition, SPRI and other civil society organizations have formed a coalition to monitor more broadly the delivery of social-assistance services during the pandemic. When necessary, they liaise with the national anti-corruption commission and ombudsman.
Suryati’s success rate in helping her community members is high. Of 204 requests she has brought to the relevant authorities, 119 were approved and finally received packages. She has provided similar assistance to residents who had applied to the national health insurance program but received no response.
“I thank God that the SPRI project has been successful! The recipients are so happy,” says Suryati with pride. “And that gives me more satisfaction than more food in my own stomach.”
Photo credit: Yuli Riswati