LESSONS IN CORRUPTION © Duncan Graham 2006
Consider the number of children in state primary schools. At least 30 million are supposed to be facing blackboards and flexing their minds. Their education is free. That’s the law.
But parents attempting to enrol their kids with an empty purse will be rapidly shown the school door, according to social activist Ramida Siringoringo.
“There are uniform fees, money for school texts, a contribution to the building fund, farewell gifts for teachers and other imposts,” she said. “At schools in the Jakarta suburb of Depok that comes to about Rp 700,000 (US$ 75) per child a year– it can be more elsewhere.
“It’s an impossible amount for any poor family – and magnified if they have other children.
“Yet the government’s contribution to poor families hit by last year’s fuel price rise is only Rp 100,000 (US $11) a month.”
When a family decides that whatever the cost their child must be schooled, what happens to these payments?
According to Ramida rolls of rupiah can get rerouted into the teachers’ pockets rather than the stated destination. So with her colleagues in the Indonesian Street (formerly Sunshine) Children’s Organisation (ISCO) she’s trying to make school administrations accountable, their transactions transparent and parents more inquisitorial.
Their leverage is cash to put little people behind primary school desks who might otherwise be left outside the gates. ISCO staff in Jakarta, Medan and Surabaya work in the kampongs to identify the genuine needy and then help them send their kids to school. This month (July) and next (Aug) they’ll be organising new enrolments.
Official figures claim 18 per cent of Indonesia’s 230 million people live on less than Rp 130,000 (US $14) a month.
“One problem is that the schools know we have money from donors so they often think we’re an easy touch,” said Ramida, the ISCO project manager during an audit of the organisation’s Surabaya activity centre.
The centre is based in a rented house deep in Kapasari, a district where second hand goods are traded and the plight of Indonesia’s urban poor is on open display.
Battered bike frames, ripped footwear, eviscerated electrical goods, worn and torn clothes – the rejects of the rich scavenged from their rubbish bins all find their way here.
That such shoddy trash has value is a more graphic example of the state of the economy than any pie chart in an annual report.
Children sponsored by ISCO are also required to attend out-of-school classes run by the organisation to strengthen their knowledge. These are fun-and-learn activities, in contrast to many schools where teaching methods are old fashioned and boring.
“When we sponsor a child we demand accountability,” said Ramida. “We want to know where past cash has been spent and how the transactions can be verified. You’d be surprised how few bursars insist on giving or receiving receipts.”
Checking school financial records can be educational. Why did they pay Rp 200,000 for a fan when the retail price is half that? And why is there a 30 per cent mark-up on the schoolbooks supplied by the teachers?
Because of their bargaining power ISCO workers have been able to buy texts directly from publishers and save parents big sums. It’s a tactic that hasn’t endeared them to some teachers who’ve seen such extras – like selling school texts - as a legitimate prop underpinning their meagre salaries.
A primary school principal will be lucky to clear Rp 1.6 million (US $174) a month, with staff paid around half that amount. So by aiding parents and trying to erase corruption isn’t ISCO inadvertently contributing to the hardship of teachers?
“It’s the job of the government to raise salaries to a decent level so teachers don’t have to resort to such measures and create problems for poor parents,” said Ramida. “It’s our job to help the needy.”
The ISCO Foundation started in 1999 during the economic crisis when thousands of kids were pulled out of school so their families could survive. (See Sidebar)
The idea was to give money directly to the schools so the children of poor families could return to class. On the surface it seemed a reasonable response to a serious issue. But simple solutions carry hidden problems which create more work.
Example: How do illiterate parents help their offspring with homework? And why should parents spend on schooling when there aren’t enough jobs to go around? Education won’t guarantee a career in Indonesia.
Then there are the schools that milk donors and think this right and proper.
“Some principals get quite aggressive when we push for details of their spending,” said Ramida. “Because all ISCO staff are Indonesian they think we should also be corrupt and not bother with accountability.
“Parents also need to be empowered, to have the courage to ask administrators where the money will go and to see receipts.
“That’s difficult in Javanese culture. Educators are considered superior beings whose intentions should not be doubted. Parents have the right to know how and where their money is being used.
“Slowly we’re having an impact. But it’s going to take a long time – there are so many poor families.”
The ISCO Foundation was set up by several European businesspeople in Jakarta in partnership with Indonesians. It’s a non-government organisation with no religious or political affiliations.
The Board is led by Pascal Lalanne, the managing director of international Telco 1rstWAP.
ISCO’s vision is “to give an equal chance for education, development, dignity and hope for the future to every child.”
The mission is to stop kids on the edge of society from becoming street urchins or child laborers.
Begging from motorists stopped at traffic lights, and pedestrians using overpasses is a social sore in Jakarta, Surabaya and other cities. Beggarbabes too young for kindergarten and too tiny to reach the window bang on car doors demanding money while the police look elsewhere.
The Foundation started with 50 kids in two Jakarta suburbs. Now it’s supporting 925 through eleven units based in Jakarta, Medan and Surabaya.
Staff work at street level and mix with the families. Should an affluent household plead poverty to exploit the system, the scam is usually exposed by offended neighbours.
Families are means-tested so few get all school fees paid. The parents’ contribution may be small but it’s designed to help them manage their own affairs and not become dependent on handouts.
The students’ school attendance and work is regularly checked by ISCO staff who can offer help if the child is lagging behind or assist the family.
(For more details of ISCO see www.iscofoundation.org )
(First published in The Jakarta Post Friday 21 July 06)