KEEPING THE POOR IN THEIR PLACE © Duncan Graham 2007
Bureaucrats everywhere seem to be afflicted with the same handicap: They don't listen to advice from those they're supposed to be serving.
Particularly so when they deal with the poor and disadvantaged. As educated people they know the theories and figures. As civil servants (a term many reject) they live in a different world, far from squalor and penury. They see their job as telling people what they can have and should do. They don't consult because the poor are not their equals or superiors.
Now imagine a government agency where clients are treated with respect, given information on their rights and options, and their real needs recognized – as opposed to the needs shown on a pie chart.
That's the idea behind a refreshingly robust World Bank report called Voices of the Poor, billed as 'the most comprehensive assessment of poverty in Indonesia for the last ten years.'
The report was assembled by researchers who went into villages and kampongs with a simple trigger question: What do you think about the services you get and how can they be bettered?
There's always a danger of raising expectations when running major social surveys, particularly with people unused to positive attention. Interviewees sometimes assume that discussions with outsiders wearing shoes and carrying clipboards are a harbinger of change.
"We were aware of that," said community development specialist and report author Nilanjana Mukherjee. "Our researchers were Indonesians who identified themselves with the academic institutions or other agencies they work for, not the World Bank.
"When we started talking to one person we often ended up with 50 keen to give their views."
The researchers focused on issues that feature in the Millennium Development Goals. The Indonesian government is a signatory to the MDG, a worldwide bid to reduce poverty by 2015. Governments have agreed to do their jobs better and tackle issues of education, maternal health, gender equality, child mortality, AIDS and other diseases.
The responses from almost 500 people should rock any decent administrator who joined the government to serve her or his fellow citizens. Here are some of the complaints:
· In July 2005 the national government promised to provide free education for the first nine years of schooling. The schools retaliated by imposing their own local fees for examinations, buildings and certificates. The poor can't pay, the kids continue to miss out – and the Jakarta initiative falls apart.
· The public water authorities won't supply piped water to the poor because it's believed they can't find the cash. So the thirsty have to buy in dribs and drabs, and pay up to 33 times the price of tap water.
· Teachers, health workers and other officials often don't go to work in remote villages because they can't stand the poor sanitation and living facilities that go with the job.
· Trained midwives operating under a system introduced in the 1990s to reduce mother and child mortality are shunned because they charge too much, and provide a less caring service than local birth attendants.
· Millions still defecate in the same water they use for bathing and washing because water closets are seen as expensive and smelly, and the health dangers haven't been made clear. No officials have told them that hygienic pit toilets can be installed at little cost. Schools are still being built with too few toilets – or sometimes none at all.
· The attitude of many government officers is that poor = stupid, so there's no need to explain policies or enlighten people with public information. In a top-down power pyramid the people without are expected to be passive recipients of decisions made far away. Cry those at the bottom of the heap: "Who will hear us?"
It all sounds colonial, and it is.
"Poor men and women are aware they are often not served well, but they don't know what to do," said the report.
"Complaining to local political leaders or the mass media is alien to most of them; they cannot imagine reaching such people nor do they believe that these elites will pay attention.
"Residual memories of the harsh tactics of the Soeharto regime stifle most dissent."
And the cynics are right. In the few protests by villagers recorded by the World Bank's researchers, nothing changed. Distrust of officials remains high.
One birth control campaign at the time forced all married women to have a spiral in their wombs, with dissenters being chased down by government workers. Many suffered from months of bleeding and pain.
So the lax, corrupt and indifferent service providers suffer no penalties for their immoral behavior and ineffective procedures. The system grinds on, powered by outdated policies that don't work according to the informants.
Those policies have been the use of subsidies, scholarships and health care cards – with all services delivered by the government on the assumption that this is the most efficient way.
It could be if the bureaucrats were driven by the essential qualities required of all welfare providers – professionalism, objectivity, diligence and care - backed by speedy systems flexibly managed and humanely delivered.
The introduction of democracy and decentralization has created big opportunities for regional administrations to do things differently. Few seem to have taken up the challenge.
Ms Mukherjee said she was optimistic that things would alter, though putting in projects was not the World Bank's job. No targets had been set. It was up to regional governments to discuss the issues raised by the report and respond.
"I've seen some radical changes in the past few years and a lot more people in the bureaucracy are open to dialogue," she said. "I think the water problem may be fixed but I fear the sanitary issues may not be addressed. There are major environmental problems here and the government isn't doing a lot.
"Change happens when intermediaries, such as non-government organizations (NGOs) get involved to help the poor."
(First published in The Sunday Post 18 Feb 07)