Mon, 08 Aug 1994

Taking action on poverty

It is obviously too early to assess the implementation of the special poverty alleviation program which was launched last April under the Presidential Aid Program for Poor Villages throughout Indonesia. As usual, it is only to be expected that some technical problems may crop up at the start up of new projects.

Even so, recent mass media reports on the implementation of the program deserve attention, especially because some of the issues seem related to the basic principles of the program itself.

Although the National Development Planning Board (Bappenas), as the national coordinator and supervisor of the program, has yet to verify the truth of the newspaper stories, notably those regarding the alleged misuse of funds, we are nonetheless encouraged by the keen media attention. Such an intense public scrutiny will help detect any problems early on.

Unlike other Presidential Aid programs for regional and rural development, which are implemented directly by the central government and which are designed to develop public services and infrastructure, the latest initiative is based wholly on grassroots or bottom-up planning and the funds are allocated directly for the benefit of poor people. Over the next three years, the target population will decide how the Rp 20 million (US$9,200), allocated annually for each of the more than 20,630 villages identified as pockets of poverty, will be used. Hence, the government acts only as the supervisor and facilitator.

The latest poverty alleviation program is aimed at the estimated 26 million people, or 14 percent of the total population, who still live below the poverty line. These poor people, who were identified through a national survey last year, remain untouched by the various development programs and, therefore, need special attention. The government has set out for itself an ambitious target to reduce the incidence of poverty to about six percent of the population, or around 12 million, in 1999.

Theoretically, the bottom-up planning principle adopted for the program is most appropriate because of the different characteristics of the people in the 20,630 poor villages across the country. As the survey showed, the pockets of poverty are mostly localized in terms of geographical location, household size, occupation, age, gender and education. Obviously, general growth programs would not be able to reach these poor people effectively. A better targeting program is therefore needed.

The government has published and disseminated manuals on the directives for planning, the categories of businesses which can be funded under the program, procedures for disbursement, reporting, monitoring and evaluation. Subdistrict officials who are in charge of supervising the program have been trained and the information campaign for the program has been going on in the target villages over the last few months.

But a formidable challenge remains. Local administration officials are required to change their attitude with regard to the application of the bottom-up planning principle. The officials, used to always having the final say in every government-funded program in their areas, might still be tempted to unnecessarily intervene into the use of the funds.

We do realize that the grassroots planning principle is not an easy exercise, especially because many of the rural people may not be able to articulate their wishes in a rational manner. Or their wishes may fall way out of the categories of economic activities allowed to be funded under the program. Local officials, therefore, should be patient in helping the community groups to effectively use the funds as the seed capital for income-generating activities. In this context, we are glad that local officials are not pressured with specific targets within the program implementation.

However, there is, we think, another factor that is crucial for the success of the program. This program should not be implemented in isolation. It should be supported with other general rural development projects, notably those related to the development of public services and basic infrastructure. Any economic activities financed under the poverty alleviation program will be sustainable only when they are inter-linked with the economy of other more developed areas.