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by Jennie S. Bev

I live in Northern California, considered one of the wealthiest regions in the United States, where the global intellectual hub of Silicon Valley neighbors the panoramic San Francisco Bay area and where luminaries like Larry Page and Sergey Brin (the “Google Guys”), writer Amy Tan, and comedian Robin Williams call home. Here, millionaires oftentimes still go to work and live in cramped houses due to skyrocketing housing prices. A decent dim sum meal costs at least $20 per person and a modest one-bedroom apartment rental costs about $1,500 per month. A dollar can probably buy you one can of soda in a deli, but not in a movie theater, where it might be four times as much.

While homelessness is an ongoing and often stagnant issue in downtown San Francisco, 8,675 miles across the Pacific Ocean in Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia, 23 million people live packed into 290 square miles – extreme poverty is an everyday sight. Amongst Jalan Thamrin skyscrapers, slums weave through the city with their cardboard huts, stinky sewers, and annual floods. The haves and have-nots live side-by-side, oftentimes even sharing the same wall. A few of the privileged dine at five-star hotels, while those selling cigarettes and magazines on foot must live with a mere $2 per day, or even less.

What a contrast. What a divided world we live in.

Today’s food and fuel crisis is more than a background story for poverty issues in Indonesia. They are vivid and affect the quality of life for many, especially children and women, as they have the lowest bargaining position both in society and within the nuclear family. In a typical “poor” household, 60 to 75 percent of income is used for food, which explains the widespread near starvation throughout the country, particularly in rural areas and in Eastern Indonesia. In developed countries, like the United States, only 15 to 20 percent of income is usually used for food.

According to the Indonesia Central Bureau of Statistics, however, things look rosier on paper: the poverty rate fell to 16.58 percent in March this year from 17.75 percent last year due to less unemployment, lower rice prices, and higher wages; the number of people living below the poverty line fell to 32.18 million from 37.17 million; the poverty line level itself was increased to IDR 182,636 ($20) per month from IDR 166,697 ($18.29).

While these official figures offer such encouraging news, a casual stroll on Indonesia’s streets reveal otherwise. After all, it is extremely hard to live on 66¢ per day, no matter how frugal one is. On July 10th, the country's central bank, Bank of Indonesia, predicted the full-year inflation rate would drop to 6.5-7.5 percent in 2009. But in Indonesia, figures don’t mean anything – inflation rates are officially low because the government plays with the numbers to comfort the people even though the country’s extreme poverty indicates otherwise.

In a country considered a “weak state” by scholars of social science, in which the central government is ineffective in controlling political, economic, and social stability, contradictory and puzzling statistics are an everyday thing. While good governance has been the unofficial slogan during this ten-year period of the reformasi (or reform) movement in this archipelago country of 237.5 million people, discrepancies are expected, particularly pertaining to the truth of wealth distribution and the people’s overall welfare.

Soy-based tempeh and tofu are sources of protein for millions of Indonesians, particularly those who cannot afford animal-based protein sources, like beef and chicken. Over the past year, soybean prices have doubled, partially due to its being imported. And food prices seem to be highly influenced by speculators. Perhaps what analysts say is true: that today’s world food crisis is a new breed of famine since the market is flush with food that consumers in developing countries cannot afford to buy.

In May, the government raised the price of fuel by 30 percent, which has resulted in even higher prices for food and everyday items. Indonesia being a pariah (Sanskrit for poor) country does not seem to be able to keep up with the prices nor provide a sufficient safety net to the people.

The disheartening reality that one may not eat properly tomorrow lowers one’s morale, naturally. Such situations give rise to social unrest, such as incidents in which Islamic radicals and extremists have led street demonstrations. Using issues like the increased fuel and food prices to gain momentum in their activism, many of their demonstrations have turned violent across the nation. Over the past year, more than 10,000 Islamic hardliners, like Hizbut Tahrir, have taken to the streets of Jakarta in protest, demanding lowered fuel and food prices. Unfortunately, a “weak state” becomes even weaker due to low food intake.

Children, who are the future of the world, seem to be at the bottom of everyone’s list.

Many children of poor Indonesian couples end up in orphanages, most of which are run privately, including by Islamic organizations. A Save the Children child protection adviser in Jakarta attested that increased fuel and food prices have been the culprit. Out of 500,000 children living in institutions, 90 percent of them are known to still have one or more parent alive residing elsewhere.

Those parents might think what they did was wise. However, the survey revealed that government policy has been partly responsible for the surge of children in orphanages. The dramatic increase in the number of orphanages (from 1,600 in 1998 to 8,000 now) was due to five-year funding for orphanages based on the number of children being cared for. To guarantee funding, recruitment efforts have been employed to fill up the quota.

In contrast, adoption procedures are very stringent -a couple must be legally married and provide a physician’s recommendation attesting they cannot have their own children under any circumstances. The latter makes such regulatory requirements extremely hard for prospective overseas adopting parents. The other regulatory obstacle they face is the complicated immigration procedures that follow.

As a result, it is very unlikely that these children will be adopted. Living in an orphanage sometimes means caring for younger children and growing up without any proper schooling. What the future offers them is a big question mark. Will they be useful to the community or will they simply be a statistic and part of the poverty cycle again?

The recent three-day summit of G-8 nations in Hokkaido Toyako, Japan came up with a $50 billion aid boost for developing countries, $10 billion of which will be dedicated to food aid. Countries with strong rice stockpiles have also promised to release them in order to provide short-term relief. While it may sound feasible as a temporary solution, long-term plans must be worked out carefully to ensure that those who are suffering the most can claim their share in today’s globalized world.

In Indonesia, there are food and fuel crises, but there is also another that needs to be addressed: the compassion crisis. It is evident in a government policy that does not answer to the long-term welfare of the country’s children. I hope policy makers are listening to our plight.[]

The Women’s International Perspective (USA),
July 24, 2008

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