In The News

Muslim Popular Organisations and Governance Reform

April 27, 2011

This piece was originally published in East Asia Forum Quarterly.

Governance is Indonesia’s greatest challenge. In 1998, after 32 years of authoritarianism, Indonesians demanded a democratic system and got one. In the ensuing 13 years Indonesians have demonstrated a remarkable commitment to democratic values. They have twice directly elected a president and vice president, and directly elected over 500 regional executives and more than 17,000 regional representatives. The question now is how well these elected officials are governing. If poverty levels and the state of service delivery are any indication, there is room for improvement. More than 100 million Indonesians live on less than $2 a day. Twenty-five percent of children under five are malnourished, only 48 per cent of the rural poor have access to clean water, and only 55 percent of poor children complete junior secondary school. One explanation for this poor performance is low capacity. Indeed, 70 percent of parliamentarians elected in 2009 had never before served in parliament. Celebrities, former officials’ wives, and shop-owners were all in the mix. However, low capacity is not the primary cause of poor governance, and therefore pure technical assistance is not the most effective solution.

One explanation for this poor performance is low capacity. Indeed, 70 per cent of parliamentarians elected in 2009 had never before served in parliament. Celebrities, former officials’ wives, and shop-owners were all in the mix. However, low capacity is not the primary cause of poor governance, and therefore pure technical assistance is not the most effective solution. As any policymaker knows, law and policymaking are political processes influenced by many competing interests. Recently, political scientists and development theorists have argued that to deliver truly effective governance it is not enough to reform institutions, or to provide officials with technical assistance, but that political elites must be engaged and mobilised. This call for ‘politics’ to be brought back into development looks at the problem of vested interests and argues that unless reformers have powerful political leverage, government policy and spending will often undermine the interests of the majority, especially the poor.

Scholarly work on Indonesia’s two large mass-based organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah (with a shared membership of 70 million people) has often not addressed the groups’ engagement in governance reform. During the reformasi period, these groups used their influence to encourage democratic reform. More recently they have worked towards encouraging governance reform.

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Robin Bush is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at rbush@asiafound.org.

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