What did I learn from the coalface?

First, find enthusiastic and receptive villagers who are prepared to try new ideas and are prepared to put their own energy and enthusiasm to use, not just for their own family but for their own community. This worked well in Central Java, as such people seemed in good supply. There were some corollaries, however: do not assist people beyond their capacity to manage or to take risks beyond what they can afford to lose; and do not introduce villagers into supply chains that are beyond their control. One of the projects that Oxfam undertook with villagers in Central Java was cow fattening — but a cow was a much larger investment than a goat and so much more risky. The cow supply chain also introduced villagers to unscrupulous middlemen who would take advantage of their relative lack of power.

Second, find enthusiastic students who are ready and keen to put their university skills to work to solve the problems of poor people. They may be in technical areas, like the technical school graduates who formed Dian Desa, or lawyers, or agricultural and animal husbandry technicians. In general, it was my finding that if such people took up government jobs, even though they were in their technical area of competence, they found the government ambience of bureaucracy and corruption dispiriting and this was likely to ruin their enthusiasm. The alternative was to encourage such people to form or to work for CSOs and NGOs — which, for the most part, would allow them room to practise their ideas and, indeed, would often suggest to them new ideas and practices.

What happened to it all?

CSOs in Indonesia continue, multiply and progress. There was a period in the latter days of Suharto when the government said NGO (nongovernment organisation) meant anti-government organisation and all CSOs had to rename and refer to themselves as LSM (Lenibaga Stvadaya Masyarakat — People’s Self-help Groups) and had to have government security officers sit in on their meetings. This was soon rescinded after the Suharto era passed. It was also seen to be a waste of time by the security officials long before that. The biggest problem for the future of

CSOs, however, was — and is — their dependence on foreign aid funding. Donors are fickle and short-term, and few people have worked out ways for CSOs to be financially self-reliant, outside of using microfinance and lending programmes. Dian Desa, interestingly, now runs its own shops selling high-quality accoutrements made from sting ray and frog skin, which they have learned how to tan.

Yayasan Dian Desa continues apace, devoting more effort to helping create opportunities for income generation for poor villagers, and being more disciplined in toning down their enthusiasm for AT and applying careful scientific research. This is particularly seen in their work on fuel-efficient stoves, where they very carefully researched calorific improvements around different shapes and dimensions of hand-thrown clay stoves.

Stall-fed goats are now part of the advice of extension workers and agricultural scientists all over the world. Oxfam never claimed to be originators of this, but merely extenders of good ideas received from other practitioners. Excreta feeding fish ponds has been practised for thousands of years in China — we merely helped cross-national learning to take place, and with a little financial incentive allowed poor people to take advantage of such ideas that were new to them.

With the end of the dictatorship of Suharto and the government’s suspicion and dislike of CSOs, the opportunities arose for CSOs to develop and demonstrate valuable developmental ideas without being harassed. But while affiliation with the government became less important, political affiliation in the new era of competing political parties became more important, and polarisation because of perceived religious belief became more important as well.

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