And on a personal note

My job for Oxfam in Central Java was the first one after getting married. My wife, Clare, had long experience of managing a theatre in Glasgow, Scotland, and, in preparation for her to join me in Indonesia, we thought about what relevant field of work this might lead to in international development. We reflected that managing a theatre involved managing a number of small enterprises (scene painting, ticket sales, cafeteria, bar, carpentry) and that these skills could be offered to local organisations working on small enterprise development. Indeed, this worked out well and she was employed by such a local organisation, which enabled her to use her skills.

The Oxfam programme concentrated on drinking water, and this was filmed by the BBC TV children’s programme Blue Peter, which

Java, Indonesia, 1979—84 71 covered our work in 1981. While there were many springs in upland Java, getting drinking water in the dry areas of Jogjakarta was difficult. The limestone formations had underground rivers that flowed into the Southern Sea (and often surfaced some distance from land in the salt ocean), but access to them was only through very narrow and difficult chasms (made worse when carrying water cans). And in the traditional religions of this area, where any link with the Southern Sea suggested links to the Goddess of the Southern Sea and her consort, the Sultan of Jogjakarta, getting water from underground sources was a sacred task that required the correct attitude in the collector.

I also knew Ann Dunham Soetoro, the mother of Barack Obama, whose father was a Kenyan. She subsequently married an Indonesian and did her PhD research among blacksmiths in this same area of Jogjakarta. She died before she finished her PhD but it was subsequently finished by her friends. I knew her well when she lived in Semarang, as Clare and 1 did, and when she moved to Jakarta her house was a home from home for us when we visited the big city. I even met Barack Obama as a teenager when he visited her. She was a brilliant development worker specialising in credit and small businesses, fluent in Indonesian and pretty fluent in Javanese, which is much more difficult.1

At this time, Oxfam hired field staff on four-year contracts, with a home visit after two years which included an obligation to educate and stimulate Oxfam workers in the UK with stories from the field, and because of Clare’s involvement with Glasgow, we decided to go there. Clare and I were concerned about this: we were interested in telling the truth about what we were doing — neither “My trip to the Holy Land with lantern slides” nor showing off about our selflessness. In telling our stories of fish ponds and defecation, there was no problem — “Ach, you mean like the River Clyde” was the immediate response.

As well as our educating Oxfam UK staff on a visit to that country, Oxfam also agreed that the UK staff were entitled to a visit to the field if they had put in a number of years’ service. So I received eight Brits to be shown what Oxfam was doing in Central Java. These were people who were interested in development, but actually ran Oxfam shops in towns in the UK and had no experience abroad. They were fascinated by the details of everyday life of Javanese families - their cooking, their childcare, their gardening. A larger understanding of the causes of poverty' didn’t interest them so much.

During my five years I had a visit from the British Ambassador who wanted to come and see how Oxfam was working with the Indonesian Government - ammunition for his diplomatic discussions. We agreed that he would come to a particular place in Central Java, Klaten, wherewe worked with landless labourers and the government worked with Master Fanners. Since the Ambassador was there, all manner of Indonesian government officials in uniform turned up. I quickly found that there was no one on the government side who spoke English, and so they agreed that I should be the translator for the Indonesians. Indeed, 1 translated their mendacious stories about Master Farmers helping the landless people to the Ambassador, and then added my comments to him in English, noting that it was largely lies. The Ambassador gesticulated, went into contortions, and made all sorts of faces at me to tell me, nonverbally, to stop what I was doing, thinking I would cause a diplomatic incident. I told him quickly in an aside that no one from the Indonesian side spoke English, but, believe me, he was sweating.

What were we thinking at the time?

Oxfem had produced a comprehensive manual for its staff:

Pratt, Brian and Boyden, Jo. 1988. The Field Directors’ Handbook: An Oxfam manual for development workers. Oxfam Publishing, Oxford, UK.

And this had a tremendous bibliography that took you to further manuals and sourcebooks on development. Much of my thinking at this time came from this book.

Yayasan Dian Desa produced many booklets and research papers to underpin their work, and these are available at

We listened to and learned from many Indonesian CSOs, many of which, however, wrote their best stuff for their donors and did not necessarily circulate it widely. In some cases our experiences were taken up and written up later by others:

Tanner, J. C., Owen, E., Winugroho, M. and Gill, E. M. 1994. Cut-and-Carry Feeding Systems for Small Ruminants. DFID, London, UK.

Brown, Janet H. and Prayitno, Budi. 1987. Backyard fish fanning in Java, Indonesia. Community Development Journal, 22 (3): 237—241. www.jstor. org/stable/44256666


1 Janny Scott of the New York Times wrote a biography of Ann Soetoro. It contains in Chapter 4 a description of her fieldwork which has tremendous insights into how to work in villages in Java. I was lucky enough to get this from the horse’s mouth at the time, but it is a rich source for anyone wanting to work in development. Scott, Janny. 2012. A Singular Woman: The untold story of Barack Obama’s mother. Riverhead Books, New York, USA.

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