Making a difference in Indonesian cities – new research on NGO advocacy

Another fascinating study circulated by the Development Leadership Program.  As its title suggests, ‘How civil society organizations work politically to promote pro-poor policies in decentralized Indonesian cities’, published by the Asia Foundation, analyses CSOs’ impact in two cities in Central Java where policies were passed that expanded health insurance coverage for the poor: Semarang (pop. 1.5 million) and Pekalongan (pop. 300,000).

The cities’ all-important mayors couldn’t have been more different – a corrupt businessman in Semarang; a charismatic medical doctor committed to the poor in Pekalongan. Yet in both, CSOs led by an impressive NGO called Pattiro were able to make a real difference. The paper argues that this explodes the received wisdom on Indonesia – that progress depends entirely on being fortunate enough to have enlightened and non-corrupt political leaders. Some highlights:

“Civil society organizations are increasingly skilled at influencing local policy outcomes, regardless of the leadership qualities among Indonesiaelected officials. We argue that as Indonesian CSOs take advantage of opportunities to access local policy-making processes, it is their ability to navigate the political landscape and “work politically” that primarily determines their success. By “working politically” we mean that CSOs are able to identify allies and opponents within and outside the government, mobilize constituencies and engage in coalitions for change, and use their political power to negotiate agreements with elites on resource utilization that promotes development. In this process, CSOs are more and more shaping how Indonesia’s State institutions govern at the local level.”


“While many analysts of public expenditure suggest that eliminating user fees for basic services is mostly a matter of improved management of revenues and spending, these case studies suggest that technical solutions must be coupled with political positioning and lobbying by allies of reform, from outside and within government and the legislature. Civil society organizations in Indonesia are increasingly sophisticated political players who can partner with development programs to identify and mobilize coalitions for reform. These case studies demonstrate that CSOs can “work politically” while remaining relatively politically neutral.

Supporting non-State actors to conduct political-economy analysis, and to strategically utilize this information to expand their political capital, is an effective development investment. These cases show that a relatively small number of “champions” across civil society, the executive, the bureaucracy, and Parliament were able to utilize their agency to garner broader political support for reform by offering a range of incentives to politicians. When powerful agents were more oriented toward political patronage – as in the case of Mayor Sukawi [in Semarang] – civil society could resort to punitive action (such as reporting violations to the Corruption Eradication Commission) alongside providing political incentives (such as mobilizing Parliamentarians against the mayor). When powerful agents are oriented toward reform – as in the case of Mayor Basyir [in Pekalangan] – civil society effectively positioned themselves as political insiders, and significantly influenced how policy and spending were designed.’

The paper is far too rich to summarize properly, so please try and read it for yourself, but some other points that seemed to me as of wider significance include:

• The willingness (nudged by funding from the Asia Foundation) of NGOs to work with non-traditional religious partners, in the shape of Muslim mass-based organizations such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which has huge political clout (and 30 million members) in Indonesia.

• The close attention to individuals and relationships, using both formal and informal channels of contact to cultivate allies within the bureaucracy. One nice touch – hiring as consultants people the decision makers respected (and listened to).

• The importance of legal capacity – especially in drafting municipal legislation to lock in reforms and galvanize the bureaucracy.

• The importance of generating the right kind of information – Pattiro produced the most comprehensive budget analyses Indonesia has yet seen as the basis for its advocacy.

• Combining insider and outsider strategies, for example building coalitions of CSOs to hold the local governments accountable for implementing the reforms after they were approved.

• Working with the media (often an NGO strength).

• Seizing key moments – elections, corruption trials, changes in leadership or senior officials.

This is all very different from the damning critique of CSOs emerging from the Africa Power and Poverty Programme. That may say something about differences between African and Indonesian CSOs, but I suspect it says at least as much about the differences between the priors of the researchers involved.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our Privacy Policy.

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


One Response to “Making a difference in Indonesian cities – new research on NGO advocacy”
  1. David

    It is interesting to contrast this with the APP program conclusions. In the context of decentralization, in the case of Indonesia, the role of the CSO (at national level, not a small local one) seems to have been to act as a catalyst for building coalitions that include non-traditional partners and political types, leveraging key moments, and addressing the political game. It does seem to match with a lot of the APP critique of “decentralization = more local voice -> improved governance”. It also adds nuance to the APP critique that focuses on public service improvement requiring changes in provider motivation (which can include avoiding Corruption Eradication violations) and top-down pressure.

    It seems to spell out a more substantial set of criteria for when a CSO can be effective, what capacities it needs, what operating environment in terms of top-down norms and pressures should exist, and above all that those capacities need to be honed through use on a stage where they can actually be put to use.

    I don’t think it tells us much about differences between African and Indonesian CSOs; I do think it tells us a lot about differences between this context in Indonesia and studied contexts in Africa in which CSOs operate. It would be great if the APP program can start to further develop away from a (needed, IMHO) polemic against silver-bullet-decentralization, and distinguish differences in operating environments within Africa that do more or less to allow politically-savvy CSOs to achieve pro-poor advocacy successes. Specifically, what is it about the forms and patterns of the top-down pressures that makes them amenable to CSOs having real ability to advocate successfully, and in what ways? Does it have to do with length of political competition (suggested in APP works), routine of inspections or audits, separation of powers among Ministries? Does it matter if a line ministry is deconcentrated in decision-making versus fully decentralized?

    Thanks for bringing this to wider attention!

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.