“It is not the torch in Jakarta that would make Indonesia bright, but rather the candles throughout its villages.” Report from Indonesia Alumni Network round-table discussion.
Entitled Indonesia’s Village Law: enabler or constraint for more accountable governance?, the study examines the implementation of Indonesia’s 2014 Village Law. This is regarded as one of the most progressive policies in the history of local governance in Indonesia, and a potentially massive driver for rural development. With village underdevelopment considered to be a major contributor to Indonesia’s high levels of inequality, the new law establishes village authorities as responsible for the administration of village affairs and its social and economic development; acknowledges the importance of customary law and local traditions; and allocates dedicated funding to village governments. In a way that has never before been possible, village governments across Indonesia’s huge and diverse territory now have both the authority and resources necessary to govern their own affairs.
On the other, the law can be seen to have constrained village governments from optimising their development programmes in several ways, including by imposing a complex reporting burden. It still urgently needs to define roles and responsibilities clearly, perpetuating ambiguities that impede better functioning and accountability. Citizen participation within the framework of the law can also be argued to be sub-optimal: it does not yet enable all citizens to monitor village elections; it restricts participation in village forums; and implementation of the law effectively limits village authority, subordinating it to district government for governance and finance. These legislative gaps and conflicting interpretations of the different authorities formed under the law have led to patchy implementation.
Although the law has now finally equipped village heads with authorities that can be deemed as power, the extent of village heads in wielding such power truly depends on their agency – the capability of an agent to make a difference (Giddens, 1995). This study found the most prevalent factors associated with a village head practising village democracy and active citizenship: willingness and commitment to change processes; openness to new ‘modern’ values (transparency, professionalism, and accountability); team-work between village heads and the village administrators; and ability to develop innovation in a way that fits with local values.
The discussion which followed the presentation ranged across a number of subjects. Accompanied by an unexpected recording of bagpipe music from a nearby street (!) one questioner raised the issue of the use of information technology in reporting, and the resources and skills needed to meet the requirements of the new regulations. Another pointed to their experience of the limited conception of development on the ground in rural settings, which often focuses on the need to provide physical infrastructure such as roads, rather than supporting more socially-orientated programmes. A final, broader discussion emerged as to the often still centralised conceptions of local culture in Indonesia, and the assumptions underlying the new law that a Weberian bureaucracy, which accentuates the citizen as an active, rational individual, will subsume the patrimonial structures prevalent in many areas.
Deviana Dewi, IDS Alumni Ambassador for Indonesia who chaired the discussion gave her closing remark by quoting one of Indonesia’s founding fathers, Mohammad Hatta: “It is not the torch in Jakarta that would make Indonesia bright, but rather the candles throughout its villages.”
Doubtlessly, the 2014 Village Law has opened up space for citizen participation in democracy in Indonesia. It has also put a spotlight on the performance of local government, and the assumption that improved governance will build public trust and increase awareness and approval of village democracy. With this process not yet proven, it is also clear that more work remains to be done.
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