Living Without A State

Nov 30, 2012
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People in rural Papua are more interested in basic services than grand political struggles.

By transferring the funds directly from the province to villages, RESPEK is intended to eliminate the district layer through which fund disbursement would normally occur, therefore removing a significant opportunity for the siphoning of funds. The idea is that communities will discuss for themselves what projects to prioritise and spend their money on. So far, the majority of programs funded have been in infrastructure, including the construction of roads, bridges, schools, and health centres. All in all, the government has spent three trillion rupiah (about three hundred million Australian dollars) on RESPEK projects.

Despite this program reaching Yahukimo, in Lolat community access to education and health services, as well as economic opportunities, has not improved in the slightest. Though the money is delivered to Lolat’s villages, Lolat’s people are unaware of RESPEK’s community-driven development methodology. They also know nothing of the allocation for women’s projects. They rank livelihood opportunities such as the provision of livestock above infrastructure, but RESPEK creates infrastructure. In Yahukimo this is because local elites within the traditional structure of 11 clans and extended families control the project selection process through direct interaction with RESPEK facilitators. RESPEK has simply been absorbed into pre-existing Yali systems based in part on patronage, and this is why infrastructure projects are popular. It is the local elites who are the contractors who work on the infrastructure programs, and the stated value of materials and costs usually differs from the actual value, with much of the funding being skimmed off and used elsewhere.

Traditional concepts of what makes a leader also determine how this money is utilised. In the Yali areas of the highlands, as in much of Melanesian society, the role of a leader – often known as a ‘Big Man’ – is to disseminate wealth to followers. RESPEK often partially fills the need of Big Men to access and then disseminate wealth, and therefore, this funding does trickle down to the grassroots, with funding translating into Rp. 50,000 ($A5) per household per year, for example. And just as Big Men disseminate such wealth to followers, they exclude the followers of others. As a result, suku and marga loyalties can be re-arranged based upon the wealth their leading members make available to followers. There exists a constant battle among Big Men, and their expanding and constricting constituencies reflect this. These battles extend into elections, and suku or marga that vote for the losing candidate will find themselves cut off from development programs and other assistance as punishment.

In Lolat, village and clan leaders use RESPEK to pay pocket money for work that used to be done for free, such as maintaining the runway and trails that connect villages. This use of the funds was decided upon by those clan leaders who also serve as village leaders. The funds are not being used for health, education, or other services which might make a real long-term difference to the lives of ordinary people there. Innovative uses of RESPEK for service delivery, livelihoods and women’s emplowerment are found elsewhere in Papua, but not here.

To make matters worse, because so many men were working outside of Lolat in previous years, traditional gardens that families maintained to grow yams, tubers, and other staples, have been neglected. The last RESPEK allocations were used by local leaders to charter planes to fly in rice, which was then distributed freely. This rice was eaten through and ran out, and Lolat’s communities are now dangerously exposed to the possibility of dependence on such imported foods. In the past, families maintained gardens that provided them with the staple foods that they needed. And so RESPEK, which was intended to deliver improvements to people’s lives, has instead made them more dependent, and more exposed to risk.

Making government work

The importance of effective service delivery in Lolat, as in Papua’s other rural and remote areas, where the majority of the population lives, cannot be underestimated. The lives of people in Papua are not easy and politicians’ promises to make things better have not been realised. Across large parts of the highlands there is little evidence of the state, other than empty schools, health clinics and hospitals. Civil servants, police, and military are few and far between. Often the only outsiders who identify with, and work to improve the lives of, Papuans, are religious missionaries from Manado and further afield, and there are not many of them. Just as security actors are rare, so are the rebels: in Yahukimo, there is no OPM or other insurrectionist presence.

During my two visits to the area, I did not hear a single sentiment expressed for or against the Indonesian state in Lolat. But people talked a lot about their palpable needs: the need for doctors and teachers, the need for medicines and materials. People expressed a desire for a better future for themselves and their children: they want their children to understand computers and learn English, for example. And when children articulate what they wish to become, they speak of becoming teachers and doctors: exactly the people their communities both need and lack.

Papua’s rural population is the purported audience for the political machinations and aspirations of the opposing elites who exist so far above them that they might as well be a part of the spirit world. So far, no politicians speak for these people. Yet Lolat’s people know of events in Jayapura and further afield, even if they are not yet much interested in them. In the long term, their opinions and loyalties are up for grabs. Where they direct those loyalties will depend much on whether a functioning state can be built that tangibly benefits them.

Bobby Anderson works on health, education, and governance projects in Eastern Indonesia, and he travels frequently in Papua province.

Source: Inside Indonesia