Monday, December 18, 2006

Nerdtivist, or is it Actinerd?

I'm just back from a two-week mission, learning about a new approach to development. While my head is screaming to let some of its content out, I think I'll let it sit for a while as I try to sort out the good parts from the details.

In the meantime, let me share some interesting articles I've recently found. They're all related to ICT for development.

Apparently, there's a gap between traditional activists and the FOSS (free and open source software) community. While the two may "frequently share ethical positions and social interests ranging from freedom of expression and cooperative organization to consumer rights, privacy, and anti-trust legislation, mostly the two groups remain unaware of each other." Why? Byfield in shares what he thinks. It's somehow related to language (jargon) gap, domain of work gap, and even age gap.

Still related, I also found through the CivicActions blog that Creative Commons has just released a "Developing Nations" license.
This new license allows creators to make their works available for attributed free distribution (copies can be freely shared, providing the original creator is credited) in the Global South, while still retaining all copyright control in the Global North.
Here's another good quote:
We're trying to hack the copyright system, in the programmers sense of hack. Not to break it but make it function in ways it wasn't intended to work. That's not because we're opposed to copyright, but because we're opposed to copyright functioning in ways that don't benefit either the author or the end user. Copyright is meant to be a tool to promote invention
So why oh why does a gap still lie between the nerds and the activists?

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Slow Cities

Tired of racing all the time, trying to catch the economy while losing on "good life"? Well, consider this: an international (mostly European) network of cities are joining the "Slow Cities" movement. Here's a piece from Planetizen:
[E]ven though the dynamics of globalization are affecting cities and regions, urban planners, mayors, and citizens of small towns are taking action to resist processes of standardization and homogenization. Slow Cities are dedicated to community economic development efforts that focus on the unique attributes of a place such as small businesses, locally owned restaurants, farmers markets, and socially responsible enterprises.
Slow Cities want to be at the forefront of cutting-edge urban planning ideas, technology and innovation. They are not against locating a McDonald's, but rather hope that through their efforts the citizens will become educated consumers who are aware of the local choices and option for getting fresh, healthly and tasty meals. Slow Cities want to be eventful places where local traditions are celebrated and mixed with cosmopolitan influences.
I see this in-line with the rationale behind "smart growth":
Smart growth tries to take into consideration the total long-term economic costs of development decisions, rather than merely an aggregation of the short term profits that can be made by improving each individual parcel of land.
As in: sure, (economic) development is important, but what about preserving some "good life" while we're pursuing it, for us and for our children?

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Buy Nothing Day: Nov 24 & 25

Consumption is important. Some would say that it's so important, it's "the most fundamental decision unit." Others would say that it's so important, once in a while we need to stop and think about it, be critical about it, and not just take it for granted.

Adbusters is part of the latter. Here's what they say:

"Every November, for 24 hours, we remember that no one was born to shop. If you’ve never taken part in Buy Nothing Day, or if you’ve taken part in the past but haven’t really committed to doing it again, consider this: 2006 will go down as the year in which mainstream dialogue about global warming finally reached its critical mass. What better way to bring the Year of Global Warming to a close than to point in the direction of real alternatives to the unbridled consumption that has created this quagmire?"

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Who's afraid of Vietnam?

Newsweek has a really positive report on the Vietnam economy. Some quotes:
Economic reforms pushed by Southern entrepreneurs have fueled an economy that's grown nearly as fast as China's over the last decade. Manufacturing jobs are plentiful, and the national poverty rate has plummeted from 57 percent in 1993 to about 18 percent today.
[Vietnam] could become Southeast Asia's most important industrial economy in the coming decades, with the potential to surpass Thailand. This year alone, Vietnam is on track for $7 billion in foreign direct investment, roughly the same as giant India."
Often compared to China, Vietnam is actually more similar to Taiwan circa 1970, an economy then burgeoning with small and medium enterprises ready to burst onto the global scene.
A few weeks back Enda led me to this post from a Malaysian concerned about Indonesia's progress. It's was sad to realize that our advancement is seen with worry by others. I thought, "why couldn't we grow together?"

And now I'm in his shoes. As a fellow south-east Asian, I thought I should be proud of Vietnam's achievement, but I'm getting shivers instead. For example, I'm afraid that investments would keep going to Vietnam instead of Indonesia.

Apparently, developing countries' economic progress is also seen with shivers by free-trade protagonists of the developed world. Guardian's senior economics commentator, William Keegan, told the dilemma of "someone who had been a senior international official promoting free trade and open markets for many years." This person "had met an old friend whose previously successful US furniture business had collapsed in the face of the kind of international competition that he (the former official) had been busily promoting."

My dad once told me of a "negative" character common to the old people from our village that should be avoided: "happy to see others miserable, miserable to see others happy." But now it seems that such character is the dominant mindset.

I don't know whether I should be sad, happy, or just embrace this with a straight face.

Pic source: Newsweek.

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Wasting rice

Tempo Interactive reported that
  1. Indonesia needs up to 195 thousand tons of rice by the end of this year. There is a gap between rice production and consumption rate.
  2. Not only rice production can't keep up with population growth, but in following years it is expected to decline due to decrease of the harvest field measurement and land fertility.
A few days ago a friend forwarded me an email that seem to be written by someone called Tarunajaya. It talks about how everyday rice is wasted by people who don't finish their meals:
Ceritanya ada seorang anak SD yang memenangkan suatu perlombaan pembuatan makalah dikampungnya. Masalah yang diangkat oleh anak ini sederhana sekali, yaitu pemborosan beras orang indonesia. Makalah ini dia susun melalui pengamatan saat bekerja membantu di warung dekat rumahnya.

Dalam pengamatannya dia menghitung bahwa rata-rata orang yg makan disana menyisakan 2 atau lebih sendok nasi atau 200 butir nasi setiap piringnya.

Kemudian dia menghitung, berarti setiap hari setiap org membuang 200 x 3 kali makan = 600 butir nasi. 100 butir beras kira-kira 5 gram. Sehingga kalau dikonversikan berarti setiap hari setiap org membuang 30 gr beras. Kalau org Indonesia ada 200 jt berarti terbuang 30 gr x 200jt = 6.000 jt gr = *6.000 ton beras SETIAP HARI*. Iya, satu hari saja sedemikian banyak beras yg terbuang.
The point is that rice is available. It's just that people who has it are wasting it. A classic problem of wealth distribution, rather than production. Amartya Sen has covered this since he wrote Poverty and Famines over two decades ago.

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The economics of increasingly disasterous global warming

From BBC, a couple of weeks ago (link via John Orford):
A report by economist Sir Nicholas Stern suggests that global warming could shrink the global economy by 20%. But taking action now would cost just 1% of global gross domestic product.
Studies about global warming are nothing new. What's interesting about the Stern Report is that it's "the first major contribution to the global warming debate by an economist, rather than an environmental scientist."
[The report] warns that if no action is taken:
  • Floods from rising sea levels could displace up to 100 million people
  • Melting glaciers could cause water shortages for 1 in 6 of the world's population
  • Wildlife will be harmed; at worst up to 40% of species could become extinct
  • Droughts may create tens or even hundreds of millions of "climate refugees"
The review coincides with the release of new data by the United Nations showing an upward trend in emission of greenhouse gases - a development for which Sir Nicholas said that rich countries must shoulder most of the responsibility.
John Orford suggested to use Pigouvian Taxes as disincentives to pollution:
Pigou noticed that production often causes costs to the environment which the company themselves don't have to pay. Obviously the users of the environment generally have to pay the cost sooner or later in some form.

Pigou's idea was to tax the sale of products depending on how polluting they were, in effect the government would recoup the cost to the environment of the product. Consumer's would directly see the high cost of highly polluting products, which would give them an incentive to seek out less polluting products and firms to pollute less.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

In defense of rural-urban migration

Kompas this weekend featured a special report on rural-urban migration. Two main arguments were presented in favor of this: the "no-alternative" argument, and the "rights-based" argument.

The "no-alternative" argument basically says that life in the villages sucks. Due to failure of rural livelihoods, some of the younger females had to become commercial sex workers, older males day laborers.

Marco Kusumawijaya, as proponent of the "rights-based" argument, said,
Wartiyah, like all migrants, including the Governor, came to Jakarta to look for a better life...
The job of cities is to respect this right, help them go through the process of becoming good urban dwellers, and as far as possible serve them as citizens who give governments a reason for being.
However, two city governments (in Bandung and Makassar) complain about rural-urban migration. They say,
For those who come and work, it's no problem. But for those who can't find work and become homeless, they becomes a heavy burden for the government.
What? You mean if they're unemployed in the village, it's not your burden? You're lucky Indonesia doesn't have to pay a stiped for the unemployed (like in some welfare states), and you're complaining that the people are taking care of their own lives, whereas the government has failed to do so?

To give more weight to the migration proponents, let me propose a third argument: that "urbanization is good" and should be prepared for with optimism. More labor in cities enable cheaper cost of everything, i.e. construction, food, domestic help, factory-based production. Low-income rural migrants keep cities competitive.

Imagine if you have to pay double for your food and triple for your babysitter (because it's so hard to find cheap labor). Then you'd probably demand more wage from your employer. If so, then the employer might think that your city is not competitive anymore, and they'll move their business to another city. What do you say now?

Why do we keep blaming the negative effects rural-urban migration to the low capacity of our migrants? Why don't we blame the entrepreneurs who are not ready to absorb such opportunity? Why don't we blame our education system that failed to prepare its citizens to become able workers? Why don't we thank the positive effects of having rural migrants in the city, such as the cheap food and services that we consume, and maybe our job too?

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Problems in water supply privatization

Ater 10 years of privatization, it seems that neither the government nor the private sector can deal with Jakarta water provision satisfactorily.

First off, government-owned Regional Water Corporations (PDAMs) are a mess. According to a Ministry of Public Works publication (Implementation of Safe Water Provision System 2005), PDAM's piped water system only serves 42% of the urban and 8% of the rural populations in Indoneisa. Out of 318 PDAMs nationwide, only 10% are "healthy". "Leakage" (both in the literal and connotative sense) reach 36%.

That's why in Jakarta PAM has joint contract agreements with PT PAM Lyonnaise Jaya (Palyja) and PT Thames PAM Jaya. However, after 10 years of privatization, Kompas reported that the tug-of-war between PAM and their private foreign counterparts are going strong.

Regarding privatization, a PAM representative said,
there's no benefit for PAM, only for the foreign counterparts. We're only sucked dry, and consumers are put at a loss.
The Amrta Institute of Water Literacy said that problems include high fee paid to the foreign companies for expatriats and loan guarantee. And,
Although Palyja claim deficit, in reality they received profits of Rp 115 billion in 2004 and Rp 58 billion in 2005. Meanwhile, PAM's debts keep increasing.
This is exacerbated by the fact that the National Audit Agency (BPK) can only audit the PAM, but not Palyja or Thames PAM Jaya.

There seems to be a growing movement to return PAM to being a national/government-run agency. This should be seen with caution: do we really want to return to the classic condition of PDAM "sickness" and water/money "leakages"? But if we hand everything over to the private sector, it seems that nothing much is changing, while profits are taken away.

Maybe the best way out is self/collective management, as we have in the villages.

1. See AMPL's workshop on water and sanitation regulatory framework.

2. See Walhi's take on Water Resource Law no. 7/2004
3. See Water Justice: resource center on alternatives to privatization

1. Enda said: "There's one great article (... on Fortune) about water privatization that says water will be the oil of 21st century...". I couldn't get access to the Magazine's special report in 2000, but found this, this, this, and this instead.

2. UNDP's Human Development Report for 2006 is titled Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Less e-mail, more SMS

Indonesians may think e-mail is "more advanced" than SMS/text messaging. SMS has been widely used since the cellphone boom in the late 1990s, while e-mail tends to be for the rich who can afford a computer.

In the US, it may be the other way around. When I was in LA in 2003-04, SMS was not very popular. I'd send one to my friend and she wouldn't know how to open or reply it.

But that is changing. At least among the young Americans. For them, now, "e-mail is for old people." Students still use e-mail to correspond with professors, but with friends they'd use more SMS, Instant messaging, or social networking sites such as MySpace. A major reason for the first two is that they accomodate more real-time communication.

So just because cellphones are cheaper than computers, it doesn't mean that SMS is "less advanced" than e-mail. In the future,
mobile phones will be the prime means of accessing the web for users in developing countries.
Links are from Apophenia further explains what she means by "email is dead"

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Holcim, Grameen Bank, and housing for the poor

Just found out that Nobelaureate Muhammad Yunus, co-founder of Grameen Bank, is also a founding member of the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction Advisory Board.

Holcim has been very active in building a strong social face in Indonesia, especially since the Aceh reconstructions. The Grameen Bank approach is gaining popularity here as well, which is crucial in getting conventional bank’s attention to the poor as clients.

Are we seeing a light in the effort to bring private sector financing to enable the poor to build houses?

Just to balance things off: my friend was outraged when he found out about Yunus and Holcim. He said, "See.. this whole Grameen Bank thing is part of the global capitalism scheme!"

Previous post on problems with low-income housing mortgage

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AMARC 9: World Community Radio Gathering

The 9th World Conference and General Assembly of community radio broadcasters (AMARC 9)is coming up on November 11th. Combine is sending 2 people there.

An interesting topic to be discussed at AMARC 9 is the social impact of community radios. What difference do community radios make, nowadays? The World Congress on Communication for Development apparently didn't think there's much difference. Here's how AMARC viewed their stand:
Radio specialists are dismayed that the global meeting has overlooked the vital role of community radio in empowering people and strengthening democracy in many regions, including, conflict places.
id21 insights stands by AMARC and says that community radios provide "voices for change."
While much of the debate focuses on the Internet, many planners and practitioners have begun to realise that it is to traditional media, such as radio, that poor people are most likely to turn for access to information and voice.
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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Bush's war hurts Americans too

Hizbut Tahrir rallied today to reject Bush's plan to visit Indonesia.

Many Indonesians, however, have not realized that Dubya's war is not only hurthing the rest of the world, but US citizens too. Wokusch's article on dissidentvoice said that:
... the endless war on terror requires a permanent war economy, with taxpayers subsidizing the military industry at the expense of domestic social programs and global security. In 2000, for example, the US military budget was roughly $289 billion, but the administration's military budget request for 2007 has soared to $462.7 (billion).
Could it be that the war has caused the recent US deficits?
When Bush took office in 2001, for example, the annual surplus was $284 billion. He turned that surplus into a deficit of $248 billion by 2006, a staggering loss of over $530 billion in five short years.
It should be interesting to compare this data with profits that some companies, like Halliburton maybe, has made over those years.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

The source of Jakarta's congestion

Head of Jakarta Transportation Agency, Mr. Nurachman, is optimistic that Jakarta's traffic congestion problem will be solved in 5 years. That is if people use the busway. This statement was given at Metro TV's Padamu Negeri talk show this evening.

I think the theme of the talkshow, "Busway: Source of Jakarta's Congestion?" was ridiculous. Apparently many people are aggravated that the building of busway lines have taken so long, and taken valuable traffic space away. Nurachman, however, said that the main problem lies in the 300 new cars and 1,500 new motorcycles which are "born" everyday in Jakarta.

The head of Indonesia Transportation Society suggested that the government should conduct better public communication and be open to dialogues on problems caused by the process of building busway lines.

Previous post on Busway here.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Hype, Semi-Hype, and Reality in "ICT for Development"

Vietnam will soon have 13 new telecenters in 10 provinces. The Saigon Times said,
Farmers in some of the country’s least developed provinces now have instant access to pricing and market information through a new telecenter initiative developed by the agriculture ministry, Intel and UNDP.
The Economist, on the other hand, was more interested in mobile phones, both on political issues,
Chroniclers of cellular people power identify two big landmarks: the rallies that toppled President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines in 2001, and South Korea's presidential election a year later, when text messages among the young brought a surge of support for President Roh Moo-hyun.
and economic issues:
About half a million South Africans now use their mobile phones as a bank. Besides sending money to relatives and paying for goods, they can check balances, buy mobile airtime and settle utility bills. Traditional banks offer mobile banking as an added service to existing customers, most of whom are quite well off. But [some banks] are chasing another market: the 16m South Africans, over half of the adult population, with no bank account. Significantly, 30% of these people do have mobile phones.
The Office of Data and Information in Sinjai, South Sulawesi, on the other hand, is more interested in the power of interactive radio broadcasting.

By facilitating a two-way information flow, the head of the office, Andi Grandyanto Asapa, enables checks and balances between the people and the government.

His public radio "Sinjai Bersatu" receives from the people at least 40 phone calls and 100 SMS per day, most about complaints and suggestions for the government. Pak Grandyanto's staff then types those messages and forwards them to the district head (Bupati). Later, his reporters go to the field to check whether the government has handled the reported complaints.

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Capitalism for the Poor, Socialism for the Rich

The phrase "making capitalism work for the poor" shows that capitalism, in its current form, has not worked for the poor. But Nobelaureate Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank has proved that it can.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, on the other hand, is trying to prove that socialism can work for the rich too. The nationalization of Bolivia's gas and oil sector means that multinational companies are not getting as good a deal as they had before. Still, they signed the new contract, which proves that they're still making good enough profit out of it.

The caveat about Morales' nationalization program is that it can easily lead to inefficient bureaucracy and corruption as in the case of Indonesia's Pertamina. Therefore, efforts must be taken to make sure that socialism has its checks and balances, and still allow for some healthy competition.

Yunus used this principle with the Grameen Bank. He balanced capitalism by a strong motive to make it work for the poorest, i.e. by "tweaking" the system ('no collateral is fine'). His success is also due to efforts at strengthening comunity values of burden-sharing and collective achievement.

Can Morales "tweak" socialism in this style? If he can, do you think he'll get a Nobel Peace Prize in, say, 20 years from now?

See Amien Rais' take on Bolivia's oil & gas nationalization.

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Complexity as humanity's essence

Idul Fitri celebrations just passed. They say the holy days were observed to celebrate human's return to its "essence." But what is humanity's essence?

For me, it's complexity. There is no single way to dissect humanity, as humans are both rational and emotional, individual and social, physical and spiritual, "good" and "bad."

Two weeks ago my cousin passed away. She was just 16. Her mom told this story:
She laid in the hospital bed. Signs of life were fading away. But everytime we cried, her heartbeat regained. It's as if her soul was struggling to keep her body alive, because it seems that we weren't ready to let her go. Finally we stopped crying and told her: "we're ready to let you go." And she went. Peacefully.
My cousin was an example of how the (stronger) spiritual side has to give way to a dying physical body. My grandma, at home, is the other way around. In her late 70s, her body is still OK. But her mind has increasingly given up. We can dissect the mind and the body one-by-one, but overall, when we talk about someone as a person, both aspects count.

And in the same way, humans are both rational and emotional. Everything can be rationalized, but rationality is not everything. Last Ramadhan, Arya argued against giving to beggars because "our gift was mainly to make ourselves feel good." At the end of the post, he linked to an article from The Economist that explains - neurologically - why humans feel good when they give. No surprise or contradiction here. In Islamic teaching, giving and charity (as well as making much profit) are encouraged - not just for the sake of the needy, but for the giver as well. Giving nurtures the emotional side of the giver - the side that keeps him/her humane.

An article in Kompas a few days ago tells the story of people working in Jakarta, making Rp 2,000 - 5,000 (20 - 50 cents) a day. They save Rp 1 million ($100) after a year, and spend it all for Idul Fitri purposes back in their village with their relatives. Maybe this is similar to the traditional people of Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, who spend a lifetime's saving to give a "proper" funeral celebration for their deceased, together with fellow villagers.

If on one side we have rationality, individualism, capitalism, and the physical, then on the other side we have emotions, collective order, socialism, and the spiritual. That's why any attempt to make extreme the values of one side will be challenged by equal resistance from the other side. There's nothing special going on here. It's just humanity at work.

Picture credit: Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci - from Wikipedia

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Cellphones, Real-time Prices, Real-time Negotiations

One hype/rhetoric in the field of "ICT for Development" is that price information, in the hands of poor producers, can help such producers gain leverage in dealing with middlemen. This is maybe true, but then again too many "ICT for Development" initiatives are so focused on the Internet, they forget the simple things that actually work: real-time voice communication.

Harvard economist Greg Mankiw pointed me to this Washington Post article on how cell phones have levelled the playing field in favor of poor fishers in the Indian fishing industry.

In this case, cell phones are more effective than a website containing list of prices, given that it's ubiquitous:
With 6 million new cellphone subscribers each month, industry analysts predict that in four years nearly half of India's 1.1 billion people will be connected by cellphone.
And dirt cheap:
less than a penny a minute -- the world's cheapest cellphone call rates
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Friday, October 13, 2006

Farmers' poverty: various factors

Sarapan Ekonomi has been facilitating a discussion about why our farmers stay poor (i.e., here and here). Surely an ambitious topic for some exchange of a few paragraphs, but I salute the initiative, the underlying idealism, and the lively discussion that also involves economists Arya and Ujang.

Although not an economist, I nevertheless want to contribute some thoughts, especially after my three-day visit to Muneng, a village in Kabupaten Madiun, East Java.

Despite winning a "swasembada pangan" (food self-sufficiency) award in 2002 from the Ministry of Agriculture, more than 40% of Muneng's residents remain poor. More than half are only elementary school graduates. This condition, among others, contributed to the selection of Muneng as a site for BPDE/Bappenas/UNDP's "telecenter" project that aims to use "ICT for poverty reduction." The project's main idea is that lack of access to ICTs is a major factor of poverty.

After some time working with poor farmers, project implementers have found that farmers' poverty is caused by a multitude of factors, and that lack of access ICT is merely one of them. Below, I will describe those other factors from their perspective, NOT in any specific order of importance.

One factor is dependency on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Farmers don't produce these, companies do. Currently community organizers in Muneng and Pabelan, Central Java (another site for the project) are facilitating a few farmers' request to return to using organic fertilizers and natural predators to kill pests. These few now believe that organic farming produces better and more yield. [above: pic of organic fertilizer]

The second factor is farmers' lack of liquid assets (money). And no, this is not a tautology. Growing rice takes 4 months. During this time, a farmer may need money (regardless of whether they own land). So they borrow from "loan sharks" either with above market interest rates, or with an agreement that these "sharks" will buy their yield later, at below market price. With this condition, even farmers who's now doing organic farming sometimes have to sell their cow or goat's dung to these "sharks," only to buy it back later at higher price to be used as organic fertilizers.

The third factor is the small plots of land owned by each farmer, as Sarapan Ekonomi pointed out. Yes, this has been realized both by farmers and the Provincial government. That's why the province has started a program called "cooperative farming" (which is then also adopted by the Muneng telecenter), in which farmers who normally only have 0.3-0.4 hectare of land would be organized to collectivelly work on a minimum of 50 hectares land. However, as many field workers will tell you, organizing - much less land consolidation - is much easier said than done.

The fourth factor is related to conservative mindset and passive attitude. Since many farmers have forgotten the principles of organic farming that their ancestors once knew, now they are hesitant to try out a "different" method. Many would rather be "pasrah" (accept an uncomfortable condition) rather than force themselves to lean and invest in new things. "What if organic farming doesn't give better results?" they ask. So organizers gave them examples of successful organic farmers in nearby village. "What if it wouldn't work here? The soil may be different!" so they'd refute. [above: pic of organic paddy (right) compared to non-organic paddy, both at same age. The organic paddy is fuller and weighs more]

Pak Sukat is a successful farmer in the village of Babatan, 7 km away from Muneng. From the telecenter, he'd downloaded the latest methods to grow melon (including use of more organic fertilizers). Now he produces melons (and tomatoes, and rice) with less cost and more yield. One thing he had to do was to install a water pump on his farm to ensure water. Muneng residents, however, have been very reluctant to follow this method. "What if nothing changes, although we've invested in building the pump?" they'd ask. [left: pic of Pak Sukat with his water pump]

The latter is a soft factor, which sadly is too often overlooked, simply because it is ‘invisible and tacit.' Technocrats' ideology that the future can be engineered, and that poverty is in essence a technological (and/or market-related problem), fails to see that it is more likely to be caused by ‘a crisis of the spirit, a loss of political will, a cycle of self-defeat, and essentially about powerlessness, about fear, about the deadening realization that one’s children will not have a better life.’ This is Inayatullah in Transforming Communication: Technology, Sustainability and Future Generation.

So there you go. Four factors as to why farmers are poor, based on three-days' interaction with with field workers, right in the village of Muneng. Surely this is not meant to generalize all Indonesian farmers, as I've also found some who are very progressive, such those organized by SPPQT federation in Salatiga/Central Java. Are there more factors to farmers' poverty? Sure: take lack of access to affordable quality seeds, post-harvest processing, markets, and more. Which factor is the most important? I wouldn't be interested. They all matter and has to be dealt with equal seriousness. It's not a matter of "either or", but "both and also."

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

A Longer Life for What?

Daniel Goleman has once again pointed out that humans, as much as they are individual-rational beings, are social- emotional beings. The author of Emotional Intelligence and newly published Social Intelligence said that
Research on the link between relationships and physical health has established that people with rich personal networks — who are married, have close family and friends, are active in social and religious groups — recover more quickly from disease and live longer.
We often consider "a long life" as something good. However, an NYT article last month offered an alternative food for thought: would we (as society) rather have "a longer life or more stuff"?

This question in is more contextual in the US, where
The average cost of a family insurance plan ... has risen another 7.7 percent this year, to $11,500 ... In only seven years, the cost has doubled, while incomes and company revenue, which pay for health insurance, haven’t risen nearly as much.
"A longer life" means significant costs in the form of lost (economic) opportunity. In advanced countries, this translates mostly to money spent for healthcare. In developing ones, time spent by the family to take care of the old.

The first article pointed out how to enjoy life (and quickly recover from diseases) while we're still productive. The second one asked how long do we "need" to live anyway, especially if we're no longer productive or have become a "burden" for others.

What do you think?

Illustration credit:

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Celebrating Cities and Migrant Workers

World Habitat Day's theme for this year is "Cities: Magnets of Hope." The theme is chosen to commemorate how migrant workers, be it national or international, are increasingly coming in to cities. On one hand, cities may become strained. On the other hand, cities may be showered by "the gold dust of the economy." Are we going to complain, or take advantage of the situation? It all depends on how we view the in-migrating urban poor: as liability, or asset. (Don't forget to check out the Habitat Debate magazine on this topic)

I, for one, am in support of (low-wage) migrant workers coming in to areas/economies which are more capital-intensive than labor-intensive. My economic-geography professor once told this 18th/19th century story, when the U.S. was more labor-intensive (relatively more workable land than people), and Europe was more labor-intensive (relatively more people than workable land). The opening up of borders saw the migration of many (almost a quarter?) of Europe's working population into the U.S. Afterwards, low wages in Europe rose, and high wages in the U.S. dropped. In the end, both economies grew handsomely as production needs both labor and capital. Sorry for the lack of hard data. Don't have time to rummage through my old notes.

Anyway, I'm currently less in touch with the cyber world, as I'm doing a lot of traveling to the villages to see how effective telecenters (and ICT in general) really are for poverty reduction. Will share more about this later.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Excitement of a Migrant Worker

Excitement is contagious. That's why I caught one from Roni Pasla in the Jakarta airport this afternoon.

Roni just returned from a one-year contract as a ship crew for an oil field off the shores of Kuwait. He's originally from Batam, and currently working for Siemens off the shores of Sumatra. His contract in the middle east is also as the company's employee.

To get this job, he first attended the BPLP Semarang school for sailors. He just took the "basic" course for about a month, which awarded him a certificate to be qualified for the job. The program costs about Rp 800k (~90 USD). Then he had to pay a "broker" a one-time fee of 300 USD, which is OK since his job in the middle east pays 300 USD a month.

Roni came home happy and excited, full of optimism and pride. He shows off his English, and boasted how he learned that from zero in only a year. He said, at the arrival hall, an officer thought he was a "TKI" (low-skill, low-wage Indonesian migrant worker), and almost forced him to go to a counter where he's sure he'd get robbed of his hard-earned money. But proudly he said, "I'm a Siemens employee. Here's my documents. And the officer apologized."

On another note, my sister told me this morning that she's invited to a discussion on a possible free-trade agreement between Indonesia and the U.S. Here's what I said:
I'd support it ONLY on one condition: that the agreement would allow Indonesia to export what it can produce best: cheap labor. And please, no discrimination on people with Muslim names, and Pesantren (Muslim boarding school) background.
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Barcelona: Truly Rich

How do you tell that a person is truly rich? She puts intangible things (i.e., pride, benevolence, and happiness) before money.

Since way back, gigantic, Spain-based Barcelona Football Club never wears any sponsor's logo on their jersey, foregoing tens of millions of pounds a year. But this week they start to wear Unicef's logo.

Unicef is not paying Barcelona anything. Instead, Barcelona is paying Unicef 1.5 million euros a year to help poor children suffering from AIDS. Furthermore, Unicef can use any of Barcelona's players (including popular Ronaldinho) as its spokespersons, for free. Barcelona simply said, "we're more than a football club."

I've never been a big fan of Barcelona. Actually I just realized that their jerseys used to be "clean" (Oh.. so that's why they look so 'awkward'!). But now, I'll be paying more attention to them. And that is good marketing on Barcelona's part. Marketing aimed for the heart.

First photo credit:
Second photo credit: New York Times via here.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

On Sri Mulyani's Award

Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati was selected as Best Finance Minister in Asia, 2006, by Emerging Markets Forum. The award was given amidst the IMF and World Bank meeting in Singapore.

Here's what a friend said: "But she's only been in office for a year."
Here's what another said: "Soekarno once said, 'if the capitalists are praising us, then we must be doing something wrong.'"

Photo credit:

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Monday, September 18, 2006

On being post-modern

Post-modernism, at a glance, may seem like a difficult, abstract concept. Books that reflect this idea seem absurd to read, as they analyze simple, banal things in manners that seem unnecessarily complex.

However, if there's one thing that I learned about post-modernism, it's the very simple concept that things are not as simple as they look, that there are a lot of factors that contribute to how things turn out, and even "how things turn out" depends on how one presents it.

History matters, but look again: who's point of view does it reflect? We thus should not be talking of History, but of histories. Gender matters, and thus even histories may be seen as "his stories," and therefore we should hear more of "her stories" to give a more complete picture. Race matters. If you don't recognize this since you're part of a racial majority in a certain place, go to another place where you're a minority. Then most likely you'll understand how you're being discriminated against, and how you, as part of a racial majority, may have discriminated against minorities. Geography matters. See how where you're born, where you work, and where your business is located decide how much money you have/make. You get my point.

Some people, who have been so accustomed to modernist, simplistic thinking, are frustrated by post-modernism. "If everything matters, then nothing really matters! Where do we even start?"

Well, that's the beauty of it, isn't it? Since many things matter, then we can start anywhere. However, we do need better leaders, who see a more complete picture, and are great at coordinating various sectors to achieve a common goal. The leader should also be more careful about making generalizing, over-arching statements, and only do so when it's really needed.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Tribute to A. Fatih Syuhud

Do you know that feeling of excitement when you meet someone who share your mission? That's how I felt when I was first directed into Fatih's blog.

Famous Blogger Indonesia A. Fatih Syuhud is a big driver of the "bottom-up information" movement. He says,
I'd love to see many more Indonesian bloggers blog in English, the most-widely-understood world language. So that the world knows and understands more about Indonesia by reading anything written by Blogger Indonesia.
Back in 2001, when I was so excited about the "bridging the digital divide" movement, my friend, Kang Didi, adjusted my perspective by saying this:
The most frightening aspect of the digital divide is not that the poor won’t get information, but that the poor won’t be able to contribute the making of mainstream knowledges, that they will be stuck as knowledge consumers, never producers, and that one day their local knowledges and wisdoms will disappear.
Back in those days, blogs were not so far developed. For the average people to get their message across in the Internet, they'd have to learn HTML. Then they'd have to learn tricks on how to get their website found in search engines. Today, blogs make the "bottom-up information" movement more easier and accessible. One does not have to learn HTML. Machines built into blog providers, also tools such as technorati and, make blogs easy to find. Audience has also widened by people being more critical of mainstream media. A good example of the "bottom-up information" movement is Global Voices, for which Fatih and my friend, Enda, are contributors.

Still, I think the "bottom-up information" movement cannot stand alone. It needs to be complimented by "better top-down information." Currently there are a lot of knowledges and research results (at the elite level, i.e., LIPI, BPPT) that are useful for poor. However, they are presented in such a way that is "un-readable" by the poor. For example, a farmer in Salatiga told me:
Yes, they trained me to use the Internet. I wanted to find information about better technologies for farming chilly. I found it. But it's a 20-page report! After reading the first 2 pages, I gave up. I didn't understand the language. It's too technical.
The Government has tried to deal with this by making the Warintek CD-ROMs: a compilation of Indonesian local, practical knowledges. The Pe-PP project is using the role of "infomobilizers" (community organizers with an ICT perspective), so that by way of information found over the Internet and direct facilitation (meaning contextualization and translation into "the people's language"), a farmer group in Muneng, Madiun, was enabled to grow better, bigger melons and find the buyers. That's why, as much as I agree with Fatih about people blogging in English, I'd also suggest people to blog in plain, simple Bahasa Indonesia. Or any traditional language.

Then there's also a matter of "side-way information," from one member of a community/ class/ group to another member. This is community building, and there's already many examples of this on the Internet. However, we need to see more "side-way information" building between the poor and marginalized. An attempt at this is the Saluran Informasi Akar Rumput initiative.

Each of these three movements need champions. And A. Fatih Syuhud, hands down, is one of the best champions of the "bottom-up information" movement.

This week, Fatih made me "Blogger of the Week." It sure is an honor, and I humbly thank him.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Optimism and Pessimism of Busway

Jakarta is building corridors IV-VII of dedicated bus lanes ("busway"). Many people complain about traffic jams that the process is causing. "Stupid busways!" they say. I, on the other hand, think congestion is a natural, temporary, side-effect of busway development. Like having your house renovated: of course it's a hassle. But after a while, it will be a nicer place to live.

Darmaningtyas of the Indonesian Transportation Society said that congestion will subside if busways can attract people to leave their cars. And this is probable: 77.2% are in favor of busways, with certain conditions:
Berdasarkan riset INSTRAN (2005) kepada 304 pemakai mobil pribadi, responden itu siap meninggalkan kendaraan pribadi dan pindah ke busway dengan syarat: jalur yang mereka lalui ada busway (44,8 persen), busway memberi kenyamanan (24,1 persen), dan kemacetan terus terjadi di jalur yang mereka lalui (19 persen). Oleh sebab itu, 77,2 persen dari 304 responden mengharapkan agar jalur yang mereka lalui dibangun busway.
Sayang, hasil riset ITDP-INSTRAN (2006) menunjukkan bahwa ketidaknyamanan dalam busway salah satunya karena berdesak-desakan merupakan aspek terburuk dari pelayanan busway Koridor I-III.
Darmaningtyas thus proposes more buses, better management, and feeder vehicles. I would add secure parking space at the end of busway routes for people driving from the suburbs, but take the busway into/out of the city.

An interesting factor that needs to be taken into account is what we forego by having a better transportation system: i.e., the jobs of drivers and keneks of at least 550 Mikrolet (minibus) units!
Yang pasti sekitar 550 unit lebih Mikrolet 01 (Kampung Melayu-Senen) akan hilang karena jalurnya l00 persen beririsan dengan busway Koridor V (Kampung Melayu-Ancol)... Angkutan umum lain yang beririsan dengan busway Koridor IV, VI, dan VII juga akan mengalami nasib yang sama (hilang)...
Based on queries I made to 5 Jakarta taxi drivers so far, it's clear that their income is decreasing since Busways started (current income is 20% to 60% of previous income).

So what will bus drivers, taxi driver, and keneks become now? Go figure.

Photo credit:

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Monday, September 11, 2006

Easily Happy

If you were given a choice: happy or money, which would you pick? I'd guess many would answer both. And that's fine. I have nothing against money (heck, I like money); I just think it's over-rated. But think again: do we really need money to be happy?

Here's an anecdote my friend once told me:
A Western, white man finds a brown, indigeous Indonesian lying around on the beach, somewhere on the shores of Java. "Why aren't you working?" asked the white.
"Why should I?" asked the brown.
"So you can have money."
"What for?"
"So one day you can lie around on the beach, and enjoy life without worrying about anything."
"But I'm already doing that."

In Harry Potter #1, there's a story about a mirror. When one looks into this mirror, he will see himself in the form of what he desires most. For example, one sees himself receiving an award. Harry Potter sees himself besides his two deceased parents whom he never met. The happiest person just sees himself as he is.

Imagine you're looking into this mirror, and figure how much money is related to what you see. No, please really think about it. You want self-esteem? Then treat people respectfully. You want a new experience? Go interact with people you'd never thought you would. You want to feel good? Give something that you value to a nice person who needs it more than you do. Then forget about what you've done.

Paradoxically, happiness is easiest to achieve by giving something away. So go ahead: make dinner for your wife. Recite a poem for your partner. Win a basketball game for your boyfriend. Give her a massage. Do it wholeheartedly. Now you see what I'm talking about.

One of my mentors, Kang Didi, has a really cool catch-phrase: "gampang senang" (easily happy). And he's right: happiness is easy to find. It's all in our minds. Money sure is valuable. Just don't forget to be happy while you pursue it.

Previous posts on happiness: 1, 2, 3, 4

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Cities, Homes, and the Middle Class

Congratulations go to Marco Kusumawijaya, who just launched his new book, titled Kota Rumah Kita (The City, Our Home), last night in Aksara Bookstore, Kemang. I'll write a review about the book later, but now I'll just highlight some points from the launch.

It's encouraging to have a book on (Indonesian) cities that has some theoretical dimensions, but is also very clear in its activist stand. A number of (Indonesian) urban planners and architects have also written books on a similar topic, but they tend to be highly theory oriented, and lacking any drive to push for change. Marco is one of the few activist-architects who writes well, and there's a good chance that this book can inspire people to do something.

Ayu Utami, author of Saman, gave a welcome note on this book. I only remember one thing about her speech: that efforts should be taken to build a "middle class consortium." Someone then questioned whether or not that is bourgeoisie instead. Marco then explained that for too long, the middle class has been helped by the lower class, in terms of advocacy for public interests. For example, it's the lower class who first protested the hundreds of million rupiahs allocated yearly for Jakarta governor's clothes and furniture. Any how, Marco views that an organized society (or society composed of organized people-based entities) is the way to go.

To be honest, I'm a bit skeptical of the "middle class consortium." Not many members of the "middle class" are like Marco and Ayu, who is relatively "independent" in terms of income. Most are working for large corporations, and highly dependent on such corporations to continue and enjoy their "good life." I do agree with the second part, though, that an organized society is a stronger society.

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Can SBY eliminate deep-rooted corruption?

Indonesian President SBY is trying hard to convince businesspeople to invest. He said the Government will reform central and local regulations, enforce the law, improve infrastructure, increase political stability, and eliminate corruption. Easier said than done. At the Forbes Global Conference, Steve Forbes, who moderated a dialog session with SBY, paid special attention to Indonesia and how it will deal with corruption.

You see, corruption is deeply rooted here. My friend, who's trying to run an honest gasoline logistics business in Pekanbaru, complained about the police force yesterday. "Even if there's no problem at all, they'll stop your truck and say there's a problem. To 'deal with the problem,' you'd have to pay at least 250,000 rupiahs," He said.

"What if you object, and if needed, bring a lawyer to take them to court?" naively I asked. "They'll still get you. Firstly, they'll take your truck to their station. Then on, it's completely their game. They can smash your headlight or your mirror, and then say that your vehicle had incomplete qualifications. In the meantime, your client is waiting to have his gasoline delivered! If you don't keep him satisfied, he'll turn to another distributor."

Without comprehensive attempt to deal with corruption (not just dealing with national-level policies), we can forget about SBY's dream to compete with China and India. How could he, if he can't even handle his own staff's misappropriation?

(Image from

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Low-income flats are profitable!

Indonesian real estate mogul Ciputra is willing to invest whatever it takes to build low-income flats in Jakarta. The condition: Government provides land and reduces interest rate from 15% to 10%. "Consumers cannot pay 15%," he said. Obviously, if Ciputra is interested, that means there's good business.

On another article, the Jakarta government admits that it still needs to provide 125,000 low-income flat units to accomodate those still living under the highways, along railroads, in green areas, and along the river. They are also asking private developers to keep their promise to build 1,000 units in 2006-2007. In Berlan, East Jakarta, a 20-storey flat will be build to accomodate mainly army personnel (retired and active). Hope this does NOT become a 20-story slum with "tradable" right to occupy the units.

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Saturday, September 02, 2006

Ghetto-izing the Internet

Nien pointed me to this cool resource: Urban Dictionary, "a slang dictionary with your definitions. Define your world." Check out how these phrases are (re-)defined:
January Joiner:
Someone who joins the gym in January as part of a New Year's resolution and by February is back to being a couch potato.

ho ho ho:
Santa's cry, or three prostitutes.
Similar to Wikipedia, Urban Dictionary allows people to collectively shape the world from THEIR perspective, based on THEIR understanding, not the expert's, not the few elite's.

Why am I bringing this up? As much as I like the the Internet, I am also concerned about its deficiencies and biases. ICT is not culturally neutral; it incorporates modernist, western values into whoever is using it or connected through it.
  • Inayatullah and Legget, in Transforming Communication, questioned ‘who speaks, who is on the net, and whose ways of knowing are privileged.’ Are women’s perspectives incorporated by the new technologies? Can women can use the new technologies to break out of traditional, marginalizing, roles?
  • A chapter by Obijiofor in this book was critical of the language of the Internet. Any language creates certain forms of thinking and suppresses others. English, in particular, as the Internet’s dominant language, is ‘a language of technical rationality’.
  • Manuel Castells, in End of Millenium, furthermore noted that there is a geographically uneven distribution of Internet content providers, as most of them are concentrated in a few metropolitan areas. This largely shapes the assumptions used in providing this content, and the types of content available on the Internet.
  • These region and life-style specific assumptions have led to the exclusion of non-metropolitan cultures, and as Castells wrote in The Internet Galaxy, make it ‘difficult for people without sufficient education, knowledge, and skills to appropriate the technology for their own interests and values.’
These are why I support efforts to bring alternative content into the Internet; content created by the not-yet-modernized, the non-urban, the marginalized urban, the non-English-language-oriented. A potential Indonesian example is Saluran Informasi Akar Rumput - an online news agency run by community radios in West Java and Yogyakarta. Through such initiatives, we can show that the world is not monolithic, that "our" knowledges are just as valuable as "their" Knowledge, and that the Internet can be used as a tool to diversify the world, rather than homogenize it.

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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Robbery of Public Space, in the Name of Poverty?

I am quite disturbed by Media Indonesia's editorial today. What's interesting is that I agree with most of the facts and suggestions presented. It's just the tone that bugs me. Consider these phrases (my own translation):
In the name of poverty, informal street vendors/hawkers are free to rob the public of its right to streets.

They have become dictators.
Would I be out of place to guess that Media Indonesia's editors are personal cars users? Hmm.. OK, comments follow:

Why don't you do a little research on the relationship between street vendors and the other party in the "conspiracy", namely state apparatus. See who's the "dictator" now?
It's time to make a rule, for example every mall should provide space for street vendors.
What I heard is: there already is such rule. But many mall developers would rather give money to the government (legally, that is), instead of providing space for the informal sector in their property. It's similar to the 1:3:6 rule for housing developers (for every high-income housing unit built, a developer should develop 3 middle-income units, and 6 low-income units). Many high-income housing developers would also rather give money to the government rather than build middle and low-income housing themselves. But do we see enough economic space and life space for the poor in the city? So, in whose hands does the problem lie in now?

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