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Indonesia: how Australia’s biggest and closest neighbour uses our aid

by Duncan Graham | May 28, 2023 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

Jakarta Embassy is Australia’s largest diplomatic mission. But what do they do? And what could they be doing? Duncan Graham reports on a project that shows what can be done with a lot of goodwill and not a lot of money.

Completed in 2016, the embassy buildings occupy 50,000sqm in the centre of Jakarta and includes office space for 500 people, as well as the ambassador’s residence and 32 other residences. At the time of completion, it was “the largest of Australia’s overseas diplomatic missions.”

In the budget of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) for 2023-24, Indonesia is the third largest recipient of Overseas Development Aid (ODA), with $326.1m in aid. Our biggest aid recipient is the Pacific region with $1.906m. Of that, Papua New Guinea receives almost a third, with $616.1m, or $65 per capita. By comparison, the amount for Indonesia’s population of 272 million represents $1.19 per capita.

Copy of Australia's foreign aid - selected countries

Population ('000)ODA ($1,000)ODA Per CapitaGDP per capita
Sri Lanka22,160$54,300$2.45$14,706

An embassy – or foreign mission as it is officially called – has many purposes, including assistance to Australians overseas as well as helping to administer a variety of aid and development programs. Australia and Indonesia has a Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) in place. Security and military issues form a major part of the Jakarta embassy’s workload, but how much and how many are involved in that is not a matter of public record.

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Some indications of what the hundreds of staff get up to is found in the embassy’s recent press releases. From that we know that the Governor of NSW, Margaret Beazley, is currently in Indonesia to “strengthen NSW’s diplomatic, trade and people-to-people links with Indonesia.” Earlier this month, Ambassador Penny Williams visited North Sumatra, where among other tasks she delivered a guest lecture on the Australia-Indonesia relationship to Universitas Sumatera Utara.

Education features heavily in the press releases, including the recent “2023 Australian Alumni Gala Dinner Celebrating 70 years of Australian Scholarships in Indonesia,” and a report of an MoU signed between Deakin University and several Indonesian institutions.

Not mentioned in any release, and mostly funded without government help, Australian National University (ANU) has been involved in a remote project since 1988.

Aid where it matters

Jacob Nulik is a retired Indonesian forage agronomist with a doctorate from Australia. He lives in Kupang, the old Portuguese trading port on the southern tip of Timor. Most days he can see the low-lying island of Semau (117 square km) to the northwest, just a 30-minute ferry trip away.

‘But even I wouldn’t go there,’ he said. ‘It was called Magic Island and full of spirits. That didn’t bother Colin Barlow. He went straight in.’

The Australian scientist’s impressive scramble through Semau’s dense bush and ancient coral ridges to the dry plains inland was not a demo of ocker bravado, but intellectual curiosity.

No wailing phantoms, only the sight of Indonesians struggling to survive in a drought-prone hardscrabble landscape, the people so poor their currency was barter. Semau is a sad example of much that’s wrong where corruption thrives and arbitrary administrations run vast countries.

Indonesia stretches 5,100 km west-east; Semau is only 830 km from Darwin, but more than twice as far from Jakarta. Government support goes down as the klicks from the national capital go up.

Cash crop economics

Dr Barlow, who died last December aged 90, was no casual tourist but the ‘world’s leading authority on smallholder cash crop economies.’ His wife Dr Ria Gondowarsito is an Indonesian sociologist.

The couple had enough clout and contacts to run scholarly seminars about Semau but wanted change to be real and sustained. Back in Canberra they hustled donations from mates and NGOs like Rotary, mustered volunteers and did the unusual:

‘He asked the people, and he listened’, explained Deborah Kana Hau, co-founder with Barlow of the Nusa Tenggara (Southeast Islands) Association (NTA). ‘We worked from the bottom up.’

So much time goes on slow talk, which annoys hustlers, but the decisions tend to stick because they’re owned by the locals.

The NTA says its mission is to reduce poverty, which has a knock-on effect. In practical terms, this means having more income can lead to better access to water and sanitation, schools and kindies and health clinics.

What started as a minor project in 1988 now has 26 staff (including two Australians) and 120 volunteers; a third are locals.

ANU economics professor Stephen Howes wrote: ‘If the province was a country, it would be one of the poorest in the world. Income per person is one-third of the Indonesian average’ currently around $4,600 a year.

He calls NTA ‘one of the most effective NGOs in Eastern Indonesia, and perhaps in the developing world.’ All this on tiny sums and big commitments.

NTA co-founder

Deborah Kana Hau, co-founder with Barlow of the Nusa Tenggara (Southeast Islands) Association (NTA)

Government funding

Overall, Australia’s foreign aid as a proportion of our Gross National Income is 0.2%, well below the OECD average of 0.32%. This ranks the Lucky Country 21 out of 29 donors.

The heaviest cuts were last decade under Coalition PM Tony Abbott. There’s been some repair. In this year’s budget, taxpayers are giving slightly more aid to Indonesia – up from $307.3 million to $326.1 million, or about 6%.

This year NTA will get $277,000 (previously $150,000). Twenty per cent of the grant must be raised by the NTA.

Semau’s needs were basic and solutions low-tech. With no reticulation, women spent up to three hours a day lugging water from wells to homes using two 20-litre buckets on a yoke.

The symbol of Outback Oz is a windmill and a tank, filled from a bore or runoff from homestead roofs. This idea only reached Semau with the NTA. Now more than 1,000 concrete tanks have been built. The materials are gifted if the locals do the labour.

Another regular whinge was roaming livestock chomping crops and angering neighbours. Walls had been built from lumps of coral, but no barrier to agile goats.

So ‘living fences’ of green stakes which took root laced with the Australian standard repellent of barbed wire keep the bovids at bay.

The knowledge flow has been hastened by Indonesians studying in Australia. Evert Hosang got a scholarship to the University of Southern Queensland, where he researched maize DNA for a doctorate.

On Semau farmers buy hybrid seed every season because insects destroy their granaries. So using the Australian principle of high-rise sealed silos he got an Indonesian factory to make 20 kg drums to store enough home-grown seed for a hectare of ground.

But it had to be dry and farmers don’t have moisture metres. So he’s taught them to put a handful of maize in a dry plastic water bottle laid on its side in the sun. When no moisture settles inside the container, the corn’s dry enough to store in silos, though with the ‘i’ pronounced as ‘e’.

A bonus from foreigners fixing faults is the shaming of local governments to lift their game and care for their own. Since the NTA arrived, Semau now has some decent asphalt roads and a network of power lines.

Schools are being built but finding well-qualified teachers who’ll work for a pittance and tolerate poor living conditions limits kids’ learning. So does stunting.

Children’s stunting

Jakarta is now getting serious about prevention by distributing supplements. Around 77,000 littlies in the East Nusa Tenggara province (pop 5.4 million across 500 islands) grow slowly and sickly, largely because their mums were undernourished when pregnant.

The NTA is seeking a replacement for Barlow, who used his wallet for his trips and sought no fees.

Howes wrote that in the government’s hands, the NTA’s budget ‘wouldn’t pay for a single in-country consultant employed by the Australian aid programme for a year. That’s value for money.’

Locals say Australian government officials rarely visit except for audits, but they see many volunteers.

To Nulik and his Indonesian colleagues, Barlow was driven by altruism:

He was an ambassador for humanity.

That was his Aussie magic.

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Duncan Graham has a Walkley Award, two Human Rights Commission awards and other prizes for his radio, TV and print journalism in Australia. He now lives in Indonesia.

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