BLOG: Women in Indonesia Face Corruption, Inequality in Government Budget Process

The Asian Foundation
Tuesday, November 2, 2010 - 20:00
South Eastern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding
Initiative Type: 
Online Dialogues & Blogs

When Indonesian citizens began scrutinizing their local government budgets as part of an Asia Foundation-led program on gender-responsive budgeting, they found some surprises: a new suit for the governor, an aquarium for the mayor, and thousands of boxes of tissues for a regional leader. In the city of Parepare, they discovered that the 2008 draft budget allocated $2,000 for each legislator to buy food and beverages, yet only 80 cents per citizen for improving public nutrition. The program participants, who were learning how to analyze public budgets to advocate effectively for change, quickly realized what their main goal should be: reallocation of funds from misplaced priorities like these to programs that could help reduce poverty and gender inequality.

The decentralization of governance in Indonesia and the introduction of direct elections for local and regional officials have opened new opportunities for Indonesians to hold their governments accountable for spending public money. Women – many of them engaging in the public budget process for the first time – are the linchpin in these efforts because research shows they advocate for the things that matter most to families in daily life: health care, education, clean water. Experts say that when women's voices are absent, these basic human development needs tend to get short shrift. But that is starting to change. For example, over the last five years, the percentage of women participating in policy and budget planning meetings in Sulawesi nearly doubled, from 27 percent to 50 percent in 48 villages across 16 sub-districts.

New requirements for governments at all levels to hold musrenbang (development planning meetings) means that Indonesians now have a clear entry point for influencing the design of local budgets – at least in theory. The spirit of that law is far from being realized in many parts of the country, hindered by opaque budget processes, corruption, and a lack of knowledge among citizens about budget analysis and their right to participate.

This has led to a mushrooming of civil society organizations working on budget advocacy in Indonesia. The Asia Foundation and our local partners have trained more than 4,500 Indonesians – from government, civil society, and local communities – across seven districts and cities on the connection between gender inequality and poverty, budget processes, and budget advocacy. As a result, these women and men have so far convinced officials to reallocate more than $1.5 million of local government budget funds from potentially wasteful items to programs that meet development needs – especially those of women and children. This is a small slice of the whole budget, but an important first step in a country where corruption is firmly entrenched.

“We understand not every budget line item can be reallocated,” said Hana Satriyo, the Foundation's director of Gender and Participation in Indonesia.”What is important is to make sure that people get some successes, and they know they can make a difference. You're not going to get that kind of optimism by facing the biggest tycoon in the area. We look at the challenges that are doable.”

For example, in a remote village of Polewali Mandar district, women advocates recently won an unprecedented line item in the budget: a reserve fund for victims of domestic violence who cannot afford the medical exam that is required by law if they want to bring their case to court. Without the exam, there is no chance of justice. In Bone district, their efforts led legislators to forego buying 45 laptops for themselves and instead build a school and health clinic in a long-neglected village of former leprosy patients. Achieving these results – budgets that are more gender-responsive – would not have been possible without women's participation.

Pioneered by the Australian government in the 1980s, the concept of a gender-responsive budget (GRB) recognizes that government budgets are not neutral; the programs they fund affect men and women and boys and girls differently because they have different roles and responsibilities in society. As gender budget experts Debbie Budlender and Guy Hewitt have written, GRB initiatives “do not propose separate budgets for women or for men.” Instead, they attempt to reveal how budgets impact women and men differently.

Looking at a budget through a gender lens can reveal whether the policies funded in a budget are producing the desired outcome. For example, consider universal primary education, one of eight Millennium Development Goals. Indonesia has a scholarship program to help needy families pay for the costs of attending school (books, school uniforms, transportation). Discerning whether girls and boys drop out of school for different reasons can help determine whether the scholarship program needs to be targeted differently. In some areas, most of the students who drop out are boys because they can earn higher wages than girls. In other cases, there are more girls than boys who drop out to work. A gender analysis can reveal the social and economic forces that compel these decisions, leading to more targeted strategies to encourage school attendance and more efficient use of limited public resources.

While GRB is a highly contextual exercise, tailored to each country's unique political circumstances and budget processes, there are some common prerequisites for success: access to a transparent budget process, a keen awareness of political realities and key players, and civil society organizations that can navigate the political terrain and help train women and men in budget analysis and advocacy.

Recently scoring a 2.8 on Transparency International's corruption perception index (zero is most corrupt, 10 is the least), Indonesia remains a country where bribes are a part of everyday life and insight into the actual workings of government can be hard to come by.

“If you don't have transparency, you end up spending a whole year trying to convince the government [to share budget documents], and we don't have that kind of time,” said the Foundation's Satriyo. “Better to reward certain local governments that have shown more effort toward better budgeting.”

It is also critical to gain the support of those key elected officials who have an interest in being seen as supportive of their constituents' needs. Interest groups that benefit from the status quo and oppose changes to it are another part of the political equation.

“Money is power, so nobody really wants to let it go so easily,” Satriyo said.

Indonesia's experience shows that gender responsive budgeting can become an empowerment tool – especially for women.

“When people have a better understanding of the budget, they know what they can actually ask for,” Satriyo said. “Their advocacy becomes more effective.”