Indonesia (Central Java, DIY, NTT and OXFAM)

Country Representative, OXFAM in Indonesia 79-84

I was hired by OXFAM in September 1979. My soon to be wife, Clare Blenkinsop, and I went to Dominica after my time in Washington with ATI, and in quick order were attacked by Hurricane David, returned to UK, got married and I left to Indonesia, with Clare following ahortly afterwards.

OXFAM worked in Central Java and in Yogjakarta (DIY), and occupied itself particularly with the living conditions of the landless, helping them to save, join cooperatives, create small incomes for themselves, as well as improve their living conditions. It did this by identifying small CSOs that were interested in the same topics, and supporting them so that they could offer services to such people competently and professionally. This was my first conscious exposure to the difference between those who worked in the non-government world, and those who were government civil servants. To a large extent the government officials were only interested in supporting the well off villagers and availing themselves of opportnities for corrupt income. The CSOs were committed to a very different kind of support, and, given the autocratic nature of Suharto’s Indonesia, had to be very canny that their work was not construed by government as being not just “non-government”, but “anti-government”.

The Government was very keen that the people of Indonesia should feel that the Government was the source of all good things – resources, ideas, structures, systems, organisations, and should therefore feel indebted to it, supportive of it, and loyal to its ideas. An instance of this was the work of the fine organisation, Yayasan Bina Swadaya, which worked to develop cooperatives through which members could get better prices for their produce. The Government of Indonesia had a Dept. of Cooperatives and it was expected that anyone interested in the cooperative principles should work through it. It was generally ineffective, and often corrupt, and committed community workers did not want to do so. For a time, it was entirely possible that Yayasan Bina Swadaya would be closed down and forbidden to work until elaborate negotiations produced the face saver that it could work to develop “pra-koperasi” (“pre-cooperatives”) which would, in the fullness of time become government cooperatives.

There were very few instances in which the Government of Indonesia could be seen to be conscious of, and interested in helping change the lives of the poorest (except at times of natural disaster when the Government gave a lot of charitable and philanthropic support). Oxfam’s job was to identify local organisations, and sometimes government officials who thought differently, and were prepared to move beyond government thinking. It was often the case that government officials considered the peasantry “stupid” and the government the source of all good ideas, whereas CSOs took the very different point of view that the poor citizens were able to escape their poverty if the forces holding them down were lessened.

Oxfam worked a lot with Yayasan Dian Desa, an organisation of approrpirate technology buffs, who build various mechanisms to help villagers get clean water, and a number of small organisations who worked on primary health care innovations. One of OXFAM’s strengths was that it helped its staff to be canny in their investigation and understanding of nascent local organisations, and be able to choose committed and serious ones to support. Many of the finest CSOs in Indonesia were early partners of OXFAM.

One aspect of my time working with OXFAM was learning about how OXFAM gathered and spent its funds. OXFAM gained its income from donations in cash (some of it from legacies), donations of goods that were sold in its shops, and a small percentage from the British Government. At the time we were told that, except for emergencies, we should not seek more than 10% of our expenditure from the Brtish Government, because greater reliance could generate a cnfliect of interest. Those days are now gone – OXFAM is prepared to take 100% of UK govt money for specific projects. At that time OXFAM staff had the comforting knowledge that they were spending money that people had intended for that purpose. There were quite a few experiences to illustrate this.

The first was that, I, as an OXFAM staffer, had to return after two years to UK and visit OXFAM supporters clubs to tell them what the money was being spent on, and encourage them to keep collecting:

The second was that I was the recipient of a UK OXFAM staff tour, whereby people from the OXFAM shops were given a free study tour to see how the money that they had collected was being spent:

The third was that I was, temporarily, the star of a “Blue Peter” campaign on childrens TV in the UK, and there was a very clear correlation between the stories we told about a lack of water, and the sums raised to do something about it.

The last was more complex: Indonesia had occupied by force the old Portuguese colony of East Timor, and was behaving atrociously to the captive population, who were being starved and killed. OXFAM mounted an emergency mission to help the East Timorese, but there was no way that I, the OXFAM field director in Indonesia, would be allowed to go to East Timor to oversee the allocaton of the funds. I was given the opportunity to meet the British Foreign Minister when he visited Jakarta to put the OXFAM point of view, but proved a waste of time. What OXFAM did was identify a retired Catholic Surgeon General of the Indonesian Army and with him in control to mount a mercy mission taking food and medical supplies into East Timor. He, ex General Suroyo, was able to use his contacts to carry out the work, but I was not allowed in.

In 1982 OXFAM, at the request of the Governmor of the Province, Ben Mboi, was invited to come and work in NTT province (East Nusa Tenggara). This was a hugely different place from the lush, volcanic tropical, overpopulated conditions of Java – it was dry, still volcanic but under populated and lacking in the roads and other infrastrcuture of Java. OXFAM’s chief work was water supply, but also the development of small scale enterprises.



  • Supported the start up of CSOs that have become important members of developmental civil society in Indonesia, and the institutions they created.
  • Improved the health of many communities in the mountains of Java.
  • Helped to pioneer many innovations n primary health care (including “positive deviance” in nutrition).
  • Saved lives in East Timor at the time of famine.



Changing Focus: involving the rural poor im development planning
Co-authored with David Watson: Oxford and IBH Publshing Co Ltd. New Delhi 1984

Partners in Development? the Government and NGOs in Indonesia
by Richard Holloway 1984. The original was in PRISMA 1984 and was re-worked as Chapter 10 in “Doing development – Government, NGOs, and the Rural Poor in Asia”, Earthscan, London 1989

Civil Society, Citizens Organisatons, and the Transition to Democratic Governance in Indonesia
co-authored with Kusnanto Anggoro for UNICEF Indonesia. Also in Indonesian


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