Business and politics in Indonesia

July 22nd, 2014


Presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto, and Golkar Chairman Aburizal Bakrie campaigning in Senayan- Mietzner

What are the institutional mechanisms that make these (often illicit) transactions an ongoing feature of Indonesian politics? More broadly, what are the consequences of increasing business-state overlap for public policy, both good and bad? This special edition of Inside Indonesia goes some way toward addressing these questions. The articles investigate the connections between public office and private capital in contemporary Indonesia, with a view to understanding the institutional landscapes that exacerbate, or limit, predatory politico-business alliances.

The edition opens with a timely economic overview from Hal Hill, a long-time observer of Indonesia’s political economy. A welcome change from the many negative characterisations of Indonesia’s corrupt government, Hill sketches out the remarkable economic progress the country has made over the past decade. Hill emphasises that, against the odds, economic policy makers have in many instances avoided political influence and put Indonesia on a stable path of economic growth. But he also highlights Indonesia’s pronounced and worsening inequality, arguing that it leaves the door open to populist appeals and politicised policy interventions. On the eve of Indonesia’s presidential election, Hill lays out five challenges for a new administration, including reduction of fuel subsidies and reform of the bureaucracy. He does not consider either Prabowo or Jokowi a ‘reform champion’ when it comes to economic policy, but is hopeful that the victor will surround himself with a ‘professional’ and experienced cabinet.

Eve Warburton’s article shifts gears and turns our focus to Indonesia’s political landscape. Warburton maps out the varied ways in which democratic institutions have become sources of capital generation for state officials and their business partners – or for entrepreneurs that have entered office directly. Collusive state-business alliances are motivated partly by personal enrichment, but also by how expensive it is to take part in Indonesia’s democracy. The business transactions that now feature so heavily in national and regional politics can have serious consequences for social policy and economic development, and for the quality of democratic institutions more generally.

Ward Berenschot and Darmawan Purba report on the recent gubernatorial elections in Lampung Province, where a single company dominates the local political economy. They describe how Sugar Group Companies (SGC) bankrolled one of their own company insiders to run for governor. Companies like SGC often claim they are compelled to cultivate political allies because they must face Indonesia’s notoriously unpredictable rules and corrupt rent seeking from state officials. But the authors make a powerful case that these business-state pacts are self-reinforcing, and only perpetuate regulatory uncertainty. Berenschot and Purba propose that enforcing transparency around campaign financing would help limit collusion on the scale witnessed in Lampung.

Teri Caraway and Michele Ford’s article provides insight into how local governments have become sites of contestation between labour and business. Wage disputes motivate both sides to lobby local government officials. Businesses use their influence behind closed doors. But, as the authors demonstrate with a case from Bekasi, during election season labour unions sometimes posses significant bargaining power, as political candidates try to win their support and leverage union networks.

Inside Indonesia for more

The desperate choices behind child migration

July 22nd, 2014


As someone who just returned from living and working in El Salvador, I’m still having a hard time adjusting to our mainstream media’s never-ending wave of know-nothing commentary on the subject of immigration.  A case in point is the column penned by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on Sunday, June 22nd.  Douthat expresses alarm about the “current surge” of “unaccompanied minors from Central America” who are dangerously crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in such unprecedented numbers that the Border Patrol and the courts are now “struggling to care for the children and process their cases.”

What has caused this “children’s migration?”  According to Douthat it is “immigration reform’s open invitation” — “the mere promise of amnesty” that has now worsened “some of the humanitarian problems that reformers say they want to solve.”  Douthat is a conservative but his solution is a familiar, bi-partisan one: “let’s prove that a more effective enforcement system can be built and only then codify an offer of legal status.”

That immigration policy proposal, per usual, totally ignores what’s really driving the big increase in border crossings by impoverished young Central Americans and what the U.S. government could be doing to make staying in Central America a viable choice.

The “Push Factors”

To see things differently, it helps to put yourself in the shoes of others.  Let’s imagine that you are a poor single mother living in Apopa, a dangerous city next door to the capital, San Salvador.

You work cleaning houses for $15 a day.  Your neighborhood is completely gang-dominated.  When you take the bus to the house where you work you are often late because the police check the bus and make all the men disembark for body searches.  There are some mornings when you wake up and send your daughter to the corner store for eggs and she sees dead bodies in the street.  They could be the bodies of a neighbor or a storeowner who refused to pay the extortionate demands of the local gang.  Just a few days ago, walking with your son you were caught in a shootout between two rival gangs.  You could do nothing but duck and cover and try to comfort your wailing child.

Monthly Review Zine for more

Books out, 3D printers in for reinvented US libraries

July 22nd, 2014


Across the US, libraries are setting up maker labs as they turn themselves into hubs for high-tech innovation and training

In the small town of Fayetteville in northern New York, you’ll find the local library in an old furniture factory dating from the turn of the 20th century. The refurbished building retains hints of its industrial past: wooden floors, exposed beams, walls lined with carefully labelled tools.

But instead of quietly perusing stacks of books, many of the patrons are crowded around a suite of 3D printers. One machine is midway through a pink mobile phone case; another is finishing up a toy sword.

This is Fayetteville’s maker lab – and it may very well be the future of libraries.

In 2011, Fayetteville became the first public library in the US to set up a maker lab. Besides 3D printers, the space features a laser cutter, electronics kits, workshop tools, Raspberry Pi computers and an array of sewing machines. It functions somewhere between a classroom and a start-up incubator – a place where people from all over the region can get involved with state-of-the-art technology.

Since the lab opened, similar spaces have been popping up across the country, including in cities like Sacramento, Pittsburgh, Denver and Detroit. According to the American Library Association, about 1 in 6 libraries now dedicates some of its space to maker tools and activities. The New York Public Library – one of the largest in the country – is watching these developments to inform its upcoming renovation.

The image of a library as a building filled with books, quiet readers and shushing librarians is fading fast as we get ever more of our information through the internet. Websites like Wikipedia and vast online databases have largely replaced physical copies of reference books and back issues of journals. Other books can be offered in digital form, or physical copies stored out of sight and called up via an automated retrieval system.

New Scientist for more

The BRICS: A response to Yash Tandon

July 21st, 2014


(From left to right) Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South African President Jacob Zuma during the official photograph of the 6th BRICS summit in Fortaleza, Brazil. PHOTO/One India

Yash Tandon opens with a semantic discussion, initially querying the credentials of the term “sub-imperialism”, but ending with an explicit and snide attack on theorists for having an “exuberance of their conceptual creation” to discredit the term. This is disingenuous at best – a term is useful or not, irrespective of its historical antecedents: a neologism may offer a clarity denied to worn-out words whose meaning is obscured by over-usage. The historical roots of the term ‘sub-imperialism’ may be of interest to lexicographers but irrelevant to the legitimacy or otherwise of an argument.[1]

One may make a semantic critique of “sub-imperialism” as a definitional category. It implies an imperialism that roots itself in an archaic sensibility. While many governments demonstrate an imperialistic arrogance in their foreign policies, imbued with a notional self-righteousness, I would think it more useful to seek a neologism that incorporates but does not echo the Age of Empires which one hopes is behind mankind. Perhaps the old term “sub-hegemon” might be better although it lacks the “layering” implied by “sub-imperialism.”


However a primary objection to the term is that it establishes a false dichotomy by simplistic reductionism that marginalises the nuances of power at the national, regional and global levels. Is the Mugabe regime’s exploitation of the Marange diamond fields not a form of internal imperialism whereby resources are appropriated by the centre at the expense of the periphery?[2] The regime uses military force as well as opaque partnerships with external corporations while practising blatant corruption as a few of its tools. Mugabe as a proto-Leopold is not an untenable image, underpinned by helicopter gunships maintaining a monopoly of primitive accumulation.

Africanists often use this tactic of reductionism to present a simplistic dichotomy between the ‘bad’ West and the ‘good’ South that ignores the agency of local elites in the global South or anti-elite activities within Western states. Thus, for example, we see claims that Cleopatra was ‘black’ as if this re-casting is a triumph for Africa while ignoring the brutalities of pharaonic rule.[3]

Tandon then dismisses critics of the BRICS sceptics for shallowness and ‘distraction[4]’ as if his ex cathedra pronouncement is sufficient argument to dismiss the typology. He further undermines his own argument by personalising these critics as Patrick Bond and his acolytes: such ad hominem attacks are the most base of false refutations since they insinuate an unspoken illegitimacy that appeals to people’s personal regard or not for Bond and his students.

While he claims that arguments based on ‘empirical observation’ are ‘inadequate’, or, worse, non-sense, unless ‘located in some theory’, I would suggest that verified observation is the foundation of the scientific process, that, rather than squeezing the data to conform to a pre-determined theoretical straight-jacket, the honest analyst derives theory from observation and interpretation. However such undergraduate perplexity about deductive versus inductive reasoning should not intrude into grown up journals

The tactic of claiming that Bond’s arguments ‘resonate’ with “some parts of the popular media in Africa as also in the West”, that Bond makes ‘journalistic forays’ is a poor attempt to delegitimize by association. Placing inverted commas around the word ‘authorities’ implies a dismissal of their legitimacy and Tandon wonders “if they would support Bond”. A more honest approach would be to examine the substance of Bond’s use of these references and directly answer the merits or not of such references.

Tandon poses some ‘questions for further discussion’ accusing Bond et al yet again of ‘empiricism’. While a network analysis of the SA elite would be useful, its omission is hardly an indictment. Tandon dislikes the idea of a hierarchy of sub-imperialism – perhaps he missed the “big fish eat little fish” story in kindergarten – and proceeds to belittle the hypothesis with ridicule, plaintively asking “who is left in Africa who is not either a sub-imperialist or an agent of sub-imperialists?”


But the real reason I suspect Tandon is so vociferous is the inconvenience Bond’s analysis creates for his faux pan-Africanism, for the delusion that local elites are in some way spearheading an indigenous Southern anti-imperialism. They are not: Africa’s leaders are colluding with the world’s political and economic hegemons to maximise their own interests, no less in the 21st century than in the 18th.[5] Does Tandon really think the EPAs are entirely one-sided creations that have no buy-in from African elites?

Pambazuka News for more

Foot prints: The house that the Kapoors built

July 21st, 2014


The family house of the legendary actor at the end of a small busy street. PHOTO/Dawn

They say they still wear the traditional Peshawari pagri on festive occasions, the Kapoors of Bollywood. And a gold medal from Prithvi Raj’s acting days in theatres of Peshawar — and Lyallpur, now Faisalabad — is a family heirloom left by the Kapoor patriarch. They lived here in Dhakki, right by Peshawar’s Qissa Khwani Bazaar. How appropriate for a family of celebrated thespians to have roots in the street of storytellers.

The air inside their old haveli is still, the gloom in the empty rooms is like time mourning its own passage, a surrender to dust, to dampness and to death. It is the indifference of a terminal patient to a visitor who brings no hope but stands by the bed.

In a room where sunlight bursts through the windowpanes with their broken stained glass, I try and imagine the Kapoor family living in the house. All I conjure up is little Raj Kapoor, the Charlie Chaplin of Indian cinema, up to his antics again, in the house he was born. Last I saw him, he was serenading a Bollywood beauty from a treetop on screen. Now he runs ahead of me, a little boy with a stick to dislodge a wasp’s nest embedded in the dark, narrow staircase, to give me safe passage to the floors above.

Dawn for more

Fish drying method changes lives in Burundi

July 21st, 2014


FAO project to introduce simple raised drying racks improves livelihoods and nutrition for communities along the shores of Lake Tanganyika and beyond

An FAO project to equip small fishing communities with the tools and know-how to dry fish on simple raised racks instead of on the sand has changed lives along the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Burundi.

Women had always dried catches of small sardine-like silver lake fish called ndagala on the ground, where they were easy pickings for animals and vulnerable to being trampled and contaminated. During the rainy season, many fish would be washed away or start to rot.

“If the fishes got spoiled and began to smell awfully it was impossible to sell them at market,” said Gabriel Butoyi, president of Rumonge fishing port.

In total, around 15 percent of the catch was lost or spoiled during the drying process.

Working with Burundi’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, FAO first set up a tiny project in the village of Mvugo ten years ago, constructing just 48 cheap wire-mesh racks suspended a metre above the ground, offering training and distributing leaflets on how to build the racks.

Driers quickly saw the benefits, with racks reducing drying time from three days to just eight hours, meaning producers can dry multiple batches of fish in the same day. The fish are out of reach of animals, and racks can also be covered when it rains, preventing spoilage.

“Our fishes are of a good quality without small gravel or stones and they are dried in hygienic conditions,” said rack owner Domitien Ndabaneze. “With our products, customers are no longer concerned with eating sandy fish.”

FAO for more

Weekend Edition

July 18th, 2014

Riot you must, but for justice

July 18th, 2014


Argentina’s fans clash with riot police after Argentina lost to Germany in their 2014 World Cup final soccer match in Brazil, at a public square viewing area in Buenos Aires, July 13, 2014 PHOTO/ Daily Mail

any or everyone wants to win
because anything else is a sin
any other position is useless
and is looked down as juiceless

the Argentinians lost 2014 World Cup
so rioted and fought with police, yup
why not riot against the junta’s crimes
to get justice for victims of horrible times

B. R. Gowani can be reached at

What corporate media and corporate Latino politicians won’t tell you about Central American child refugees

July 18th, 2014


“Latino voters and the Latino political class supported the career of Barack Obama almost as solidly as blacks. They were promised much more than African Americans, but in the end got much less.”

Five and a half years into the Obama era, some of his African American supporters finally admit black voters didn’t get much of substance for their nearly unanimous support of the First Black President. Of course the black political class does its level best to blame everything on evil racist Republicans who don’t even like what the president had for breakfast. In a shameful flip on the notion that black faces in high places should represent us in the halls of power, our black political cognoscenti relentlessly belittle any expectation that the lives of real people down here on the ground ought to improve behind the election of the first black president as unsophisticated and unrealistic. Meanwhile black family wealth continues to fall, black unemployment and mass incarceration remain about the same, and our black political class continue their glittering careers.  It could be worse. At least the First Black President hasn’t deported two million of us.

Latino voters and the Latino political class supported the career of Barack Obama almost as solidly as blacks. They were promised much more than African Americans, but in the end got much less.  Latinis were promised that the unjust immigration system would be fixed and a road to citizenship created for the millions of undocumented living among us. What Latino voters and the Latino political class got in return for their support of Obama was two million deportations, hundreds of thousands of families brutally separated and scattered by law, not entirely unlike black families in this country once were.

Just like the black faces in high places, the Latino political class doesn’t represent its people to or within the system, they are actually one of the faces the capitalist system presents to the Latino community. So it has fallen to the Latino political class to defend the president, who by now has deported more people than any president before him, and to defend the US empire by obfuscating the reasons those child refugees are here in the first place.

Establishment Latino politicians like Chicago congressman Luis Gutierrez blame the Republicans as usual, for not allowing a vote on an immigration bill, and for being heartless, evil racists in general, and ask that the president do something generous and humane. But he won’t. It is true that racist Republicans are clamoring for the children to be instantly deported, despite US law which says children from countries not bordering the US are entitled to individual hearings before immigration judges. Even though speedy deportation is illegal, and Republicans don’t have the power to make the president do it, Obama has already begun deporting children without the hearings the law prescribes. How they’ll manage to blame this on Republicans is a mystery.

“ …like the black political class, they owe allegiance to the system, the empire that gave them their careers, not the Latino communities they ostensibly represent…”

Black Agenda Report for more

What did the flesh-and-blood Christ really believe?

July 18th, 2014


The Sea of Galilee: stomping ground of Christ and his disciples. PHOTO/Daniel Weber/Flickr

Few are aware of the impact of Jesus’s brother James, often overshadowed by Peter and Paul, on Christianity. After the death of Jesus, he led the early Christian community for nearly three decades. In Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013), about which I posted recently, Reza Aslan wrote that “one sure way of uncovering what Jesus may have believed is to determine what his brother James believed.” How “may” not just qualifies, but contradicts, “sure way” must have gotten by an editor. We can be sure of little about times and regions that were sparsely documented. That said, the “first thing to note about James’s epistle,” continues Azlan

… is its passionate concern with the plight of the poor. This, in itself, is not surprising. The traditions all paint James as the champion of the destitute and dispossessed; it is how he earned his nickname, “the Just.” The Jerusalem assembly [core of the Christian community at that time — RW] was founded by James upon the principle of service to the poor. There is even evidence to suggest that the first followers of Jesus who gathered under James’s leadership referred to themselves collectively as “the poor.”

“What is perhaps more surprising about James’s epistle,” writes Azlan

… is its bitter condemnation of the rich. “Come now, you wealthy ones, weep and howl fro the miseries that are about to come upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. You gold and silver have corroded, and the venom within them shall be a witness against you; it shall eat your flesh as though it were fire” (James 5:1­­–3).


The New Testament is like the PG-13 version of the life and teachings of the historical Jesus.

Foreign Policy in Focus for more