Poor does not means hunger, famine

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“Hunger and famine (in Indonesia) are first of all because of poverty. But being poor does not necessarily mean to suffer from hunger and famine.” This is one important finding out of grounded research conducted by the Institute for Ecosoc Rights, Jakarta, during March 2006 until February 2007 on the phenomenon of hunger and famine in East NusaTenggara of Indonesia. What is meaningful with this finding?

We found many poor households in this province have been able to keep their below-5-year children comparatively healthy. This positive fact has reminded us to take lesson learned and emphasize that there is no reason to take two common, prevailing assumptions that are very dangerous for children. First, strong tendency of the so many people give up in facing the natural condition that East Nusa Tenggara is dried areas and therefore such nature would not support people’s lives. Second, the phenomenon of acute malnutrition, many of whom eventually died, has been perceived as common incidences. Many people have become so numb.

What has taken place is perhaps a kind of numb sensibility among us toward the phenomenon of malnutrition and famine that in fact continue to happen each year. We have not been sensitive enough to the so many children suffering from it until death. The real situation is actually worse but it is not immediate to our sight and understanding because they are not conspicuous, unless the media report them openly up to an unreasonable number of the suffering children. Many of them are alive but definitely not in a good condition. From the perspective of fulfilling their basic rights that are prescribed in the constitution of Indonesia (UUD 1945), what is happening in East Nusa Tenggara is actually a kind of crime of omission, that should have made up our public policies in development. Indeed, hunger and famine are the top tip of the iceberg of massive poverty in the country.

We are not aware that our future depends very heavily on and will be taken by our malnourished children. One may assume if it is indeed now very difficult to resolve the problems of structural injustice in our societies at the present, we should have taken the choice of preparing, fulfilling their needs to food and educate them that they may be more prepared to face the future that would be more unjust. The future is so close and we will soon face it anyway. However, for this last choice even we are unable to understanding it soundly. Our future is not clear at all.

It is then imperative that we have to advance our priority to keep our children healthy. To support this priority, it is very clear out of this research that the role of the community is in fact very crucial in tackling and preventing malnutrition and famine to happen in the province, either many rural that are very remote and unreachable by public transport or even in our nearby of urban areas. Therefore communities should be encouraged to gradually soften their rigid traditional stance and they should be helped to realize the importance of children health and wellbeing. The health drive activities (posyandu literally translated into “integrated service posts”, the inheritance of the New Order) tends to ignore the importance of building the community and to involve the community in tackling malnutrition and health problems. If the community is indeed developed, in its turn the improvement of the capacity and the integrity of the community members would very likely gradually push them to better manage local resources, at least starting from focusing their effort to suffice basic needs.

However, this research finds that even though we are aware of the importance of the community’s roles as the pillar support for our capacity to resolve famine and malnutrition, we also realize that local and international aid politics has been paralyzed those communities. The research also reveals that many communities are dormant when there is no aid fetching them. In fact they were before able to prevent and to tackle their own problems independently, including malnutrition and famine. Such paralysis is actually worst because it hit not only the communities but also the administration. The latter repeatedly attributes the malnutrition and famine as if (only) a “natural disaster” and thereby to tackle them the officials find it defiantly enough only with short-term and emergency approaches.

It is actually very difficult to tackle such paralysis without public policies that deliver people’s rights to local development. Without development policies that recognize people’s basic rights, the people as part of the communities would unlikely move to resolve their household and community problems. This kind of development policies would only be possibly implemented, only if the state is not burdened by international debt and corruption problems. Ironically, the existing project- and emergency-oriented approach to malnutrition and famine that is actually a structural problem is part of corruption problems in the country.

Such project-oriented tendency in tackling famine has made us realize about our limited awareness on state duty to help the communities, particularly their children and the poor, that is prescribed in the constitution. Categorizing malnutrition and famine as “natural disaster” is then baseless. We have been so far gone astray, lost in no where, disorientated in our way of understanding over our own way of life proceeding, personally and in the community. It is indeed a crime of omission against our rights, losing sense of duty, if we tackle the malnutrition and famine only after emergency (KLB) funds are granted from the national administration. Therefore, the government’s commitment either at the national or provincial and district levels is a crucial key that opens the communities’ drives to resolve malnutrition and famine.

It is therefore imperative to put back health, agriculture, social welfare, and other administration’s fields of work and the teamwork among stakeholders (the society, state, and business sectors) into their original functions and their balance. Health administration office has no legitimacy when their officials only work after the funds disbursed. Agriculture administration office has also no legitimacy when it does not strengthen the agricultural production of the peasants whose children suffer from malnutrition. And so on for other administration offices. It is difficult not to say that the so-called sectoralism (narrow-minded attitudes of each division within the administration) and the lack of commitment (that are more caused by corruption and lack of motivation) are not among the main reasons behind malnutrition and famine. It is therefore the effort to tackle malnutrition and famine would not be fruitful if the attitude and commitment of all related parties are not rapidly and gradually be returned into their original fashions in striving to build the society within the constitutional mandate of delivering public rights in this country, either for the government, the society (such as represented by the NGOs) and the communities themselves.

This research also confirms that household and community as the research units are the main parties who demand the state to resolve the malnutrition and famine problems in East Nusa Tenggara province. In this context, women play the strongest roles and opportunities in resolving the problems. Therefore, their roles should be advanced and encouraged by opening chances for them as many as large as possible, starting from basic requirements of education and trainings that they may develop by themselves, apart from the fulfillment of basic public health services. In this traditional context the very close relation between women and children in our culture support the definite preference of advancing women as the initiators of problem solving activities starting from lowest level in household up to the higher public engagement. Without their roles ever more basic and broader ranges, any effort to resolve malnutrition and famine would have low ranks of possible successes. The preference to advance women empowerment and the importance of education activities are the crucial point and testing stone as for whether we are serious and whether we do have the willing to resolve malnutrition and famine. Men are called to open doors and ways and their comforts over women.

Finally, we are called to get back to learning again the dignity and good traditional values that have been preserved by the many families in East Nusa Tenggara province, in the fact that even though many of them are officially sorted out in “under poverty line” categories, they are indeed able to prevent their children from malnutrition. From them we could learn the inspirations and wisdom of local communities. This research reveals that education, women empowerment and good, sufficient health services are the important success key to prevent children from malnutrition and the communities from famine.***

Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, 14 February 2007
The Institute for Ecosoc Rights, Jakarta

See photos: In the meeting with a group of academicians, religious leaders and NGO activists, supported by the research team from the Institute for Ecosoc Rights, at his working room, on 16 February 2007, the provincial governor of East Nusa Tenggara Piet A. Tallo has well accepted the research results on malnutrition and famine in the province and the group’s proposal to set up a committee on tackling and preventing the problems. He said he would follow up the proposal, commenting that during recent years a lot of funds has been poured down, particularly through international NGOs, into province, however he questioned what the impacts are for local people’s welfare. He confirms that local people were more ‘dependent’ on the aid, while having low achievement in resolving their own problems.

See Indonesian version.

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