It’s not just about the economy

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Irawan Ronodipuro INDEPENDENT OBSERVER

IO – In an age where there is an obsession with wealth creation, GDP growth rates and how well the stockmarkets are doing, we tend to lose sight of what is important.

   Here in Indonesia, too many politicians and the business elite mirror the West’s fanaticism over growth and its deification of markets.  Sure, GDP growth rates are important.  Infrastructure development, a signature policy of Jokowi since he first took office, is important too, for better and more electricity, roads, sea ports, bridges and airports will bring greater productivity in the future.  

  But what about today? Can we honestly say that everbody is better off than before? Can parents believe their chiidren’s future is bright?

  For Indonesia’s poor, especially in the eastern parts of the archipelago, the answer, at least for now, is ‘no’.  Many of the poor lack electricity and clean water.  They send their chiidren to schools that rate far below those in the larger cities.  They might have access to health care, but the quality of medical staff are below the norm, as well.  

   Malnutrition is a much larger problem than is commonly recognized.  A national survey taken in 2013 showed that one in three children under the age of five suffer from stunting, which is caused by a combination of chronic malnutrition, poor sanitation and lack of clean water.    

   This is a shocking number when you first hear it, for it means scores of children will never meet their growth potential.  It also means they will be cognitively impaired and therefore find it difficult to climb the economic ladder.    The World Bank, in a 2018 report, noted that 48 percent of children under 5 years of age in the poorest 20 percent of households were stunted in 2013, an increase from 41 percent in 2007.

   What all of this means is that Indonesia has the largest number of stunting cases in the world. It means that the very poor are the ones who have been suffering the most.  It is highly likely that the infliction will impair the offspring of stunted adults, hence locking them into a cycle of poverty.

   The Jokowi administration, working with international development partners such as the Worid Bank, has rolled out an ambitious program to tackle and reduce stunting to 10 percent by 2030.    This is a laudable effort, and involves a tremendous effort across ministries, national, regional and local governments.  Yet it remains to be seen how well it will be implemented.  Past health care programs have been impaired by corruption, and local health centers are notoriously understaffed.   

   Yet it can be done.  Our cover story mentions the case of Brazil, which launched a zero hunger strategy to tackle stunting. In less than two decades, the stunting rate declined from 20 percent to 7 percent.

   Which raises another question: why did past governments ignore the stunting problem for so long? 

   The answer, I think, lies in my original comment.  Past leaders, and current ones, have too easily fallen into the trap of believing that economic growth equates with success.  It does not, and such wrong-headed thinking can only be corrected by a fundamental shift in one’s political philosophy.

  For this, a great example would be Europe’s social democrats, who believe in the virtue of collective action for the collectice good.  In particular, they believe in progressive taxation in order to pay for public services and other social goods that individuals cannot provide themselves.  In other words, they strive for a good society, one that entails a greater role for the state and public sector.  That is an aspiration worth emulating, especially when it comes to helping Indonesia’s underpriviliged.