Communication and Human Development

The Development of Civil Society in Indonesia and the Role of Voluntary Organizations

This article describes the evolution of Indonesia’s voluntary sector and the role of nongovernmental and private voluntary organizations in the development of Indonesia’s civil society. The paper describes how NGOs and PVOs complement and supplement the role of government in the social and economic development of the society. It also discusses how these organizations manage their responsibility in challenging the government while often remaining financially dependent on the government for their existence. The paper also advances discussions about the organizational theory of voluntary organizations and their particular development in Indonesia. 

In the last ten years there has been a growing discourse among intellectuals, private voluntary organization leaders, nongovernmental organization activists, and bureaucrats on the emergence of civil society in Indonesia. In the Indonesian context, the civil society, according to Muhammad Dawam Rahardjo, has several cultural characteristics which originate from two sources. The first comes from the business community, including both large and small businesses, and the second comes from the middle class and social activists. Theoretically, if business grows and develops, a middle class and then a civil society will emerge. However, before we discuss this issue it needs to be noted that development in the Indonesian New Order era (1966-98) had already given birth to a third sector. According to Robert Wathnow (1989), who expanded upon the teachings of de Tocqueville (1805-59), the French social philosopher who visited America in 1834 and wrote the book titled Democracy in America (1835), modern society consists of three sectors. The first is the state sector, which has the characteristics of monopoly and coercion. The second is the private sector, which works with the market mechanism for obtaining profit. The third sector, or the voluntary sector, is characterized as voluntary, nonprofit, and noncoercive. These three sectors stand independently and possess a degree of autonomy and independence, although often intermixed and interactive.

In the period of New Order, besides the growing role of the state in national development and the growth of the private sector, the third sector also experienced growth. This sector is dominated by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and private voluntary organizations (PVOs). According to de Tocqueville, the third sector is made up of religious organizations, community groups, civic associations, and self-help and civil organizations. If the existence of this third sector defines a civil society, then civil society already existed before the 1970s, in fact it existed even before national independence in 1945. However, NGOs and PVOs are actually known as professional organizations, and to this extent they are understood to be something different than what was meant by de Tocqueville, and this reality was born in the New Order era. Included in this category are the population studies and family planning groups, institutes for development studies, centers for people’s participation, center for agribusiness institute, legal aid organizations, and others. These organizations and institutions were also born from the development process of the New Order, although they functioned as a countervailing power as well as partner/counterpart of the government and an intermediary institution between the government and society.

The development of civil society in the developing countries is generally accomplished through economic development. Generally, the government plays the role as an agent of change, modernization, and development. It encourages the growth and development of its educated people. By giving them the chance to enter the political field, the government gives them the opportunity to realize their vision of participating in national development, thus advancing justice, democracy, and prosperity in their country.

Generally speaking, newly independent countries are civil societies, although this is not realized. Realization is obtained by the growth of the private sector. The state greatly needs this private sector not only because the private sector represents a source of income through taxation but also to position itself as a developer of a new society. 

Actually, in Indonesian history, civil society existed before the Republic of Indonesia was born. Moreover, the Republic of Indonesia was brought about by the civil society, which had already appeared from the beginning, even before the twentieth century. The Islamic Traders Association (Serikat Dag Islam), for example, was initially formed in 1908, by Haji Samanhudi, in Solo, Central Java. Later it became an important Islamic party known as Partai Syarikat Islam Indonesia (Indonesian Islamic League Party). Additionally, in 1912 Kyai Haji Achmad Dachlan founded the social and religious association, Muhammadiyah, which established in Yogyakarta a clinic and orphanage that offered foster care, medical care for the elderly, and even village and legal aid assistance. In 1926, Kyai Haji Hasyim Asy’ari and Kyai Haji Wahab Hasbullah established Nahdhatul Ulama in Surabaya, which is based on the traditional Indonesian Islamic boarding school model, named “pesantrens” which is deeply rooted throughout Indonesia. 

Soon after, several Islamic organizations emerged on different islands, such as Al Washiliyah in North Sumatra, Tarbiyah Islamiyah in South Sumatra, Nahdhatul Wathan in West Nusa Tenggara, Al Khairaat in Central Sulawesi, and Al Irsyad in Central Java, to mention only the more important Islamic organizations. This is certainly astonishing, for at the time the indigenous private sector had not yet become clearly visible.

In History of the Indonesian People’s Movement (1967), Abdul Kadir Pringgodigdo describes the type of organization that gave birth to civil society; namely, the private organizations in the fields of culture, politics, social movement, and religion. They were labor unions; women’s, youth, and regional organizations; and study clubs. All these organizations aspired for a free and independent Indonesia, and finally the Republic of Indonesia was established in 1945. Yet before the nation was formed, these organizations asserted the presence of a civil society.

But this tendency ended with the outbreak of World War I1 in 1939. As mentioned by Ruslan Abdul Ghani, Indonesia went through three periods of growth: the Indonesian independence period (1945-59), which is the period of state building; the period from 1959 to 1967, which is the period of nation and character building; and the period from 1967 to the present, which is the period of economic development. Though the exactness of this classification may be questioned, certainly these early periods of national independence constitute a period of national development, indicated by the making of three constitutions, a general election and the drafting of a new constitution by the constitutional board that resulted from the general election.

During the early independence period, signs of the emergence of the civil society were not yet discernible. But since the 1940s, an independent and critical press has gathered strength, books have been published, and universities have visibly grown and articulated the freedom of speech platform. From the universities have appeared scientific and intellectual figures who have been visible on the national level. In the 1950s, the student movement became very visible, whether from within or outside the universities. But what was most conspicuous at that time were the political parties, including such large organizations as Masyumi (Majlis Syuro Muslimin Indonesia), which wore the role of a modernist Muslim party; the NU (Nahdhatul Ulama), which represented traditional Muslims; the PM (Indonesian National Party), which represented the nationalist group; and the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party), which was led by the socialists. Also included were such small parties as the PSI (Indonesian Socialist Party), an umbrella organization for the social democratic groups; the Catholic Party and Parkindo (Indonesian Christian Party), which provided a place for the aspirations of Christians; and several other small parties.

The marketplace was also expanded by the small and middle economic actors. The backbone of the economy was foreign businesses, which were still able to give tax contributions to the country. Since 1959, however, large-scale nationalization was carried out. In the absence of large foreign companies (which had already been nationalized or had their activities removed), small businesses were able to grow in a guided economic system. Clearly, small businesses were able to make provisions for a civil society, although a part of them were supported by foreign funding, especially in Christian/Catholic circles. Religious organizations were still able to maintain religious and national foundations, which became party supporters at the grass-roots level.

Under the protection of a guided democracy and economic system, the nation was able to be self-reliant. Under the leadership of national state owned enterprises and cooperatives, a socialist economy was attempted. Although the country strongly suppressed the life of civil society which flourished in the period of liberal democracy, the civil organizations were able to exhibit their vitality under the pressure of guided democracy. 

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