A Discussion with Trihadi Saptoadi, Director, World Vision Indonesia
Background: This discussion took place as part of preparations for a consultation on faith and development in Southeast Asia, held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on December 14-15, 2009. The consultation was an endeavor of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, with support from the Luce Foundation, and the University of Cambodia. Its aim was to take stock of the wide range of ongoing work by different organizations that are, in varying ways, inspired by religious faith, but more important, to explore the policy implications that emerge from their interactions with development organizations.The interview was conducted by telephone between Trihadi Saptoadi and Michael Bodakowski. Trihadi Saptoadi, Country Director for World Vision Indonesia, works on long term development initiatives in Indonesia, with the perspective of a Christian organization. In this interview he describes World Vision's work and approach in Indonesia and reflects on the challenges facing Indonesia and the role that religion does and could play in its development challenge. He reflects on humanitarian responses and their impact (particularly in Aceh), longer term development paths, and the challenges of working as a Christian organization in the most populous Muslim country in the world.
Interview Conducted on November 11, 2009
Can you tell us about your journey to your present position, and how you were inspired to do the work you are doing?
My educational background is in international management and industrial engineering. However, I have been with World Vision (WV) and working in the humanitarian field for 23 years.
I joined WV in Indonesia, where I worked for nine years, then I moved to China and helped WV China to initiate community based and child focused development programs. After two years in China, WV assigned me to Laos as national director for three years. I was then relocated to Nepal, during the time of conflict and worked there for four years, 2000-2005. In Nepal I did a lot of work in conflict areas, and had to work closely with both sides to make sure that our programs, including food aid and emergency response, could reach the poor. In 2005, I moved to the World Vision Global Center in Monrovia, California for 18 months where I joined the WV organizational development program focusing on Strategy and Governance. Most recently, three years ago, I moved back to my home county of Indonesia to serve as national director.
What has been your experience of returning to work in your home country after so many years?
From a personal point of view, it is really great; my wife and my daughters are very happy to be back home after ten years of working abroad. Working outside your country gives you a global perspective in the way you view things, especially in humanitarian or development work. I look at Indonesia with a fresh view. I have a different perspective, especially now knowing many similarities and differences faced by the countries and people I worked with. Working in Nepal and China, I had to learn new cultures and religions. I saw that spirituality, regardless if they are Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim, really affects the way people live. I hope that now being back in Indonesia, I can use this experience to build relationships and work with people of other faiths.
There are many challenges in global development, especially on how to connect global issues to the local context, including, for example, both climate change and the food crisis. I just came back from Berlin two days ago where I participated in the Global Perspective Forum hosted by the Berlin Civil Society Center. In the Forum, International NGO leaders discussed global crises, including climate change. It was a really great opportunity to learn from many other global civil society and NGO leaders.
Indonesia is in the process of significant change both politically and economically. As we are now a member of the G20, it is interesting to see how Indonesia, like India, Brazil, or China, will take a global leadership role even while millions of its people live with less than a dollar a day. On the climate change issue, we are part of the problem due to our deforestation, which has been happening since Suharto. Nonetheless, we believe that we can be part of the solution as well.
As we have the largest Muslim population in the world, it is our challenge to convey our message to the world and assure them that our Islam can walk hand in hand with our democratic system.
Can you give us a brief overview of the work that you do with World Vision Indonesia, and why you focus on those specific areas of work within the Indonesian context?
World Vision has been working in Indonesia for 50 years now, and we continue our focus on children. We work with the community on long term development projects to improve the life and well-being of the children. We integrate development, relief and advocacy in our work to maximize impact. We also build capacity on emergency disaster response, and work on disaster risk reduction, integrating it into our long term development.
Why do we focus on children? We believe that the well-being of children is the best indicator for of good development; and they are our future, too. We put a lot of emphasis on maternal and child health, especially nutrition. We are concerned that Indonesia may not be able to meet the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Malnutrition rates are still very high in Indonesia. We need to put more attention and resources in the areas of water and sanitation, hygiene, maternal and child health, and of course food security.
The second area we focus on is education. If we look at Indonesia’s ranking on the Human Development Index, it is very low. One of the root causes of the low rating is that child education is not given proper attention. We struggle with the accessibility to and quality of education. In rural areas (including many places where World Vision works), we can easily find schools with 6 classes and only one or two teachers. How can one teacher handle over 200 students? That is very common in the areas where we work. However, it is not only the lack of teachers, but also the teaching methodology and infrastructure. We work closely with local government to address these issues. I don’t think the teaching methods utilized in many primary schools have been empowering children. It is one way communication, i.e., teachers are talking and children are just listening. Besides enhancing teacher capacity and teaching methods, we focus on strengthening the management of the schools, and also how the community can be empowered to take responsibility for its own development and being a good partner to its school. The community can hold the school management and teachers accountable and ensure that quality education is a priority.
In addition to education, we are working on HIV/AIDS, specifically on prevention and education in urban areas, and also in Papua province where the prevalence rate is high in comparison to many other provinces in Indonesia. We also do a lot of economic development and micro finance. Economic development is crucial because it is necessary for the sustainability of development.
Today, WV Indonesia employs 965 staff, working in 9 provinces, in 42 districts on long-term area development programs and sector projects. Our current annual budget now is US$ 24 million, including funding for disaster response in West Java and West Sumatra. WV Indonesia supports and works with its local partner, Yayasan Wahana Visi Indonesia, to do local fundraising, and our local funding has grown significantly over the last three years as many Indonesians have increased giving awareness to help others in need. World Vision believes that our future resources should be raised both globally and locally.
What is the most challenging part of working in Indonesia, especially as a Christian organization in the most populous Muslim country in the world?
Indonesia has a population of 235 million and 90 percent of them are Muslims. I think there is always a struggle. As a Christian organization, we are often seen as either a church or missionary organization instead of being a Christian humanitarian agency, and this sometimes creates tension. It raises a lot of suspicion and many questions. We are therefore always open about our Christian identity; we never hide it. Since we work in communities for long-term transformational development, it is imperative for us to build trust before we work with a community. Before we start our work we spend a long time working and talking with the communities to build trust with all the leaders & religious, ethnic, government, and informal leaders. We let them know our identity as a Christian organization, and our clear position and policy that we neither do proselytizing nor work with organizations and individuals that do proselytizing. We will not use our resources or money to proselytize people with whom we work. Our mission clearly mentions that we work with the poor and oppressed regardless of their religion, ethnicity, race and gender. Yes, we are motivated by our Christian values and calling. We do what we do because we follow Jesus Christ’s message to love and care for our neighbors, and that is why we work with other faiths as well.
Overall, our programs are about children, and children should be our shared vision. We should work together regardless of our religion or faith. Once we have built trust and transparency about who we are and what we do, we have been able to build strong, close relationships with the communities, as well as strong respect for each other. We have been working in many places in Indonesia for a long time with people/communities of different religions or faiths, and while we continue facing some tensions and suspicions on occasion, there is generally very high acceptance and support from the community.
The most difficult circumstance is when we respond to a disaster in an area where we have never worked before. It is a challenge to build trust in a very short time we need to respond to immediate needs. Our emergency responses following the West Java and West Sumatra earthquake recently highlights this experience. When we openly informed communities that we are a Christian organization, some of community members and leaders were not comfortable to work with us as they have seen some Christian organizations engaged in activities that they perceived as proselytism. In this case, it’s really important to have partners and build trust with diverse faith-based organizations. For instance, we have established a consortium, called the Humanitarian Forum. Its members come from different faith-based organizations, including Muhammadiyah. This consortium and partner later helped us to clarify and give assurance on our intent to the communities and leaders. Being clear about our identity, spending time to build trust, and allowing the community to work closely with us so they know that we have no hidden agenda, are all very important in humanitarian work and in working in a multi-religious context.
However, faith-based humanitarian agencies are facing a growing problem, i.e., radicalism. The position of these groups is very clear - that they do not want to engage with people or organizations of different faiths. They use the internet and other media outlets to accuse both moderate Muslim and Christians of wrongs. How can we bridge that gap? Our humanitarian and social development work should be sensitive to this reality and have as an intention to bridge the divide across faiths/religions. It is not only a theological conversation, but it is also a social conversation.
How has faith-inspired your work?
I was born in Bali and grew up in East Java, where many of my relatives were people with other faiths; Islam and Hindu. I grew up in a Christian family with Christian values, but at the same time engaged daily with my Muslim relatives and neighbors. I have grown up with a high respect to the spirituality and faith of my Muslim brothers and sisters.
One important part of World Vision that I like is that we are doing good, grassroot social development work. When I joined WV, I did not join WV because of its Christian identity but because of the good work WV has been doing, including the work I have seen in my home village in East Java when I was kid.
I love working with WV as I can see and witness how Christian teachings are being put into action through social development work. We use our resources and skills to do development work and make a difference in the life of many poor children. Our Christian values emphasize how faith and action should go together. It’s the best job when you are paid to act on your faith. Sharing my faith with others through my works requires sensitivity and a deep understanding of my own spirituality and humanitarian ethics. As we are in a position to help others, we found ourselves walking a fine line and could easily end up on the side of proselytizing. We must be careful not to use our resources, influence, and power to coerce the poor and people of other faiths.
On the other hand, our faith and Christian calling will always remind me that the only reason I do this humanitarian work is because of my faith; to follow Jesus Christ in loving our neighbors. Not more and not less. This will sustain my commitment and compassion to the poor. It’s important for me to share my motivation for doing the work I do.
I don’t think we can separate faith and development. Many people, especially in this part of the world, do what they do because of the faith that they believe in. In my many engagements with people and communities, whether Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, I found that people respect you more when they find that you have and practice your faith, and are not apologetic about it. If we fail to understand a peoples’ spirituality and faith, we put development in a vacuum. People have a spiritual dimension and their understanding on faith and spirituality create their world view and guide their behaviors. Having been working in the development field for more than twenty years, I have seen that understanding (or misunderstanding) of faith and spirituality can be part of the problem, but part of the solution as well.
It is very interesting that you seem to use Christianity as a tool to help you understand other religions, looking for the commonalities.
Actually, you will be surprised to find out how much common ground we actually have. I am on a supervisory board of an Association for Community Empowerment, a network of the 25 largest NGOs in Indonesia; some of them being faith-inspired organizations such as Muhammadiyah, Muslimat Nahdlatul Ulama, Perdaki, etc. We plan to have an interfaith workshop or conference, and therefore I am very excited to come to Cambodia, to see how interfaith dialogue can work. We would like to see how interfaith dialogue works to build common ground to do good humanitarian work together. Poverty alleviation and community empowerment are areas that we can work on together, not just dialogue for the sake of dialogue. We have too many interfaith dialogues in Indonesia, and we want to move forward to do real action on the ground here. We really would like see more interfaith work in action. Hopefully, we can get supporters for this initiative.
There is a widening of radicalism or extremism in all religions, not just Islam. I saw Christian organizations working in disaster areas that often were not sensitive to the on the ground reality of working in a multi-religious context or in engaging with people of other faiths. We need to address radicalism in any religion. There are many moderate Muslims and Christians that are working together for social development, and I can see how much common ground we have.
I believe development work is a good place to start to build interfaith relationships. When you do development and humanitarian work, your focus is on the poor and the people that you work with. For example, when World Vision partners with Islamic organizations, we do not see each other as an entity with different religions, but rather groups that share a common vision and collaboratively work together to make a difference in the lives of the poor. When we do development work, we open up an opportunity to build very good, strong interfaith relationships. When we have good interfaith relationships we can carry out effective development work.
We are exposed to different models or practices of interfaith work on development. But, it is always challenging because our understanding of other faiths and of our own is often very limited. Tensions and suspicions often arise due to misunderstandings and distrust on the intent and agenda of each other. Also, when we try to work across faiths, there are issues that can be very sensitive and hard to understand, especially on how different faiths deal with social issues. Condom use is a good example. But, if we can reach a common building block, we can make a big difference. Currently we work closely with other faith-inspired organizations including Muslim organizations on HIV/AIDS prevention to use scripture and religious teachings to address stigmatization. There is a lot of ground work to be done to build trust and respect, and to engage in healthy dialogue without being judgmental to different teachings and beliefs.
Indonesia felt the brunt of the tsunami in 2004, the largest human catastrophe of our time. What is the legacy of this on Indonesian society, and how has religion played a role in the response?
You are right. It was the biggest humanitarian catastrophe and in fact the biggest military humanitarian operation since WWII. The tsunami has brought peace to Aceh. For many years the government of Indonesia used coercion and military approaches to suppress the Aceh independent movement. By introducing Islamic Sharia Law in Aceh, the government expected to gain support of the Aceh people and to undermine the independence movement. However, it was very obvious that the Aceh independence movement was about justice, not about religion. Yes, they may use a religious symbol as Acehnese are people with strong faith. But, they fought the war for independence because they felt they were marginalized by the central government, the government they supported since Indonesian independence in 1945. The tsunami changed everything. After a disaster of such magnitude, all sides took a huge step and came to the negotiation table. The central government pulled out its strong military presence from Aceh, right after the military did outstanding work in emergency response. At the same time the Aceh independence movement agreed to come to the table for peace talks.
When the earthquake and tsunami hit Aceh, the response from the global community was remarkable. All governments around the world showed generosity and sympathy to Aceh. The number of INGOs came to Aceh may be the highest compared to any disasters in history. Many faith-inspired organizations responded with genuine sympathy and were part of this huge humanitarian response.
Aceh which has been closed for many years due to the conflict suddenly opened to the international community. Not surprisingly, we witnessed many tensions and suspicions due to clashes or misunderstandings around culture, religion, and tradition. Moreover, with a high number of agencies responding with different approaches and styles, it also brought complexity and confusion in this huge humanitarian effort. This included many Christian organizations that brought their own approach, and often a lack of understanding of the humanitarian code of conduct and different levels of accountability and transparency.
With all those challenges, it’s amazing to see how Aceh, with support from global community, has successfully rebuilt its society and infrastructure. The tsunami response has borne witness to the generosity and the best side of humanity of people from all over the world and it is rooted in our deep spiritual and faith to love others and care for people in need. I also witnessed the resilience of the Acehnese people as they faced two “disasters” in their life, i.e., long-term conflict and the tsunami. They drew on their strong faith, not only to survive but to rebuild their lives. Besides the peace process, there is lots of other good news from Aceh. They had fair general election in which the independent movement got a lot of public support is now governing Aceh. There is a growing civil society, increasing roles of women, and improved gender equality in Aceh. For example, since the tsunami, women can inherit land and its ownership.
However, there is also some bad news. The sitting duck parliament which consisted of members from political parties who lost the election this year approved legislation that imposed more stringent Sharia law, only two month before they left office. This included introducing stoning as a punishment to adulterers. This law generated public outcry and opposition from civil society, NGOs, moderate religious leaders, woman activists, and the central government as it is considered unconstitutional. The governor rejected to sign-off on the bill and the newly elected parliament members are considering whether to scrap the bill entirely. However, a potential conflict may arise at the grassroots level as the bill does have some supporters as well.
Where do you see development in Indonesia in the next 20 years? What role do you see religion playing in it?
Religion will continue to struggle to find its appropriate role within society and state, and the relationship between the two. As Indonesian democracy is growing and moving towards a more secular state, there is a concern that our spirituality and faith is becoming less relevant and will be contained in the private realm. On the other hand, we do see growing radicalism and extremism that often uses violence to force its beliefs onto society. We need more political and civil society leaders who are well understand and are able to engage with and advocate on this issue. Leaders like Nurcholish Madjid and Gus Dur took strong leadership roles in the past.
The other thing we continue to struggle with is rampant corruption. It is the biggest issue in Indonesia and it is one of the root causes of our failures to alleviate poverty. Young people have lost trust in their leaders and if it is not addressed soon, there is a reason to worry that people may lose trust to our democracy.
Corruption combined with radicalism would be the bad news for our development as a nation. Our civil society is still fragile after Suharto’s long authoritarian rule. Our political parties, the pillar for our democracy, are still in a learning curve and the public perceives them as corrupt too. In the last three democratic general elections in 1999, 2004, and 2009 which were very peaceful, we witnessed that the people are ready and mature enough for democracy, but not our political and state leaders and institutions. However, we do see effective reform within military institutions. We also see greater transparency and accountability in some government institutions and district level governments as well. We have to sustain and continue to be vigilant to guard our democratic process.
Poverty continues as our top priority. As we have experienced the euphoria of democracy and reformation, we have seen that we are not getting better in tackling poverty. In fact, many believe that we have become less effective. Though our current President SBY won the election by a landslide, the public perceived that the previous government did not do enough for poverty alleviation. Now is his last chance to make a difference in the life of the poor. Otherwise he will have no legacy in the history of Indonesia. While he is coming from a nationalist religious party, many civil society leaders have not yet see him decisive enough to address radicalism in Indonesia.
Therefore, our ability to build good governance and a healthy, dynamic civil society dictate our ability to address the development challenges we face.