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Indonesia’s pressing matter of people


AUGUST 27, 1992

Indonesia’s pressing matter of people

By Ashali Varma

In the year 1998 world population, currently 5.4 billion, is expected to reach 6 billion.   Nearly all of this population growth will be in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  If the present trend continues, by the year 2000 the livelihoods of an estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide will be affected by desertification.  The pressures of an ever increasing population will result in acute shortages of food, water, and arable land.

In June 1989, President Soeharto of Indonesia received the United Nations Population Award—a high honor that acknowledged his extraordinary efforts to bring down Indonesia’s birth rate and promote sustainable development.

Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago and consists of more than 17,000 islands.  It is nearly three times the size of Texas, and with a population of 187 million, Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world.

Two decades ago, the government decided, in the words of President Soeharto that the population situation “should not be allowed to last because, under such conditions our population will become a great burden and constraint instead of a potential asset for national development”.  He said that, in dealing with population issues, a government leader’s efforts – even those of a popular leader backed by the entire government – have little significance without the participation of the people. 

The government of Indonesia decided to involve the people in the decision making process.  However, it was a decision that required an enormous commitment, not only from the government but also from community and religious leaders.  In a country that is almost 90 percent Muslim, it meant changing the very fabric of centuries of belief.

To reach out to the people the government first had to accept that they had a major population problem on their hands, one that threatened to impede Indonesia’s social and economic development.  As early as 1967 President Soeharto signed the population declaration and took steps to develop a national population policy.  The most important factor was political commitment.

During the early years, the thrust of the program was to expand awareness and understanding of family planning.  A corps of family planning field workers was created to provide information and introduce family planning services on a door-to-door basis. Community and religious leaders were consulted and made to realize how critical the problem was and how it would effect the future of the country.  They asked to formulate culturally appropriate family planning policies and strategies.

In a country, where for generations it was believed that a large family was an especially blessed family, it would take every effort to convince the people otherwise.  In traditional agricultural communities, children provide help in the fields, the kitchen and take care of parents when they grow old. It would have been unthinkable for them to view an extra child as a burden or even conceive the idea that too many children impose a burden on the entire nation, and deprive them of a better life.  It became clear that without common understanding, and changing attitudes, population programs could never succeed regardless of how much money was to put into them. 

To reach the people, the government undertook a campaign to provide intensive information, motivation, and education to many institutions, and community groups.  These organizations then became active in local management of the program.  In Java and Bali alone, this task took an army of 8,000 field —workers to provide information and introduce family planning services on a door-to-door basis. 

To succeed in their efforts the government and community leaders realized that they would have to attend to the socio-economic needs of the people as well. Family welfare, child care, and nutrition improvement activities were integrated into the family planning program.  Since a smaller family does not provide immediate tangible benefits, incentive system and awards were instituted.  Co-operatives, small scale industries where wives could work, and improved agricultural methods were introduced to increase family income.

Other incentives included gifts of high yielding rice and coconut seedlings.  The President also started a “Supersemar” educational scholarship for bright children from poor families.  A polite project to make credit available to rural women was also launched.  This helped to increase their income from food processing, trading and handicraft production.

Though community groups and women’s clubs not only were family planning goals achieved but income generation activities were encouraged and helped.  The incentives of income generation helped to enlist scores of younger families into the benefits of family planning. 

According to Dr. Haryono Suyono, chairman of the Indonesian National Family Planning Coordinating Board, programs such as income generation show people that they can influence their own future.  Increased prosperity will also work to cut fertility.  Eventually, the people themselves will carry out the programs, with less involvement from the government.

Today, 95 percent of all Indonesian women know about modern contraceptives methods and more than 48 percent of eligible couples are using family planning.  The crude birth rate has fallen from 44 per 1,000 in 1969 to 28 per 1,000 in 1990. 

Indonesia’s success can be a modern for most developing countries.  It shows that family planning can be achieved without coercion.  It requires a strong political commitment and the will of the people to participate in decisions that effect their lives and their children’s future.