Linking Development from below to the International Environmental Movement: Sustainable Development and State-NGO Relations in Indonesia

By Riker, James V. | Journal of Business Administration, Annual 1994 | Go to article overview

Linking Development from below to the International Environmental Movement: Sustainable Development and State-NGO Relations in Indonesia


Riker, James V., Journal of Business Administration


In December 1986, two key officials within the Malaysian government labelled five indigenous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) "urban terrorists" and "thorns in the flesh" of the nation.(2) Ten months later, the Mahathir government detained without trial several NGO officials under the Internal Security Act.(3) Even though the NGOs involved were working on industrial pollution, forestry, and nuclear power issues, their leaders along with other groups in society were accused of creating political instability. All NGO officials were eventually released, but the crackdown has left an indelible impression on Malaysia's NGOs working on politically sensitive issues.

Meanwhile in the Philippines, after years of similar government repression and harassment of NGOs during the Marcos regime, NGOs have flourished following the People Power Revolution in the spring of 1986. Philippine NGOs have played an increasing role in shaping the political and development agendas by lobbying for policy changes, preparing national plans and manifestos and, most recently, endorsing political candidates who are committed to the issues of agrarian reform, people's empowerment, and sustainable development. Recognizing the vital developmental and democratizing functions played by the voluntary sector, former President Corazon Aquino announced her decision to work with Philippine NGOs upon leaving office to bring to fruition her vision of people-powered development.

These two cases highlight the political tensions arising over NGOs' efforts to expand their political space through greater participation in the political arena and government's efforts to restrict it by limiting the role of NGOs.(4) In both countries, NGOs have put forward demands which have emerged from the grassroots level of society and pushed them onto the political agenda at the national level. Yet the Malaysian government has sought to curtail NGOs' advocacy role in the development process, whereas the Philippine government has sought to tackle agrarian reform, pressing environmental problems, and rural poverty through joint government-NGO committees within a number of government ministries. These contrasting cases raise four key issues for many developing countries: how much political space do NGOs possess to participate in the development process within a polity? How does the state expand or limit that space? How can NGOs themselves act to expand their political space for participation in both the political and development processes? And, finally, on what issues will the state and NGOs wage battle, where the former seeks to co-opt and even repress the latter?

The dynamic tension between NGOs maneuvering for greater participation in the development and political processes and the state trying to curb NGO activities illustrates the shifting boundaries of political space. In Southeast Asia, the case of contemporary Indonesia best illustrates this tension. The prolific growth of indigenous NGOs in Indonesia during the 1980s has made them a key institutional actor in environmental and development politics. Since the mid-1980s, Indonesian NGOs have initiated an ongoing debate about the nature of environmental and development policy in Indonesia, and the role of the state's, NGOs' and people's participation in the development process. Indonesian NGOs have promoted development from below and have built linkages at the grassroots, regional (sub-national), national, and international levels in support of sustainable development. Indonesia's NGOs are putting pressure on the government not only domestically but through their linkages with international environmental groups in the United States, Europe, and most recently Japan. Indonesia's environmental NGOs have largely spearheaded these broader efforts to gain greater political space vis-a-vis the government. However, as Indonesian NGOs have gained greater political space in the late-1980s and early 1990s, the government of Indonesia has subjected them to greater scrutiny and taken a number of measures to limit their autonomy. …

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