Wealth, poverty and community

Tonight Indonesia is celebrating – fireworks, rhythms beaten out on oildrums in the back of pickup trucks, and prayers continually ringing out from mosques. It’s the end of the fasting month, when people from across Indonesia “pulang kampung” – literally, “return to one’s village.” (People have been asking me if I’m going to pulang kampung, and I answer that my kampung is very far, so I won’t be going just now.)

Over the last few days, roads, trains and buses have swollen with people for the yearly return home. Jakarta, the megacity, is quieter than I’ve ever seen it – this really is a huge exodus. Many years ago I saw a photo of a man being helped onto a bus heading home – it wasn’t possible to fit in through the door, so his friends lifted him up as though they were pallbearers, and passed him through an open window. Train stations are a sea of people.

Tomorrow people will visit friends and family, asking forgiveness for past wrongs, eating and drinking, but above all reconnecting.  This is a Muslim tradition, but people of other religions are often involved, being visited and sometimes visiting as well.

But like Christmas in my own home culture, this is a hard time for some. Many can’t afford to go home, especially if home is a thousand or two thousand kilometers away on a different island. Walking the relatively quiet streets, you see the people who have stayed behind – busy working and hoping to go home next year, or mentally ill or down and out.

It strikes me again that Indonesia is a rich country with many poor people. I think about the things that could help them. I don’t have the answers – but I maybe have a few ideas, and I know others have better ideas. Imagine if we all shared our ideas, in food production, health, children’s education, financial literacy programs and business, found the best of them and promoted these. Think what changes could come about.

Poverty in a rich country

I’m in Jakarta, and discussing the state of Indonesia (you know, solving the world’s problems after dinner). The most pertinent comment:

“This is not a poor country. It’s a rich country with lots of poor people.”

As in many other countries, there’s no sign of a major change in the distribution of wealth any time soon. So is there hope for the majority of Indonesians? Fortunately, yes. For one thing, economic conditions in absolute terms seems to be  picking up; and importantly, health and quality of life are not a simple matter of money. Kerala is a fascinating alternative model of development.

I’ve been spending time here since 1995, late in the Soeharto era, and I’ve seen many changes for the better, and a few big changes for the worse. I like to think of myself as a realistic optimistist – I know that things can and do go wrong, but it’s possible to choose a different path.