Johannesburg Summit: Rethinking old practices

The Jakarta Post, 26 August 2002 – EDITORIAL & OPINION

by Yanuar Nugroho

The World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) will start in Johannesburg on Aug. 26 and end on Sept. 6. The summit is hoped to be able to make major corrections towards the way development has been taking place — at least after the Rio Summit.

The preparatory talks or PrepComIV held in Bali, the final stop before Johannesburg, was considered to have failed to address some important issues. It seems that we are forced to believe that there is only one way the development of our world should be conducted.

It is this development that worships growth and whatever means are used to achieve it, that fools the mainstream of the definition of valuable, a life-style of capital gain and financial reward. This does not apply only to private lives and advancement but also to public life and governance which tend to marginalize those who are considered not able to bring about growth — it happens almost everywhere in the world, including Indonesia.

Recently, 40 peasants, representing 244 families, were fighting for their right to their “promised land” before they were moved under the PIR-Trans (People’s Plantation Program and Transmigration) in West Kalimantan. In order to announce their fight, assisted by the Advocacy Service for Justice and Peace (PADMA), they camped for more than 10 days in the front-yard of the Agriculture Department in Jakarta (Kompas Daily, Aug. 1 2002).

They had been told seven years earlier that each family would get two hectares of land and could become small sub-contractors for the palm plantations managed by PT. Antar Mustika Segara (AMS) and the Benoa Indah business group. They are still waiting. And they are not the only ones.

There are 3,938 families being neglected by PT. Polipant Sejahtera in similar circumstances and in total there are nearly 21,000 deprived peasants of the PIR-Trans program in West Kalimantan being mistreated and ignored. How can we understand this situation, let alone take any action?

It seems that the concept of our shared-life has to be renewed. Taking the recent conditions of the “shared-life” into account should be appropriately accompanied by a careful examination of the concept of power. Why? Because, issues like sustainable development and eviction of the marginalized assumes the existence of power in our “shared life” called society. What should be in mind?

First, in fact, the center of power in society is not single or monolithic. The assumption that power lies only in the hands of the state apparatus is no longer acceptable. In the existing structure of political economy, for instance, business society is many times more powerful than local government.

Here lies the issue of globalization and economic power as the proof. Unless the remarkable economic power is taken into consideration as a shaping force of society, the discussion on globalization — as it would color Johannesburg’s summit — or recklessly neglecting the lives of the marginalized — as it happens with the PIR-Trans’ case — makes little sense.

Second, the notion of “democracy” seems to be based too much on the democratic and accountable exercise of state power. This account shows that what is absent from this notion is the status of economic power. In this term, the “neo-liberalism” is then defined as the uncontrollable economic power seeking profit in any area of the market system.

It is therefore emerging into the concern to espouse the extension of the democratic criteria to some other centers of power in society. In particular, if we talk about the dark side of neo-liberalism, we cannot but also touch upon the issue of economic power, or more practically, business power. And here comes the not so black-and-white arena of ethics.

Now, it might be confronted by the question of “how to democratize business power”. Then, when people talk about democracy, what they (or we) have in mind is usually the parliamentary character, in the form of many representative bodies (DPR, MPR, Union, etc). And any discussion on this issue is likely to hit a wall because we are all captured by the traditional concept of “democracy”, i.e. democratizing the state power and governance. So, we have to go beyond this: democratizing the economic and business powers.

Surely it demands imagination to translate this vision into a series of concrete steps. What seems clear is that “power” is elusive, and the nature of uncontrolled power to be held accountable shifts as historical contingency. The target is now balancing three societal forces, i.e. public agency, community and market. Thus, in this light, it also becomes clear, that the concept of “civil society” is not “anti-state”, but anti any “unaccountable exercise of power” regardless of whether it is practiced by public agencies (state apparatus, military bodies, monitoring groups, etc), communities (religion, ethnic, primordialistic groups) or market (corporations, business, TNCs, MNCs).

Where does rethinking business power lead? Formulating the idea and delivering it to those groups which have access to promote changes in society, the concern is to cultivate several possibilities of preliminary steps to change the paradigm of democratization and civil society empowerment.

Then, at a practical level — in the light of this new paradigm of power — some creative, collaborative work might eventuate. For example, by forming, expanding and intensifying watchdog organizations and networks for monitoring any power abuses, especially by state and business powers in the issue of regional autonomy, expanding and intensifying the unionization of laborers, but now with a new agenda of linking them with local communities within which the workers are situated.

The other possibilities are pushing the DPR (parliament) at all levels (central, province, district) to have a committee for monitoring business malpractice — within the context of decentralization — with close cooperation with watchdog organizations specializing in business malpractices.

Last but not least, there is urgency in NGO’s activities for combining the “negative logic” (i.e. advocacy logic) with a “positive logic” (i.e. developmentalist logic). It is here that the “advocacy logic” meets with the “developmentalist agenda”. The term “developmentalist” may arouse suspicion, but its substance is simply to do real organizing of the production of daily needs of people at the most practical levels (say, networking for the marketing of organic farming, fair-trading, “green” business, etc.).

Also, by encouraging those groups who have access to written communication and writing, to publish their reflections and analyses on the issue of poly-centrists of power, their (un)accountability to the public, their virtues and vices in relation to the welfare of the local population, and the like.

Therefore, it is clear that the “new paradigm” (if it can be called as such) is so moderate, not anti-market, not anti-power, not anti-business. It is also clear that it is not blindly anti-government. It is only a foregone view to apply the democratic criteria to the new power centers in society. And in terms of logic, the existing excuse for excluding the criteria to business powers has no solid ground.

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