Jakarta, Indonesia (part 1)

It has been almost five years now since I had the chance to travel to Jakarta, Indonesia as part of research I was doing at the time. With a small grant from my university, I was in Jakarta for three full weeks in April 2012, to do interviews with officials and planners at several large international development institutions on how exactly they viewed urban space in relation to development interventions; in other words, how can development aid be usefully employed in and for urban areas and people? I found this intriguing because I had for several years been studying development and humanitarian aid, looking at western institutions, especially those that are government agencies managing what is known as ‘official development assistance’, or ODA, popularly called foreign aid, and (in the US least) routinely unpopular with many voters, deficit hawks, and a variety of other political groups, usually but not always conservative. ODA is specifically economic or humanitarian aid, so things like food aid in the form of commodities or cash, long-term and low-interest loans to pay for infrastructure, training and technical programs for agricultural improvements and political governance, or disaster relief. (By contrast, military aid is typically separate in aid-authorizing legislation, and is much more overtly instrumental and ‘donor-centered’ in its use). Vigorous debate rages across the political spectrum on the efficacy of such aid and its influence in the political formations and decisions of states in what was once called the Third World, now usually referred to in shorthand version as the Global South. ODA agencies, like USAID or DfID or foreign affairs and development cooperation ministries in other western states, and increasingly new donors such as India, China, and Saudi Arabia, often use supply such aid in conjunction with implementing partners on the ground from the NGO sector and developing country state institutions. It is a complex network of institutions, ideas, and practices that makes up the international development sector, but historically most of this foreign aid was directed at rural areas in developing countries, targeting the improvement of food security and agricultural production. Urban interventions were not typical, and development institutions had difficulty conceptualizing urban areas as spaces where they might usefully plan and implement development projects. In most of the high-modernist and neoliberal approaches that have dominated much mainstream development thinking and practice in these institutions, cities were supposed to take care of themselves as development occurred,following the patterns of urbanization, industrialization, and economic growth first demonstrated by the west.

Thus I found myself in Jakarta in spring 2012, interviewing a range of development officials and policy experts at embassies and offices about how and why they worked in Jakarta; how they saw development in the city, in Indonesia more generally, and in global terms; and what these institutions could learn from each other and from the urban residents and spaces that were the objects of their development work. I had done some work on food security in Indonesia in previous years, but had never been there, relying only on reports from NGOs and government agencies. The research resulted in an article that took me longer than anticipated to write, reformulate, and find a good home for (eventually published in Development in Practice; email me if you’d like a copy), having been rejected by one journal but landing in another after I stripped it down and focused it more directly on the empirical details I gathered in my interviews, which were great, wide-ranging, and deeply informative. But it was also, I think, very important for me to be in the city, to see Jakarta firsthand, in undertaking the research. I could easily have relied on reports and phone calls and emails for this work, but being there in the city was a boon for my thinking on the topic of urbanization and development.

So what kind of place is Jakarta? I have often used this research experience as an example in the classroom in the last few years, but I most definitely do not want to present myself as an expert on the city or more generally on Indonesia after one 3-week trip there. I feel more an interloper in that respect than an ‘expert’, as much of the city was off-limits to me due to language (I don’t speak Bahasa Indonesia) and time constraints, and others are much more intensely engaged over a longer period with place, the people, and movements there (see the work of, for example, Tim Bunnell and AbdouMaliq Simone). So I am minimally aware of the many forces shaping this particular place, but three things remain for me as representative or at least pivotal moments that helped me get a sense of place that I can share with my students and others: (1) the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty in the built landscape or environment of the city; (2) the time I spent with Dr. Jo Santoso, a Jakarta-based urban planning professor with whom a colleague in Canada put me in touch; and (3) the immediate neighborhood in which my hotel was located, which was also the target of terrorist attacks in January 2o16.

I will deal with each of these themes in a separate post (or maybe in a couple of posts, if they run long) in the next week or so, so that I can discuss these themes in some depth without getting slotted into everyone’s “long reads” folder, which, you know, don’t always get read.