Opinion: Eradicating Poverty by Improving Education

Indonesia is the largest Southeast Asian economy with a GDP of 4.8 percent of real growth for the months of April to June in 2016. This was the strongest growth in ten quarters, surprising economists. Poverty went down by 2.11 percent in 2016, still leaving over 10 percent of the population in dire poverty.

The Wall Street Journal featured the claim, “President Widodo finally showing himself to be much cleverer than his detractors expected.” Elected as a “vessel of hope to build a tolerant and prosperous country” with his ‘bottom up’ economic reforms, the president spent his first year careening from one preventable crisis to another. He began learning the intricacies of politics at the top level.

However, unemployment is rising and low-income wages have not risen to meet basic needs. Rising Islamic violence, the growing intolerance against the LGBT community and overall intolerance that rose by 30 percent in the first year of Jokowi’s administration have largely damaged Indonesia’s reputation as a tolerant Muslim country. This is an important factor in a nation that is in need of more private sector and foreign investment to grow economically and sustain that growth.

Jokowi has great instincts and principles on economic policy making, but he is unable to pursue them aggressively enough. The economy remains unfair to ordinary Indonesians who pay so much for basic staples. The argument can be made that this is a problem globally, and not just in the archipelago.

But Indonesia has made strides thanks to economic growth and concentrated poverty alleviation legislation. Poverty has been reduced by more than 50 percent since 1999. Between 2006 and 2013, 10 million citizens climbed out of poverty, according to the Association for the International Exchange of Students in Economics and Commerce (AIESEC).

By global definition, there remains a high percentage of Indonesians living in ‘near poverty.’ These people are in danger of falling into real poverty in the event of an economic downturn or natural disaster. The Central Government invests US$30 million per year into five major poverty-reduction programmes.

It’s no stretch of the imagination to say that the greatest tool to eradicate poverty is education. However, in Indonesia it is not that simple. Severe fundamental problems stand in the way. The Sampoerna Foundation names the causes of poverty in the archipelago as corruption, centralized government and a severe lack of access to education in rural areas.

The foundation cites three major obstacles to eliminating the cycle of poverty in developing nations. The first obstacle is a cultural characteristic, whereby the poor adapt and simply accept being poor. This mindset creates an unbroken cycle of poverty. The second is the ‘poverty’ label put in place by a dominant culture. This causes the poor to lose their voice and be branded as a failed population segment. Lastly but not least, poverty restricts opportunity, plain and simple.

The poor lack social and economic capital. They lack the knowledge to negotiate and move up on the economic scale. Sampoerna concludes rightfully that the best way out of poverty is via education. It claims the government and the private sector must raise awareness and campaign concerning the importance of education. This would mean providing more access, setting up schools in remote areas, redistributing teachers and finally, allowing foreign volunteers and teachers to take part and expand education options across the nation.

Education is in crisis in Indonesia, achieving barely half the global target for early childhood education. Primary school enrolment has dropped and Indonesia is ranked 121 out of 185 countries in terms of education quality.

This is seen by many as an embarrassment in an emerging nation building a strong middle class. Graft and corruption and their influence on the educational infrastructure cannot be overstated. Diplomas and degrees can be easily purchased. Some medical personnel in Indonesia, including nurses and doctors, actually purchase their academic degrees without going to university. This is why well-off Indonesians and expats tend to go overseas for their medical treatments.

The early dropout rate is attributed to early marriages and the need to go to work. Bolivia and Peru, two poor countries, have excellent programmes where the students of poor families are paid for every day they attend school. If those countries can do it, so can Indonesia. That would take a great deal of integrity and leadership. USAID has the programme ‘Prestasi’ that selects the best and brightest professionals to get full scholarships for their master’s degrees, usually in the USA. More private sector organizations here should do that to alleviate the shortage of 100,000 teachers. Many teachers in Indonesia are also ill prepared, having bought their way through school.

Education in Indonesia is run by the Ministry of Education and Culture, with Islamic schools run by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. It is compulsory for all citizens to have nine years of education: six years of elementary and three years of secondary school. Indonesia has only 170,000 primary schools, 40,000 secondary schools and an alarming 26,000 high schools. Eighty-four percent are public and ‘free,’ 16 percent are religious and 7 percent are private. A problem with the education is how and what students learn. Schools emphasize rote learning (memorization) and deference to authority. Creative thinking and problem solving is virtually non-existent.

Utomo Dananjaya, educational expert at Paramadina, Jakarta, says Indonesia lags far behind other Asian countries in innovation and creativity because of the educational system failing to nurture creativity or reward innovation.

“Our education system heavily relies on memorizing texts. It doesn’t let the student’s ideas flow and thus dampens their creativity. Memorization is outdated. Teaching with no interaction cultivates students to simply be obedient and regurgitate what teachers tell them. It in no way encourages thinking outside the box. To prepare talented Indonesian youths to compete in the local market, what this nation needs is educational reform that strongly emphasizes reasoning and allows students to think critically, not simply memorize. Then they will be ready to work in a global environment.”

Education cannot be simplified by holding the central government responsible. Community involvement is as important as funding, according to studies by the US Department of Education. Programmes at the local level that have proven invaluable in the US are the PTA (parent/teacher association) and the senior mentoring programme where retired teachers or retirees work with students to catch up or learn new skills in after-school programmes.

Public schools in the US must offer curriculums online for those students who must be schooled at home due to location or disabilities or personal beliefs. This has proven to be highly successful, but this is in a country of mostly educated parents and community members.

All schools in Indonesia should offer access to English. Allow expats to volunteer, and there will be no shortage of English teachers.

The Indonesian government spent Rp.30.4 billion in 2016 on education. The problem is no one seems to know where the money is going. The innovation level in Indonesia is still low, even compared to African countries where innovation is rapidly growing.

The importance of innovative and critical thinking must be cultivated for the next generation of Indonesians to work successfully in a global environment. That takes a change of mindset. After years of subjugation and the deserved freedoms fought for with blood and courage, Indonesians can set greater goals and dreams for each citizen to strive for. Throw out the outdated caste and class systems with their rote learning and imagine another reality, where education feeds the spirit of creativity and innovation in a nation poised for change.

 

Featured Image via USAID Indonesia 

 

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