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Jakarta Post

Hunger can't wait

  • Editorial Board

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Sat, May 2, 2020   /   08:35 am
Hunger can't wait As the COVID-19 pandemic strikes the Indonesian economy, with almost 3 million people having lost their jobs and 70 million at risk of losing income because of physical distancing, many people, especially among the poor and informal workers, are worried about escaping not only from the disease but also from starvation. (Shutterstock/File)

A well-intentioned policy is nothing if it lacks sufficient preparation.

The social protection program to help millions of Indonesians hit by the COVID-19 pandemic has faced criticism and resistance from many quarters because of discrepancies in data about the aid and its beneficiaries.

In a recent viral video, several village heads in the West Java regency of Sukabumi demanded the government suspend aid distribution because the program had neither achieved its target nor arrived on time. Previously, the regent of East Bolaang Mongondow, North Sulawesi, Sehan Salim Landjar, openly criticized the central government for confusing regulations that he said had prevented him from distributing food to the needy.

The government has allocated Rp 110 trillion (US$7.23 billion) for social protection in the form of basic necessities or cash transfers targeting the poor and millions of others who have fallen into poverty or lost jobs in the wake of the pandemic. Other social protections include free electricity for households with 450 VA and 900 VA connections and tax cuts until the end of the year for those earning up to Rp 200 million annually.

But the distribution of social assistance has always been challenging for the government, particularly because data about who is in need is not up to date when the aid is actually delivered. As a result there are people in need who do not receive assistance simply because they are not on the list.

As part of the Family Hope Program (PKH) the Social Affairs Ministry has taken over data and record-keeping on poverty throughout the country. Regional social affairs agencies help with annual updates, but verification is still required at the top.

With so many people impacted by the COVID-19 economic shock, quick and accurate information about poverty in the nation is becoming more difficult to obtain than normal. People urgently need help, but officials in charge of social assistance risk criminal charges if the aid distribution does not follow particular rules.

In response to the mounting complaints, Social Affairs Minister Juliari Batubara said he would continue aid distribution while updating beneficiary data by asking for the help of neighborhood unit (RT) heads. While this attempt certainly makes sense, thorough verification is needed. In past experiences with social safety net programs, RT heads have registered their own families and people in their close circles on the list of recipients at the expense of others.

The government needs to handle the social protection program with extra care as an excess of flaws may lead to social unrest. As many have warned, hunger can lead to revolution.

Regency Administrations Association (Apkasi) chairman Abdullah Azwar Anas has advised the central government to give discretion to regional governments so that social assistance can be allocated to as many impoverished people as possible. If necessary, other institutions like state enterprises and private companies should extend aid to those not covered by the Social Affairs Ministry.

A good program should not fail only because of technicalities. The social safety net is currently a lifeline for millions.