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Jakarta Post

Social capital in a pandemic: The case of Yogyakarta

  • Dharendra Wardhana


Jakarta   /   Wed, October 14, 2020   /   08:09 am
Social capital in a pandemic: The case of Yogyakarta A waiter wearing a face shield and a mask hands takeaway food to a man at a restaurant in Jakarta in September 2020. (REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana)

When the government declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national disaster and decided to restrict public mobility in mid-April, I was stranded in Yogyakarta and worked from home for a good three months. 

While struggling to juggle working hours with domestic chores, I managed to observe a neighborhood initiative called canthelan (Javanese for hook) and a community-based WhatsApp group called sonjo. Interestingly, they share similar features i.e. gaining widespread popularity, having philanthropic characteristics and clear sense of solidarity.

The former displays the value of mutual help in the form of sharing household staple goods. Canthelan is a social movement in which people hang things up in public spaces for those in need to pick up freely.

At the beginning, most people gave away produce, such as rice, instant noodles, vegetables, spices, eggs and other essential daily food ingredients. In the second week, some nonfood products like detergent and soap were on display. Today, people sometimes also offer seeds and fertilizer in canthelan to encourage local farming. 

Only a few canthelan communities are managed professionally, while the majority of the initiatives rely on volunteers’ spare time and resources.

Local people also displayed their solidarity through the sonjo online movement. Taken from colloquial Javanese, sonjo is loosely translated as “friendly gathering in a cozy atmosphere,” which embodies notions of solidarity, care and collective values.

This movement manifested in an online platform to bring together buyers and sellers. Initiated by a small band of lecturers from the School of Economics and Business at Gadjah Mada University, it has since proliferated from a single WhatsApp group into seven sub-groups discussing specific topics pertaining to COVID-19-related procurement of rapid test kits, building swab sampling chambers, distributing personal protective equipment to health facilities and devising special programs for people with disabilities. 

Furthermore, sonjo now extends its application interface to various other platforms like Google Sheets, a dedicated website, a mobile application and social media outlets, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. From its inception, sonjo has been garnering attention not only from academics but also social activists and is being discussed thoroughly in webinars.

Both initiatives, albeit different in nature, point toward a similar objective: To provide a cushion for mitigating adverse impacts of COVID-19 on society. While canthelan seemingly works in a traditional way, sonjo actually also underscores the long-held norm of gotong royong (helping one another). At the outset, canthelan is simply a way of sharing, while sonjo has two goals: To provide a virtual market space and to ensure physical distancing through the use of delivery services. 

Testimonials from sonjo users indicate positive outcomes; local entrepreneurs and farmers who were previously unable to sell their products to their regular off-takers due to the collapsing hospitality business (hotels, restaurants and cafes) now manage to find new customers and maintain their business. In a similar vein, the canthelan practice has been replicated in other provinces, involving more volunteers from various backgrounds. 

While the local initiatives have since been replicated elsewhere, thanks to the nationwide networks of the participants, such as Kagama (alumni group of Gadjah Mada University), no since case of moral hazard or unintended consequences has been reported.

Those who are familiar with Indonesia socioeconomic indicators will consider the quality of life in Yogyakarta close to ideal. Positive progress reflects in increasing readings in indicators like the human development index, longevity and satisfaction scores. 

Yet, many will be surprised to learn that inequality in the province has been the highest in Indonesia for the last three years. Unfortunately, however, there is a paucity on research explaining this phenomenon. 

A brief study and short statements from local officials imply that one possible cause of this highly unequal income distribution is the rapid gentrification of rural areas — most prominently due to massive development of apartment buildings, shopping malls and hotels — which leads to dynamic changes of rural-urban status. 

Villages in close proximity to cities tend to gradually assimilate to urban characteristics, even though in the official administrative delineation they are still categorized as villages. Local officials refer to these as urban villages. 

The urban-village category is simply described as a transitory status between urban and rural. Meanwhile, rural villages lie in rural areas with less development and no significant gentrification. According to local sources, the number of urban villages keeps increasing and may someday outnumber rural villages.

In the context of high inequality and against the backdrop of lying in a disaster-prone region, Yogyakarta might be susceptible to conflict, but on the contrary, the province has seemingly been perceived as the safest in Java. In the aftermath of the massive earthquake of 2006, the community showed resilience and managed to recover quickly. Probably, it is the local social capital and its manifestations that support the society and defuse conflicts during difficult times. 

Fears about rising crime rates amid COVID-19 might have been contained by the “social cushion”. Perhaps, most people in Yogyakarta still embrace the vintage Javanese concept of pager mangkok (bowl fence), which teaches that, instead of building a tall fence to protect our house, it is more important for us to share food (and other resources) with neighbors in order to create social cohesion, which ultimately leads to security in a broader sense.

Indeed, social cushion initiatives like canthelan and sonjo convey an important message that defuses the risk of conflict. They provide a reference point for further studies revolving around social capital, philanthropy and social hazard mitigation, particularly within the context of developing countries.


-- The writer is a staff member at the National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) with a PhD in development studies from King’s College London. This is his personal view.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.