Tragedy in Asmat

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  • Sick children are treated by health workers at a hospital in Agats, Asmat District, after the government dispatched military and medical personnel to the remote region of Papua to combat malnutrition and measles, Indonesia January 22, 2018. A measles outbreak and a spike in cases of malnutrition in Indonesia's easternmost Papua province have killed at least 95 people, mostly indigenous children, highlighting severely inadequate health care in the impoverished region. Antara Foto/M Agung Rajasa

    Sick children are treated by health workers at a hospital in Agats, Asmat District, after the government dispatched military and medical personnel to the remote region of Papua to combat malnutrition and measles, Indonesia January 22, 2018. A measles outbreak and a spike in cases of malnutrition in Indonesia's easternmost Papua province have killed at least 95 people, mostly indigenous children, highlighting severely inadequate health care in the impoverished region. Antara Foto/M Agung Rajasa

    TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - What happened recently in Asmat, Papua, shows that pouring in massive amounts of state funds does not automatically improve the prosperity and health of the people. Many factors lead to distortions, from possible leaks to funds not reaching the right targets. It is as if the poor are only used as a reason to increase funding every year, but they never get to enjoy the benefits.

    The fact is that many children in Papua’s Asmat Regency are suffering from malnutrition and measles. Data gathered by the Tempo Investigation Team as of the beginning of February has revealed that at least 66 children have died from measles and six infants have died of malnutrition. There are 652 people suffering from measles, and 223 malnourished children in the regency.

    Although Asmat Regent Elisa Kambu lifted the ‘extraordinary incident’ status at the start of last week, the humanitarian problem is not yet over. The region’s human development index- calculated from the health, education and living standards indices- is still very low. According to 2016 figures from the Health Ministry, there are very few health facilities. The ratio of community health centers (puskesmas) per district in the province is only 0.7 percent, far below the national average of 1.6 percent. This means that not every regency in Papua has a puskesmas.

    President Joko Widodo should not be offended by harsh criticism over the Asmat. He overreacted when a ‘yellow card’ was awarded to him by Zaadit Taqwa, president of the University of Indonesia Executive Study Board at the commemoration of the university’s 68th anniversary a few weeks ago. President Jokowi should not have answered the criticism by challenging Zaadit and his friends to volunteer to travel to Papua to see the situation for themselves.

    Zaadit blew the whistle and held up a yellow file- like a referee in a soccer match- just after Jokowi gave a speech at the celebration on the UI campus. He was asking the government to act quickly and deal with the measles outbreak and malnutrition in Asmat. Criticism like this is fair in a democracy. The Asmat tragedy should not be viewed as merely a local problem, but rather as one of poor oversight over national budget allocations. 

    The Papua province receives almost Rp44.68 trillion per year, made up of general allocation, special allocation and special autonomy funds. This year, these three sources amount to Rp22.45 trillion, Rp1.8 trillion and Rp5.62 trillion, respectively. On top of funds transferred from the central government, there are village funds and funding from various ministries that go to Papua. The outpouring of funds over the last 15 years should have had an effect on people’s lives.

    But the reality is that the funding actually allocated for public health is not large. A 2010 audit by the Supreme Audit Agency (BPK) on the use of Papuan special autonomy funds found that the allocation for education and health was only 7.9 percent and 10.6 percent, respectively. This is despite the Special Autonomy Law clearly requiring that at least 30 percent of the income from oil and gas be allocated to education, and 15 percent to health and nutrition.

    The BPK needs to carry out another, more thorough audit of the special autonomy funds. An audit by the agency three years ago uncovered indications of embezzlement. Funding for healthcare in Papua that should have been used to improve nutrition and prevent disease was being used for activities such as workshops, and for administrative costs.

    At the end of last year, the Presidential Instruction No. 9/2017 was issued on the Acceleration of Welfare Improvements in Papua and West Papua. But this kind of makeshift policy will not address the root of the problem. The government should make sure that the special autonomy funds for the two provinces go to the right places, in line with the legal mandate.

    Many development activities and demarcation of regions in Papua only bring benefits to a tiny number of local elites. The theory that making more regencies and districts will improve public services has yet to be proven in Papua, as most of the funds are used to pay staff and to cover administration costs.

    President Jokowi should realize that mismanagement of funds can have negative consequences like those seen in Asmat. This gives the impression that this Republic is unable to save its children from famine and measles.

    Read the full article in this week's edition of Tempo English Magazine