Indonesia’s culture of corruption may hinder aid

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JAKARTA: As world governments prepare to channel hundreds of millions of aid dollars to the tsunami-ravaged regions of Aceh Province, Indonesia’s culture of corruption has emerged as a major concern.

The U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Lynn Pascoe, said Thursday that the “high level of corruption” in Indonesia was “a very serious problem.” He added that the Indonesian government had retained the American accounting firm Ernst & Young to audit the foreign aid being sent for the reconstruction.

A daylong seminar Wednesday on corruption here, a joint effort by the United Nations, the Indonesian government and a number of private nongovernmental groups, was welcomed by many as a first attempt to grapple with the problem.

The first speaker, a government minister, spoke about “Eliminating Corruption Within the Bureaucracy.” Then came the attorney general, who spoke about “Eliminating Corruption in the Attorney General’s Office,” then the chief of police, whose topic was “Eliminating Corruption Within the Police.” In the afternoon, it was time for the head of the Supreme Court, the minister of justice and the minister of finance to speak about “eliminating corruption” in their jurisdictions.

The corruption here starts at the top. On Jan. 6, Monsanto admitted to paying a bribe of $50,000 to a senior official in the Ministry of the Environment in exchange for dropping a requirement for an environmental impact statement. The company was fined $1 million by the U.S. Department of Justice.

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That a public official had been bribed by a foreign company surprises few here, if any. It is taken for granted that no one does business in Indonesia without paying bribes, routinely disguised as “consultants’ fees,” to government ministers and heads of agencies, many of whom have retired with hundreds of thousands of dollars stashed in accounts in Singapore and elsewhere.

Even before the tsunami, Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former army general who was elected in September, had promised a campaign against corruption, a promise met with hope but even more skepticism, given the entrenched nature of the problem, foremost in the military.

Yudhoyono has a reputation for being indecisive, but the deluge of aid has forced him to take action to assure donors that it will not be wasted. He is not placing any trust in his government agencies.

Rather, he has turned to a nongovernmental agency, Indonesia Corruption Watch, for help, asking the nonprofit group to set up a program for monitoring the aid to Aceh, said Luky Djani, who is heading up the Aceh project.

The problems will not surface immediately in the emergency relief phase, Djani said. Some food or other supplies might be siphoned off by a soldier or official, but that would be minor, he said.

The opportunities for serious theft will come in the rehabilitation and reconstruction phase, Djani said, which the government has said will cost about $3 billion. That will create many temptations in a country where there are no conflict-of-interest laws and government officials have long seen public office as a vehicle for private gain.

Djani said there were no mechanisms in place for ensuring that the needs were not inflated by government agencies, local and national, in order to get more money.

“We don’t even know how many refugees there are,” he said.

Djani said that the monitoring project would use volunteers as well as paid staff, and that he hoped to have 50 people working in Aceh.

Currently, he said, the project has only about $2,000 on hand and needs about $120,000 to finance the monitoring operations for two years. The Asia Foundation and nonprofit groups in the Netherlands and Belgium have offered financial assistance, he said.

Corruption in Indonesia is ingrained and systematic, Djani said.

For example, to obtain a driver’s license through the normal channels can take five months, which, he said, is how long he has been waiting. But, if you pay $20 or so, you join the express line and get it in one day.

Civil servants do not earn much, but the opportunities for money under the table are so great that people pay kickbacks to get government jobs. How much varies with the department. The most sought-after jobs, in the tax office in Jakarta, cost more than $500, he said.

But people consider the money well spent because they earn it back quickly, he said, with a snap of his fingers, usually in less than a year.

One must pay a bribe even to enter the police academy, and thousands of dollars to become an officer, Djani said.

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