Friday, January 23, 2009

Our starving children

Published in The Jakarta Post

Business and Investment - January 23, 2009

Jonatan Lassa, Bonn

Just recently, this newspaper reported 11 children died of acute malnutrition in Kupang, West Timor within just three weeks. Four of them were from an ex-East Timor refugee camp in Kupang district (The Jakarta Post, Jan. 15).

The story of the mortality of the 11 children was "fortunate" in being seized upon by the media both at the national and the provincial level. But this could be just the tip of the iceberg, because, while the rest of the toll is too unfortunate to experience the spotlight, "a silent emergency" is spreading throughout the nation.

Again, this newspaper, reported that the 11 children were not alone. That there were more than 600 recorded infant deaths during 2007-2008 in Banyumas, Central Java, alone (The Jakarta Post, Jan. 9).

Let us make a short detour to ascertain the definition of malnutrition. Early understanding of malnutrition, for example by Taliaferro Clark, is "a condition of undernourishment or being underweight. It is seen in boys and girls at any period after infancy or in childhood". (Cited in Public Health Reports, Vol. 36 No.17, April 29, 1921).

Today, as the Encyclopedia of International Development suggests, malnutrition is "an anomalous physiological condition characterized by continuous imbalances in energy, protein, and micronutrients intake and/or absorption. "

The definition changed simply because in the North, malnutrition can manifest as overweight and obesity. While in the developing countries like Indonesia, especially in rural and sub-urban setting, Clark's definition holds in the vast majority of malnutrition cases.

The question is where the responsibility lies? Who is to blame? Can those responsible take on the critics and achieve zero cases of malnutrition in Indonesia? Or is poverty once again to be blamed?

Since poverty seems to be impersonal, high-ranking officials and the ruling government may only be nodding, confirming poverty as the root cause, as the Institute of Ecosoc Rights, a Jakarta-based NGO, once blamed poverty in their research on famine in East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) province in 2006.

However, as the title of this article suggests, malnutrition is actually a manifestation of poor development. Surely only irresponsible government can be unperturbed amid the death of their future generation.

In an informal discussion within the NTT Academia Forum (a group of academics from East Nusa Tenggara province), a colleague of mine strongly stressed that "we cannot be silent" on the subject of malnutrition. The problem is, malnutrition is still seen as an event, a killing agent, isolated, separated from the process of development policy and practice, not seen as the product of development, or in better terms, the daily accumulation of poor development practices.

Serious question should be asked. Why doesn't Jakarta respond to the issue of malnutrition in the same way it responds to a war situated 6,000 km away in the Middle East, assuming that the value of human life is the main concern?

Some may suspect that the issue is silenced because "the new Indonesians" (i.e. ex-refugees from Timor Leste in West Timor) are not pure Indonesian. If this should be the attitude of the elite then, in short, may I say, we are worse than the Dutch colonial government, who granted assets such as land in the Belu district to the influx of Timor Leste refugees in 1911, when forced labor was imposed by Portuguese regime in Dili.

However, this suspicion may be incorrect as malnutrition also happens in Java and elsewhere in Indonesia. Since the actual number of malnutrition cases is never known, unless assumptions are being made in order to fit in with the "methodologically correct" principles. Activists seem to favor the iceberg analogy to argue that this silent disaster could probably have far more victims than those who have died in Palestine. This is not to downplay our international diplomacy in the Middle East on the rights of innocent civilians.

However, this issue begs an equal level of attention, a call for long-term concern over the basic nutritional and food needs of the innocent children of the Republic of Indonesia, right here at home. It is argued that if development is about "the production of social change that creates conditions where more and more people can achieve their human potential, "then malnutrition is the product of "mal-development".

Thus "mal-development" or poor development practices can be seen as the failure of the state to develop, to progress towards human freedom, including the freedom of the innocent children - the future generation of the Republic.

The officials and policy makers may reduce the cases of malnutrition to a social-cultural problem alone and not have the courage to see the case as a systemic failure of the development programs.

Often, the legal and formal products are out there to tackle the malnutrition problem.

However, the persistent volatility of commitment from the elite means that the issue remains a long-standing problem.This may explain why "mal-development" takes places and thus malnutrition persists.

The writer is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Bonn, Research on Disaster Risk Governance and a member of Forum NTT Academia (


At 10:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hello good afternoon......children diet of malnutrition...

Elizabeth Wilcox


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