As an exchange student in Malang, East Java, I encountered a number of impoverished youths every day on the streets. The same people sat on the ground and in the same places every single day, and as students walked past, they gave them between Rp 100 and Rp 1,000 (1 to 11 cents). I didn’t think that was enough, and started to wonder: In giving, could we be doing more harm than good?
Students there told me that the average monthly wage for a university graduate in Malang is approximately Rp 1 million, or roughly Rp 35,000 a day. A good night busking will earn double that. How could these teens on the street earn more money than a university graduate?
I decided to ask the street kids for their side of the story — some said they liked living on the streets, and the longer I stayed in Malang, the more I understood why. Why look for a job, work hard and continue to struggle if it is possible to make the same amount of money (or more) hanging out with friends, drinking, smoking and playing the guitar in the park?
But as I got to know the kids there, I soon discovered that while begging and busking could be profitable, it certainly wasn’t a sustainable source of income. The kids said they were continually harassed and even arrested by the local Public Order Agency (Satpol-PP). They were told that they were not allowed to busk at traffic lights or sell food in the park, but no solution was offered as to how they might find an alternative means of survival.
After visiting my friends in the park one day, I noticed groups of sellers frantically packing up and rushing out of the grounds. The men who usually sold food from the kaki lima, or street food carts, at the entrances were quickly fleeing, just as dozens of Satpol-PP officers moved through the park, clearing out the vendors.
I couldn’t understand why those in power would be so quick to condemn people simply trying to make a living. Would the government rather have another 100 beggars in the city park instead of groups of people selling cheap food to the populace?
Street food is very cheap in Malang. One can eat at a kaki lima or warung (streetside stall) for between Rp 2,500 and Rp 5,000. One friend reassured me: “The women and children you see begging at the traffic lights, they have somewhere to go at night, someone who looks after and feeds them. The people here rarely go hungry.”
The question I couldn’t help but ask was, if we continue to give money — to the disabled in the marketplaces, to the organized groups of children at the traffic lights, to the elderly on the sidewalks, to the buskers in the parks — will that fix the problem? This seems to propagate using the elderly as an undignified source of income, trafficking children and teenagers busking in parks instead of looking for jobs.
I began to think that poverty in Indonesia was not about a lack of food and shelter, but about a lack of rights and opportunities.
Mentally and physically disabled people are often taken and left in the middle of crowded marketplaces to crawl around, drooling on their hands and knees while holding plastic containers to collect the random coins people give. There is no dignity in that. Clearly the families need the money; there is no welfare system. On one hand, at least these people aren’t being locked up, unseen and unheard, but surely there are more dignified ways of appealing to society for assistance.
Any time we give money, we indirectly support a system, a cause or an idea. Whether this is the message we seek to convey or not, the coins and scruffy notes reward this behavior. The children continue to be trafficked, the disabled continue to be left on market floors, the elderly continue to sit on the sidewalks. And teenagers continue to busk and drink and smoke rather than fight for their rights for formal identification, education and access to health care.
So how do we tackle this problem, and who is responsible for eliminating it? And who gets lost in the gaps? Is it right to contribute to a system that is stagnant? This system may feed people, but in no way does it protect or provide them with rights. Ultimately, can we do more than choose to participate or not?
Natha Middlemas is a graduate of Curtin University in Perth, Australia. She recently completed a field study program in Malang, East Java, organized by the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies.