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Jokowi and Indonesia's jobless angry at COVID cash handout delays

Logistic constraints and data scarcity mar country's effort to help poor

Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has lashed out at cabinet ministers over their response to the COVID-19 pandemic and delays in cash handouts to the needy. (Nikkei Montage/Source photos by AP/Reuters)

JAKARTA -- Siti Alfira's family has been hoping to receive some financial assistance ever since the Indonesian government announced plans in April to provide payments to needy people affected by the novel coronavirus.

Alfira's family in Bogor, south of Jakarta, has been struggling to make ends meet. The 24-year-old freelance campus administrator was furloughed after her university temporarily closed. Her father, the family's main breadwinner, was also put on leave from his job overseeing the university's photocopy center.

"My father was judged to have an established business and we could not qualify for the assistance program," Alifra told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"Why should the verification be limited to those who are already below the poverty line? My family might not be classified as being in poverty, but we are severely affected by this situation. Why is the mechanism so discriminating?"

Her family now gets by on emergency savings and by selling household goods online. They are far from alone. Close to 2 million people have either been laid off or furloughed, according to official data, and the government forecasts up to 5 million Indonesians, mostly in the informal sector, will be out of work this year as a result of the pandemic.

The government has earmarked 203.9 trillion rupiah of its 695.2 trillion rupiah ($49.6 billion) stimulus package for social assistance. That includes direct cash transfers to the poor, increased budgets for villages to support residents, and handouts of basic food items.

But only 34% of the relief budget had been disbursed as of the end of June, Finance Ministry data shows.

A healthcare worker collects a swab sample to be tested for the coronavirus from a civil servant at a traditional textile market in Jakarta on Thursday.   © Reuters

President Joko Widodo has expressed frustration over the lack of progress in helping those in need and in tackling COVID-19 in general. Indonesia has the largest number of confirmed cases and deaths from the virus in Southeast Asia

A video released on June 28 on the Presidential Secretariat's official YouTube channel showed Widodo lambasting ministers at a recent cabinet meeting and threatening a reshuffle.

"The atmosphere in the last three months and in the next three months should be one of crisis. ... I see there are still many of us who [still act] as usual. I'm annoyed," said the president, commonly known as Jokowi.

"Disburse the [stimulus package] as soon as possible so that there will be a lot of money in circulation and public consumption increases," Widodo said, adding that he is willing to issue a presidential decree in lieu of legislation to speed up the process, if necessary.

But that is easier said than done in a country of 260 million people scattered across an archipelago of 17,000 islands stretching more than 5,000 km from east to west. Many people do not have bank accounts, making cash transfers difficult.

"The main issues are in remote areas like [the] Papua, West Papua and Maluku regions," said Pepen Nazaruddin, general director for social security and protection at the Social Affairs Ministry, which oversees the handouts. "The disbursement might have already happened, but they also might have had trouble reporting [it]."

Nazaruddin added that disbursement of the extra 31.8 trillion rupiah to villages has been slow because of difficulties with geography and data confirmation. "Most people who will receive the aid [from the villages] were nonregular assistance recipients, so the village officers have to the check data," he said. "Another issue was that the villages had not finalized their financial reports for 2019," a prerequisite for disbursement.

Some programs have also been mired in corruption. Local media have reported cases where village chiefs have deducted "commissions" from social assistance funds before handing money over to the villagers. The Pre-Employment Card program, which allows job-seekers to receive money once they register and complete online vocational courses, has been accused of favoritism because one of the platforms providing the courses was founded by a presidential adviser.

New registrations for the program were recently halted after the country's anti-corruption agency, the KPK, found problems with registration, partnerships with online course providers, training materials and program execution.

"Eighty-nine percent of training content ... is available for free on YouTube," the KPK said in its assessment. The Pre-Employment Card program was announced before the pandemic hit, but its implementation was accelerated as a response to COVID-19 to help those who have lost jobs to the outbreak. A total of 20 trillion rupiah has been allocated to the program.

The slow disbursement of funds "is evidence of the ineffective leadership of the president in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis," said Ubaidillah Badrun, a professor of politics at Jakarta State University.

"Widodo has failed to mobilize the coordinating ministers whom he used to be proud of. What's the benefit of publishing a video of him being upset with the ministers? Such reaction is also late. It's been three months" since the pandemic arrived in Indonesia, Badrun said.

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