Debt and FDI

Jakarta        At 6PM I was still shaking the sleep from my head after a shower and met with Dani Setiawan, the Chairman of KAU — Koalisi Anti Utang — the Anti Debt Coalition, and his associate, Midaria Novawarity from Kiara — the Fisheries Justice Coalition in the lobby of the hotel and then later over dinner and chicken satay as they broke the fast from Ramadan.  Dani and his associates had reached out to us because of what they saw as the similarities between their fight and our India FDI Watch Campaign.

    Indonesia, like many other countries, faces a huge burden in paying off its foreign debt, much of it incurred during the Suharto regime and the corruption that surrounded that government.  About 25% of the national budget goes to debt payment and debt service.  The bill according to KAU and Dani is about $65 billion USD on the foreign debt that is coupled with almost the same amount of deficit spending.  

    The Jubilee movement that led to some small relief in some countries in recent years has not much touched Indonesia because the country is seen as a “middle income” country, like Argentina and most of Latin America, by the twin enforcers, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.  The World Bank has conceded that a portion of the Suharto debt went to enrich family and friends, yet they have not acted to cancel that part of the obligation, which would be close to $4 billion USD.  Cancellation is the key issue, since it would mean eliminating the debt obligation entirely, rather than simply relief which often only means a suspension of payments simply postponing them for another day, which may or may not be better.  KAU has not had much success in convincing even the government to stand up stronger for cancellation, even though it is arguably in their interest as well.

    The other issue KAU has tried to link, and this is the connection to Foreign Direct Investment, is that the debts should have been tested against some minimal accountability standard of the peoples’ common welfare and benefit.  The example they kept returning to was the loan for a railroad that is not even located in the country and turned out to render no benefits to anyone from the foreign enterprises that pushed it forward.

    We talked a lot about banking and the role of the big foreign banks like HSBC and Citi, both of which are significant, as well as ANBN-Ambro which also continues to be ubiquitous here, though no longer Dutch owned.  There might be some leverage there, if we could draw a line between the dots, just as we are now doing in India.

    This is a critical issue, but Dani and Midaria, despite their youth and passion about the issue, knew they were having trouble exerting pressure sufficiently to move the campaign forward.  Most of their funding comes from Oxfam-Hong Kong over recent years, and they are worried about these commitments over time to sustain what will obviously be a long drawn out battle.

    Certainly, we have found this to be the case in India as well.  Even when the fights involve billions of dollars and could impact literally millions of jobs and the living standards of many more millions, people seem unwilling to wrap their heads around the math and mayhem involved and the direct confrontation it means with huge commercial enterprises and the governments that they often have at their beck and call.

    We will link KAU with our India FDI Watch Campaign, and see how we can help, but winning economic justice at this level is a long, hard slog.


Organizing Forum International

Jakarta        I flew out of Melbourne on Sunday morning at 12:15 AM.  It was an 8 hour flight to Kuala Lumpur (with a 2 hour time change), and then after a couple of hours in that airport I arrived in Jakarta around 10 AM.  Today is a holiday as this largely Muslim country moves to the end of Ramadan, and its days of fasting broken by sunset.  I was preparing for a meeting in Jakarta this evening with organizers involved in dealing with foreign direct investment and whether or not there might be linkages to our work with India FDI Watch Campaign, but my mind continued to rollover what the Organizers’ Forum delegation had discussed on our last night together, and that was what I came to call “Janet’s challenge.”

    At the end of the very powerful afternoon we had spent with organizers and the top leadership of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Janet Giles, the feisty, fireplug from the South Australia (Adelaide) unions, who had helped bring them all together various cities and Tasmania, looked across Sharan Burrows, the President of the ACTU and also the President of the International Confederation of Trade Unions, at me and then our delegation and said that there needed to be “an international organizers’ forum” that did what we had done that day and brought together organizers from different countries as organizers in pursuit of what build their memberships and organizations the strongest and the best.

    Some of the answer I gave Janet was easy.  She and others could go to the Organizers’ Forum website and look at the notes from this and all of the dialogues that Barbara Bowen has meticulously taken with others.  The upcoming issue of Social Policy magazine would also have some analysis.  We wanted to offer through ACORN International access and participation in the Asian News site ( which is now up and running.  This was low hanging fruit and easy for one and all to grab.

    The harder response to Janet’s challenge, I replied we would have to really consider and think about more seriously and get back to her.  How to link organizers internationally on an on-going basis was too important to answer glibly.  It was a great challenge, and it deserved us stepping up to respond.

    The addition of several people on each international dialogue from Canada over the last several years has immensely added to quality and gravitas of the Organizers’ Forum delegations.  At the least we all agreed to extend an invitation to our new Australian friends to join us in the 2009 dialogues, especially the next international one that we are thinking will be in Cairo.  Given the resources of the Organizers’ Forum, it is only really possible to invite people that can carry their own weight, though it would be amazing to imagine the resources to include some of the best of the other organizers we have met along the way.  Food for thought for the future.

    Linkages take time, energy, and resources, but they are so vital that we need to figure out a way to continue to push the envelope.  We talked about linking some of the migrant work we heard about to the Illinois Center for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) since several of their principal organizers have been on dialogues in the past and might follow through.  We also talked about the repeated impact that SEIU had exercised on the Australian labor movement, and how much they valued and appreciated the experience.

    I read a book on the planes today from Melbourne to Jakarta by Michael Crosby called Power at Work:  Rebuilding the Australian Labor Movement, which frequently referenced SEIU and other unions in the US and lessons learned there.  There’s an openness in Australia that may not exist everywhere, but it represents an opportunity — and a challenge — and we need to figure out a serious way to respond to Janet and all of the sisters and brothers we met there.

Janet Giles leaning across the table to make a point.
Janet making a presentation