Guest Post: A Crisis of Trust in Indonesian NGOs?

Guest post by Arie Rukmantara.

Indonesia has witnessed an activism heyday, especially the pro-democracy movement that preceded the onset of the reformasi (reform era), which began with the fall of the military dictatorship in 1998. In this period, NGOs worked clandestinely and dodged bullets – literally in some cases – for more than three decades, making their causes heard against the backdrop of the reigning authoritarian government.

NGOs, regardless of their scope of work and issues, seemed at the time to channel and represent public resentment over the prevailing closed, repressive style of leadership back then.

By far, those organizations have succeeded in pressing for fair and just policies from the government fulfilling the basic rights of people, the constituents they serve, and reflecting the essence of democracy.

But times are changing. Indonesia’s economy is growing, giving birth to a middle class which is only too aware of its rights. Although it is not perfect, a democratic system has slowly been put in place, providing a check-and-balance mechanism. The flourishing of media outlets with the much celebrated freedom of the press in Indonesia has ultimately contributed significantly in making democracy more accessible to the public. Indeed, the press has begun to assume the role of providing the popular voice.

From a legal perspective, the 2008 Transparency of Public Information Law serves as one of the milestones of Indonesian democracy. Today the public has the right to any information from government offices, NGOs and media.

And the evolving role of social media has provided a platform for people to voice their aspirations and complaints. It has become a “crowd sourcing” tool that helps facilitate decision making for policy makers. A regular Joe can now express his opinion to the president and lawmakers by submitting a 140-character message through Twitter. And many millions of Indonesians now do exactly that.

The mandate that NGOs once had in Indonesia will potentially deteriorate or even be revoked if they do not offer new ways of doing things, by stakeholders who feel they can now take matters into their own hands.

Signs that point to the diminishing role of NGOs in Indonesia are starting to appear. The 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that Indonesians have the least trust in NGOs compared to their counterparts in other Asia Pacific countries. And among the four institutions surveyed, Indonesians view NGOs as the least trusted organizations when compared to the media and business.

The 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer (‘the survey’) reveals that after peaking at 66 percent in 2011, trust in NGOs dropped to 53 percent in 2012.  This year’s survey records Trust by Informed Publics[1] at 51 percent. This is not only significantly below the global average of 63 percent, it is also the lowest Edelman records across seven Asia-Pacific countries.

These unusually low Trust scores for NGOs in Indonesia are all the more startling when considering that four out of the five most trusting countries in NGOs (Mexico, China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore) are from the Asia-Pacific region. While Trust in NGOs in Indonesia has been unusually low and falling for the last three years, Indonesia is, by contrast, tied as the fourth most trusting country in business (out of the 26 surveyed); and third most trusting country in media of all countries surveyed globally.

Why? Measuring Trust is crucial because it is the leading indicator of reputation. However, other findings from the survey confirm that we are in an era of skepticism. The democratizing trend of recent years — the redistribution of influence from traditional authority figures to employees and peers — has taken over the old practice of monologue. The hierarchy of top-down communication is being replaced by peer-to-peer, horizontal networks of trust.

People value engagement; therefore NGO leaders need to ensure that their activists and workers act as their brand ambassadors, as NGOs certainly have a brand as well. And that brand can be positive or negative. Their peers need to hear that they truly believe in what they are fighting for and that they love their workplace, even after they leave their uniforms. And according to the Trust Barometer 2013, they need to hear this three to six times before they start to believe it.

Unlike the vertical flow of information of the past, from leaders down to the general population, information is now flowing horizontally between its members, simultaneously moving up before eventually reaching NGO leaders.

NGOs or mass organizations can no longer play the same old tricks and trump cards. Transparency in financing and actions is no longer an optional practice. Reclaiming the public’s trust is an absolute must, but it now seems in large-part lost. At present, people have more choices when it comes to allocating their trust. Thus, being ethical and transparent would do more good than harm in terms of visibility.

Yes, it is an evolution. NGOs cannot hide behind closed doors anymore. When in the past – and perhaps even today – activists take their demands to see clean governance to the street, they must first walk the talk. Being accountable and adopting a professional work paradigm would help cultivate public trust and restore their faith.

Trust has to be earned, one stakeholder at a time.

Arie Rukmantara is Senior Manager of the Health and Human Services (‘HHS’) Division of Edelman Indonesia: HHS integrates healthcare PR (disease awareness, market access and OTC) with work for international bodies and NGOs in community outreach, social behavioral change and environmental programs. Before joining Edelman, Arie worked with the UN, where he was a specialist in pandemic and epidemic disease communications and social change.


[1] The Edelman Trust Barometer surveys 1,000 members of the general public in Indonesia, demographically-weighted, with an additional over-sample of a further 200 ‘informed  public’: top quartile earners; at least college-educated who identify as active consumers of news and other media.

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