Alumni & Voices

Elizabeth F. Collins


A Chance to Give Back

When I arrived in Palembang for a summer of research in 1994, I found Sriwijaya University in turmoil amid student protests against an increase in tuition. Surprised at this expression of dissent under the New Order, I sought out students who had emerged as leaders of the demonstrations. They took me to the Palembang Legal Aid Society (LBH), where I found farmers who were also protesting, trying to resist the takeover of land they cultivated. The land had been given by the government to corporations for the development of palm oil estates. I did not know then that I was witnessing the beginning of the reformasi movement in South Sumatra, but I began to pay attention to organizations like LBH, the environmental organization WALHI, Muhammadiyah, Nahdlatul Ulama, Islamic student organizations, and new NGOs that closely resembled the kinds of voluntary associations that Alexis de Tocqueville had considered fundamental to the success of American democracy. Thus began 10 years of research leading to my book, Indonesia Betrayed: How Development Fails.

The outbreak of violent conflicts between Muslims and Christians in eastern Indonesia in 2000 drew me closer to the Indonesian NGO movement. I accompanied a group of reporters and the noted sociologist Imam B. Prasodjo to Buton, Southeast Sulawesi, to report on refugees fleeing Ambon. The stories of people who had fled for their lives and lost everything were wrenching. With Imam Prasodjo and others on that trip I helped to found Yayasan Nurani Dunia, an organization built on the concept of direct people-to-people aid in support of refugees from social and natural disasters. I also helped to establish the Center for Research on Inter-group Relations and Conflict Resolution (CERIC) at the University of Indonesia, which was partnered by Ohio University (OU). CERIC fostered the establishment of a network of CERIC centers at universities throughout Indonesia where local faculty might work to prevent further conflicts.

The Fulbright award I received in 2002 – 2003 allowed me to complete my book and to give something back to Indonesia through Nurani Dunia and CERIC. While teaching at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, I was able to administer two grant-funded programs, one an OU partnership with Syarif Hidayatullah fostering civic education in state Islamic institutions of higher education, the other an OU partnership with CERIC organizing training-of-trainer seminars directed at conflict prevention and negotiation.

I was also able to participate in school building and teacher training projects supported by Nurani Dunia to help communities build their own schools. Building plans were donated by architects and supplies came through Corporate Social Responsibility programs. Even the children participated in the building of their schools.

As they lined up with new backpacks, decorated with peace symbols or environmental slogans, their faces full hope, I saw what real “development” might be like.

In contrast to the corporate development projects that increased export earnings and widened the gap between the rich and poor, this kind of sustainable grass-roots development empowered people to make a better life for themselves and the next generation.

In Indonesia I have been privileged to work with extraordinary people of great vision and integrity, like Pak Azyumardi Azra, the rector of Syarif Hidayatullah when I was there; Professor Imam Prasodjo at the University of Indonesia; Professor Muhammad Sirozi, the director of post-graduate education at Raden Fatah State Institute of Islamic Studies in Palembang; and the many student activists who led the struggle for democracy. I would like to think that I gave something back through my book, CERIC seminars, and support for Nurani Dunia, but in the end I believe that the people of Indonesia have enriched my life more than I could ever repay.

Last Updated: Jun 3, 2019 @ 2:51 pm

This article appears from the book of Across the Archipelago, from Sea to Shining Sea Commemorating the 60/20 Anniversary of Fulbright and AMINEF (Page 106– 108) published in 2012.

Translator: Sagita Adesywi and Piet Hendrardjo.

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