My Jakarta: Sari, Ex-Activist

My Jakarta: Sari, Ex-Activist
Maria Yuniar | October 06, 2011

‘The Longer I Was Involved With the NGO, the More It Felt Like a Corporation’

Sari used to be an activist who would volunteer her time to campaign on environmental issues. For a while, she was actively involved in an international nongovernmental organization that was seeking to put the spotlight on issues that were important to her.

But she eventually became disillusioned with NGOs, fearing that too much of their money was being spent on staff,?and the issues on which they campaigned could be too easily determined by the whims of donors.

Sari — who has chosen not to give her real name — tells My Jakarta how greenwashing is changing the shape of activism in Indonesia.

Why did you first volunteer with a nongovernmental organization?

It was in 2008, during college. Back then, to finish an assignment, my lecturer urged me to gather information from an organization working on the issue I was writing about — the environment. I decided my report would be on the topic ‘what have environmental organizations done for the earth.’ That led me to become a volunteer for an international NGO that campaigned on the environment.

What did you do as an activist?

I was involved in projects on climate change. As volunteers, we tried to raise public awareness about the issue. We informed people about how the climate was changing and the impact that was having. It was exciting, and I didn’t feel like leaving the NGO even after I completed my report. But then, something ended my desire to volunteer for the organization.

What stopped you?

After being involved for a while, something started to bug me. I realized that there were many conflicts of interest in the NGO I was involved in. This happened in other NGOs as well. I sensed that the NGO was no longer working the way it was supposed to work. The longer I was involved with the NGO, the more it felt like a corporation.

Day by day, it became more profit-oriented and relaxed its idealism. It became less critical, and didn’t put effort into an issue unless it was attractive to potential donors. By the time I realized this, I’d graduated from university, so I decided to find a permanent job instead. My heart just couldn’t stay committed to volunteer activities anymore.

Can you provide any examples of wrongdoing?

When there were concerns about the palm oil industry in Indonesia, many environmental NGOs made it their No. 1 focus, because people would pay attention to it and the NGO could raise a lot of money from it. The same goes with climate change. The issue continues, but the NGOs stopped campaigning on it when the public stopped talking about it.

But isn’t that understandable, given NGOs need money for their campaigns?

That’s true, they do. There are NGOs that declare that they pay their workers from donations. But I know that sometimes more donor money is spent on human resources than actual campaigning, when it should be the other way around. The NGO I used to be a part of claimed that it didn’t have any relationships with corporations. But in reality, it maintained connections with companies that would give it donations when the NGO pursued certain issues. In my opinion, those weren’t independent donations but more like greenwash from the companies.

What’s greenwash?

It is when a party that is the cause of a particular problem gives a donation to an organization that tries to fix the problem. For example, a cigarette company that has destroyed the marine ecosystem, they’d give a certain percentage of their profit to help revive that ecosystem.

Can anything be done to help NGOs stay true to their objectives?

NGOs should only hire people aged between 17 and the early 20s, because people at that age are still pure and eager to express themselves without any conflict of interest. They’re still idealistic and naive.

What message do you have for those concerned about a social or environmental issue?

Anyone who wants to make a change can always start with him or herself, because you won’t be politicized and what you do is actually more concrete than shouting on the roads. I don’t mean to offend anyone who wants to get involved in volunteering with NGOs, but it’s hard to find a ‘clean’ NGO. I think if people seek to get involved in working on a social issue, it will teach you some priceless lessons in life.

Sari was talking to Maria Yuniar.

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