This is the third post in a series profiling the process of building political commitment in countries whose governments have made strong investments in family planning. Previous posts have profiled Rwanda and Iran.
While the two other countries profiled in this series, Rwanda and Iran, have only reinvigorated their family planning programs within the past 20 years, Indonesia’s story begins in the 1960s. In this respect, the world’s fourth most populous country
is classified among the pioneers of family planning in the developing world and has been described as a “world leader
” and “one of the developing world’s best
.” An extensive community outreach program combined with a centralized government that made family planning a priority were key to Indonesia’s success story.
Jakarta Pilot and Religious Support Motivates National Scale-up
For a decade and a half after the struggle for independence from the Dutch ended in 1949, the government of President Sukarno ruled out any government support for family planning. According to a Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) report, the rate of contraceptive use among married women at the time was essentially zero. Fertility rose slightly during this period, from an average of 5.5 in the early 1950s to 5.6 children per woman a decade later. However, in 1965, Sukarno was overthrown, and the next year, a military general named Suharto assumed power in an uprising that left as many as half a million people dead.
Suharto’s regime would last until 1998. Though he operated with a “heavy hand” amidst personal corruption, Suharto also aggressively pursued economic development and brought about a policy shift towards promoting family planning. Despite initial reservations – Suharto believed that the people would oppose family planning on religious grounds – various domestic and international advisers convinced him otherwise.
General Ali Sadikin, the governor of Jakarta – a city of three million even then – was particularly influential in convincing Suharto. According to Australian demographer Terence H. Hull, who has written extensively about population issues in Indonesia, Sadikin was “quickly learning demographic lessons in his attempts to renovate a city with poor housing, schooling, transport, and basic services,” and he began to regularly speak out about the challenges that rapid population growth posed to his goals of urban development.
Sadikin decided to support the Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association, which had a network of clinics offering family planning, but lacked the funding to meet more than a small amount of demand. With the public support of Sadikin, a Jakarta-wide pilot program was operational in 1967.
Hull reports that a second integral event in the early years was a 1967 meeting between government officials and Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, and Hindu leaders representing four of the country’s major religions. Following the meeting, a pamphlet called “Views of Religions on Family Planning” was published, representing “a tipping point when national consensus around the morality of birth control was turning from strongly negative to strongly positive.”
A Strong Coordinating Board Reaches out to Communities
By late 1968, efforts were in place to scale up the family planning program in Jakarta to the national level. The National Family Planning Coordinating Board (BKKBN in Indonesian) was created and quickly became entrenched throughout the country thanks to generous funding, including from international donors.
The BKKBN’s emphasis on the community level, which ensured that family planning services and awareness-generating activities were reaching people around the country through multiple channels, was a key factor in the program’s achievements. The organizations involved in promoting family planning messages at the community level included youth, women’s and religious groups, employers, and schools, with high-level support reiterated regularly by the president. Hull described the BKKBN’s efforts as “a true collaboration because the program emphasized institutions not normally associated with family planning, but did so in a way that was both socially acceptable and socially invigorating.”
In the program’s first two decades, the contraceptive prevalence rate for modern methods rose from almost nonexistent to 44 percent, and fertility subsequently fell from 5.5 to 3.3 children per woman. These changes are widely attributed to robust government sponsorship from the highest levels, together with effective grassroots implementation that fostered support from nearly all sectors of society.
In subsequent years, Indonesia experienced rapid economic and social development. Per capita income increased more than 20 times over between 1966 and 1996, with initial growth largely due to oil revenues. Other development indicators also improved dramatically. The literacy rate is now over 90 percent, nearly all girls attend school, and half of women are members of the labor force. However, Hull cautions against proclaiming the family planning program the primary causal factor in these successes. Family planning and other development programs would not have been as effective, he says, without changes in the political structure, which steadily became more centralized and stable in its oversight of a very heterogeneous society.
A Recent Plateau
As Indonesia continued to develop and its political system evolved, the family planning program has faced some challenges in the past 15 years. Suharto resigned in the face of widespread opposition in 1998, after more than 30 years in power. While this brought positive movement towards democracy, the ensuring political uncertainty shifted the government’s energies away from reproductive health and other aspects of social development.
In the early 2000s, the family planning program was decentralized to district and municipal levels, in line with political reforms aimed at diminishing the role of central hierarchy nationwide. District leaders were charged with planning, budgeting, and implementing family planning and other primary health services. In accordance, BKKBN modified its strategies to become even more community-oriented. Still, observers judge the family planning program to have “weakened” following decentralization.
With strong logistics, popular support, and donor assistance, contraceptive use continued rising during the years of political transition. By 2002-2003, 57 percent of married women were using a modern contraceptive method and the fertility rate had reached 2.6 children per woman. However, these indicators remained unchanged in the next national survey, conducted in 2007. Fertility in Indonesia is at the median for Southeast Asia – higher than Thailand and Vietnam and lower than Cambodia and the Philippines.
The Program Moves Forward
As democracy became more secure in the early 2000s, the country’s next generation of leaders kept sight of demographic issues. In 2005, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono stated, “High population growth without rapid economic growth will result in poverty and setbacks … Large numbers of children and high populations will only bring advantages if they are skilled.” BKKBN and the Ministry of Health worked with USAID, public health researchers, NGOs and others to develop national family planning standards for quality of care, which were devised and implemented in the early 2000s.
Judging the program’s achievements to have been substantial and its momentum sustainable, USAID graduated Indonesia from population assistance in 2006, after 35 years. Though gaps remain, women’s fertility preferences are largely being met.
Today, 80 percent of all births are intended, and unmet need for family planning – the share of married women who wish to delay or prevent pregnancy but are not using contraception – stands at nine percent, two percentage points below the average for Southeast Asia and all developing countries. Meanwhile, Indonesia’s demographic profile looks much different than it might have. At the time of graduation, USAID reported that without its long-standing and well administered family planning program, Indonesia’s 2006 population would have been larger by 80 million people, or 35 percent.
Elizabeth Leahy Madsen is a consultant on political demography for the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and senior technical advisor at Futures Group.
Sources: Demographic and Health Surveys; Hull (2007); Management Sciences for Health; New York Times; UN Population Division; USAID.
Photo Credit: “Jakarta,” courtesy of flickr user frostnova.