Over the past 5 decades, global donor funding policy has shifted from an infrastructure building approach, to an operations and maintenance focus, to institutional management transfer (IMT), but even with these different approaches and program requirements, some of the same problems and poor irrigation system performance occurred in Indonesia. Even as the funding policy focus shifted, the dominant donor narrative did not change.

Dr. Diana Suhardiman of the International Water Management Institute and Dr. Peter Mollinga of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, examined the international donors and dominant policy narratives over the past five decades in Indonesian irrigation policy. This case study includes evidence from literature review and observations from fieldwork. The authors identify simplifications or assumptions made by the donor community that helped to perpetuate the cycle of ineffective irrigation policy and programs in Indonesia.

Terraced fields in East Java, Indonesia. Photo credit: Seb Fowler via Flickr

Findings and Impacts

As evidence mounted that programs were not as independent or effective as originally hoped, the donor funding policy shifted from building infrastructure, to focuses on operations and maintenance, and finally to transferring program management from the government to the farmers in the irrigation districts (a process known as institutional management transfer, or IMT). However, through these policy paradigms, the donors held several assumptions that oversimplified the issues, which lead to a warped sense of cause-and-effect that neglected the complex reality of the relationships between farmers, irrigation, and the government. A specific example is that donors assumed that a major cause of poor performance of the irrigation system was due to a lack of maintenance of the irrigation canals. However, farmers did not have incentives to maintain the system, as the conditions of the canals did not seem to be directly related to delivery of water to their farms; and the arrangements incentivized the irrigation agency to avoid maintaining the canals, because their poor condition provided justification for additional funding needs. By oversimplifying the cause of poor system performance, donors ignored two major contributors to poor infrastructure condition through decades of project funding.

Implications and More Information

When national policies are strongly shaped by international trends, there is a potential that assumptions about causal mechanisms or organizational motivations may lead to financial and institutional arrangements that cannot produce the desired outcome and may perpetuate or exacerbate a negative result. International donors claimed that the lack of success was due to implementation barriers (agency’s desire to not transfer power, farmer’s lack of expertise and authority to manage the irrigation system) that must be dealt with prior to applying IMT, rather than as complex issues that should be dealt with as part of the IMT process. The authors suggest that performance enhancement does not need to begin with perfecting the existing infrastructure, but instead, from shaping the farmer-agency interface dynamics. Looking for entry points for change at this interface is more conducive to improving an irrigation system’s performance. Generally speaking, there are always more forces in play than the immediate goals and beliefs of a donor organization. The organizations receiving funding, their agents, and the end users or stakeholders who will receive potential benefit and responsibility due to the funded projects must be considered, consulted, and analyzed to increase the likelihood that the project may realize its potential value.

You can read the detailed case study and learn more about the depth of simplifications and assumptions made over five decades of irrigation policy and their outcomes in  Correlations, Causes and the Logic of Obscuration: Donor Shaping of Dominant Narratives in Indonesia’s Irrigation Development in the Journal of Development Studies (vol. 48, issue 7).

Amanda Repella

Amanda C. Repella was the Water Diplomacy Global Network Coordinator at Tufts University from 2012 – 2016.

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