Indonesia's spirit of volunteerism comes alive during holy month of Ramadan
“When a 7.5 magnitude earthquake tore through Palu, Central Sulawesi, in September 2018, two memories surfaced for Moh. Tofan Saputra. He recalled seeing footage of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami on television, which killed close to 230,000 people. He also remembered how as a junior high-school student, flood waters had inundated his family home, gutted his parents’ business, and put his education on hold.
Those memories moved Tofan, then 24, to travel from Luwuk about 12 hours’ drive away, to assist Palu residents after the earthquake hit. “We were very panicked for our loved ones. We could not contact them because there was no phone connection and electricity,” Tofan says of the immediate aftermath of the disaster that killed more than 4,300 people.
Through a local organization, he joined emergency food distribution efforts, helped reunite lost children separated from their families, and arranged psychological support services for those in shock. In an environment where looting had contributed to an atmosphere of mistrust, Tofan’s understanding of local community dynamics proved critical, “the community approach is very important, and it is the role of the volunteer to promote social inclusion between the victims,” he says.
The spirit of 'gotong royong'
In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, millions of volunteers like Tofan embody the values of generosity and compassion the holy month of Ramadan esteems. In a prominent 2018 poll, some 53% of Indonesians said they had volunteered their time to an organization within the previous month. So venerable is Indonesia’s tradition of community self-help that it has its own nomenclature: gotong royong, meaning mutual assistance.
Indonesia’s spirit of volunteerism finds echoes in many other countries. The UN Volunteers’ (UNV) flagship 2022 State of the World’s Volunteerism report, draws on case studies across several continents to explore how cooperation between volunteers and governments can contribute to building more equal, inclusive societies. The report estimates that 862 million people volunteer globally every month, or about one in every seven people. Their contribution is integral to the new social contract UN Secretary-General António Guterres says the world must build as it navigates the twin crises of COVID-19 and the climate emergency.
Situated along the Pacific Rim of Fire, Indonesia is among the world’s most disaster-prone countries. In 2021, some 3,034 disasters impacted 8.3 million people here, according to Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency. Disasters, including COVID-19, set back the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and exacerbated pre-existing inequalities.
The UN supports all aspects of the Indonesian Government’s disaster response efforts. In 2021, that support included forming an oxygen task force to coordinate the response to oxygen scarcity-related issues during Indonesia’s 2021 surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths It is often volunteers who are at the forefront of disaster response.
After the eruption of Mount Semeru on 4 December 2021 killed more than 50 people and displaced a further 10,000 in Lumajang Regency, East Java, 25 midwife Restu Nur Intan Pratiwi was among hundreds of locals to come to the regency’s assistance. She drove 90 minutes from her home in the city of Jember after searching online for volunteering opportunities in the area.
In Lumajang, Restu soon realized existing support services did not address the specific needs of women, “such as providing menstrual pads, or special milk and vitamins for pregnant women.” Through a volunteer organization called Relawan Negeri she began providing medical check-ups for pregnant women at emergency shelters. She also coordinated with a local hospital to arrange free access to ultrasound services.
Gender sensitive interventions like Restu’s are vital to rebuilding sustainably after a disaster, but they can be inhibited by unequal gender dynamics within volunteering. For example, men are more likely to take part in formal volunteering, while women are more likely to volunteer informally, which tends to have a lower status, attracts less recognition and receives less practical support than formal volunteering. The State of the World’s Volunteering report advises policymakers to adopt gender-sensitive measures that can optimize women’s participation, for example, by ensuring women have access to decision-making processes.
The spirit of Gotong Royong goes back generations, but since 2004, Indonesia’s Ministry of Social Affairs has formalized volunteering through the Taruna Siaga Bencana (TAGANA). By the end of 2020, there were more than 39,000 TAGANA in Indonesia, with a further 63,000 “friends of TAGANA” in professions such as journalism, the arts, and civil society.
In 2021, the UN partnered with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to develop online training modules for TAGANA, including a competency-based capacity-building framework that emphasizes gender-inclusivity in humanitarian assistance.
Twi Adi, a 38-year-old volunteer from Malang, East Java has been a TAGANA since 2006. He has participated in several emergency response activities, including in the wake of the December 2021 Mount Semeru eruption. The Ministry of Social Affairs provides TAGANA with a small allowance, but Twi says the benefits of volunteering extend far beyond monetary remuneration. “I love helping others and making a difference at the community level,” he says, “I am not rich, but I can give my time and energy for my community.”
This blog was written by Valerie Julliand, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Indonesia, and Toily Kurbanov, Executive Coordinator, United Nations Volunteers. A version of this article was originally published in the Jakarta Post, and on UN News. To learn more about the United Nations' work in Indonesia, please visit: Indonesia.un.org.