A woman collects waste for resale in the Indonesian capital Jakarta on Sept. 26. Indonesia is the world's fourth most unequal society after Russia, India and Thailand in terms of wealth. (Photo by Bay Ismoyo/AFP)
A new United Nations report points to Indonesia as one of the world's worst countries for malnutrition. It is the only country that ranks badly on three critical indicators: stunting, wasting and overweight. While consistent growth of above 5 percent makes Indonesia one of the world's best economic performers, it is also the fourth most unequal country.
Given these clashing realities, it is small wonder that both contenders in next April's presidential election promise to change the situation and challenge the position of powerful oligarchs.
The 2018 Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, spearheaded by the Food and Agricultural Organization, says there are 73 countries where more than 20 percent of the child population suffer from stunting, 29 countries where more than 10 percent of the child population are overweight, and 14 where more than 10 percent of children suffer from wasting.
"Among these countries, Indonesia is the only one that shows a high prevalence of all three of these forms of child malnutrition," the report states.
Overweight children are victims of malnutrition because they tend to eat cheap food with high calories but low nutrition.
The problem is by no means new, but what is of greatest concern is that there appears to be very little progress in dealing with it. Respected Indonesian daily Kompas notes that the Global Nutrition Report for 2014 identified Indonesia as one of the five worst nations for stunting and one of 17 that also had high levels of other diet-related problems.
In the past four years, the other 16 countries in the category had wrought improvements in public nutrition, leaving only Indonesia in the worst category for all three food-related ailments.
The Kompas report notes that early childhood malnutrition is typically responsible for health complications in later life including diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease including strokes. Stunting as a child can result in a 10 percent reduction in cognitive reasoning capacity in adult life.
The severity of the problem varies from area to area, but even in comparatively rich provinces it affects a significant number of children. The worst is drought-prone East Nusa Tenggara with a prevalence of stunting of 40.3 percent of all young children.
While such a high level might be expected in a region often impacted by droughts and food shortages, cases also occur close to capital Jakarta and other major cities. The prevalence of malnutrition in all its forms is a symptom of the wide inequality in Indonesia, where the poor sit by the roadside and watch the rich drive past in luxury sedans and SUVs.
Indonesia has notched up growth in gross domestic product of around 5 percent every year since 2010 when growth sat at 4 percent. While those figures are lower than the 7 percent regularly achieved during the rule of strongman Suharto, GDP has nearly doubled since 2008 as Indonesia has become a US$1 trillion economy.
That has enabled a remarkable transformation to take place in what was once one of the poorest countries in Asia. Higher disposable incomes have allowed Indonesians to take part in a consumer revolution which, among other indicators, has produced the massive traffic jams for which the country is famous.
The Credit Suisse Research Institute announced last year that the wealth of Indonesian citizens had grown 4.4 percent to US$1.8 trillion. The think tank of the Zurich-based financial services firm said there were 868 ultra-high-net-worth individuals and about 111,000 millionaires.
But the country was also home to 30 million of the so-called bottom billion, who own less than US$248 worth of assets. In 2016, the institute named Indonesia as the world's fourth most unequal society after Russia, India and Thailand. The richest 1 percent of Indonesia's adult population owned 49.3 percent of the country's wealth.
Poor children represent more than 40 percent of Indonesia's 28.01 million people living under the poverty line, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics National Socioeconomic Survey released in March 2016.
Not surprisingly, inequity has become a potent issue ahead of the presidential election, with both sets of candidates placing it front and center in their policy platforms. The most contentious promises being made to the electorate are those from Ma'ruf Amin, a senior Muslim cleric who is running with incumbent Joko Widodo.
He pledged to help Widodo reduce the gap between rich and poor if they win the presidential poll in April. "It's the new wave economy. A people's economy that is aimed at reducing a range of gaps: between the weak and the strong, between different regions across Indonesia, and between local and global products," he was quoted as saying on Sept. 18.
The old economy has led to the domination of conglomerates, while the purported "trickle-down effect" has not materialized, he said. That position, while unlikely to translate into any real policy action if Widodo and Amin are elected, nevertheless represents a threat to the continued dominance of Indonesia's powerful oligarchs.
Contenders Prabowo Subianto, who lost narrowly to Widodo in the 2014 election, and his running mate Sandiaga Uno, have released a policy paper that puts Indonesia Adil Makmur (Indonesia Just and Prosperous) at the center of their vision for the country.
Subianto has long experience in leading lobby groups representing farmers and fishermen and Uno has been quick to hit the streets, visiting traditional markets to show he cares about ordinary Indonesians. The electorate might be forgiven for forgetting that both Subianto, a former Special Forces general, and Uno, recently the deputy governor of Jakarta, are both multimillionaires.
All the talk of inequity could stir passions carefully kept under control for years. Already, student protests at the perceived failure of the Widodo government to manage the economy properly are turning ugly, probably stirred up by elements in the camp of Subianto and Uno.
While the issues of religion and ethnicity have been sidelined in the wake of the divisive campaign against former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian, the issue of economic justice looks set to dominate Indonesia's politics in the run-up to the vote next April.
Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst.