Understanding Indonesia’s Development Process Through 4 Chronological Approaches

Being the largest archipelagic country and the 14th largest country in the world, makes Indonesia a country that has extraordinary wealth, especially in its natural resources, both on land and at sea. Indonesia consists of 17,504 islands, with the five largest islands namely Papua, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Sumatra, and Java acting as the economic center of the country.[1] As the largest maritime country in the world, Indonesia is a country with a tropical climate because it is crossed by the equator that stretches, so it is called a transcontinental country. Indonesia is also a country with the largest Muslim population in the world, although this country has many races, ethnicities and cultures that make Indonesia a multicultural country in the world, with the population spread throughout the islands in this country’s territory. Today, Indonesia is a democratic and unitary country that got its independence on August 17, 1945. This country has not escaped many developments since the colonial period, so that many changes and transitions have taken place. According to McMichael and Webber, there are four chronological approaches in studying the development process of a country, namely:[2]

• Colonial Project (1500 – 1940)

• Development Project (1940 – 1970s)

• Globalization Project (1970s – 2000s)

• Sustainability Project (2000s – )

Indonesia has experienced all the chronological approaches that have been mentioned, so the writer will use them in studying the development of this country from the colonial period to the country’s situation today.

The Colonial Project

Indonesia experienced a long period of colonialism and had quite an impact on the identity of the formation of this country. According to McMichael (2016:27), colonialism defined as the subjugation by physical and psychological force of one culture by another – a colonizing power – through military and economic conquest of territory and stereotyping the subordinated cultures.[3] A project to separate people from the land and resources they claimed through long-standing traditions, cultures, and spatially embedded systems; to replace those systems with European understanding of property rights and ownership, and convert local people into a labor force to build European wealth.[4] Indonesia was formed by various kingdoms fighting for power, accompanied by the presence of the Portuguese as the first colonizers who came and tried to control the spices owned by Indonesia. Then on June 22, 1596, the Dutch came with four ships. Initially their goal was to trade with the Portuguese which lasted for 2 years, but due to continued competition between the Dutch, Portuguese and British, the Dutch finally won and occupied Indonesia.[5] The Dutch began to reform the system in Indonesia, starting by dividing the island of Java, which was the economic center of the country from antiquity, into sections called residencies, and also managing the existing economic, political and administrative system. The Dutch imposed a land tax that required all peasants in Java to pay a tax of two-fifths of their annual harvest, and also a growing number of Dutch people became leaders of each residency.

This phenomenon relates to McMichael’s early statement about colonialism. In the period of colonialism, it was explained that the main actor was Europe, which was then followed by America. In the case of Indonesia, the Netherlands as a representative of the European nation and Indonesia is a colonized country that has voluntarily given its wealth from year to year. This reflects the statement of the business objectives of colonialism, which is Powerful Actors in Old World expanding for economic growth and to consolidate power. Not only to restore the stability of their financial situation, the Dutch occupation in Indonesia was also a form of the growing power of domination by Europe, which can be seen from the perspective of ethnocentrism and environmental determinism. In the lens of ethnocentrism, the Dutch believed that their race was superior, and they understood the way a country’s system was run, which gave them a strong motivation to colonize and monopolize the Indonesian economy. Meanwhile, according to environmental determinism, Indonesia has a very supportive environment with their geographical location which makes this country very rich in natural resources both land and sea, which attracts the attention of the Dutch to colonize it so that in conclusion, the environment is one of the factors that this colonial phenomenon occurs in Indonesia.

The Development Project

After gaining its independence, Indonesia did not easily become an independent and sovereign country. With the election of President Soekarno as the first president of this country, it does not make Indonesia have a clear system of government. There were many demonstrations and divisions between pro-independence and pro-Dutch groups. Many people think that the system of government in Indonesia should be like the system of the Netherlands, because this country has lived side by side with the Netherlands for more than 300 years, so there is a belief that Indonesia cannot create its own system of government. The continuing colonial legacies of development are important to address. This is because many colonial logics are still at the heart of the development project.[6] What happened in Indonesia at that time was the effect of Eurocentric, where the identity of the nation and state had been lost and forgotten, and assumed that the state had been heavily dominated by Western thought. However, with independence, Indonesia had the opportunity to create its own ideology and system of government. Decolonizing is impossible if it does not address issues of global capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, racism, and other forms of structural violence. Ultimately, decolonizing is about liberation and new ways of valuing, not privileging Eurocentric values as universal or superior (Fanon 1963; Tuhiwai Smith 1999; Tuhiwai Smith et al. 2019).

Although already independent, the Dutch came back to Indonesia to invite cooperation, they also occupied various areas in the big islands of Indonesia. The Dutch representative consulted with the then Prime Minister of Indonesia, Sutan Syahrir, and he put forward the condition that Indonesia would agree to the cooperation proposed by the Dutch, on the condition that the Netherlands recognized Indonesia as an independent and sovereign country. The Netherlands only agreed to recognize some independent regions in Indonesia, so Indonesia refused the offer of cooperation. The Dutch also still slaughtered the rebels on the island of Sulawesi, and considered that the island still belonged to them, this reflected that Indonesia had not yet achieved complete independence and was still failing in the Development Project stage.

This lasted for 4 years, accompanied by various rebellions, military aggressions, and treaties and conferences made between Indonesia and the Netherlands. In the end, on December 27, 1949, the Netherlands recognized Indonesia as an independent and sovereign country, and since then Indonesia has gained confidence in their identity and revolutionized its system of government, this took place during the reigns of presidents Soekarno and Suharto. During Suharto’s leadership, military power grew very rapidly, the influx of foreign investors who provided funds to process Indonesia’s natural resources, which this time in the form of oil, gas, and gold, had accelerated the Indonesian economy. However, the amount of corruption and exploitation that occurred during his tenure was very large and worrying, which led to the overthrow of the Suharto government. Economic instability emerged and brought technical assistance funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the hope of restoring economic stability and dealing with high inflation. This reflects to the phenomenon of Modernization, where development progress happened as a move away from tradition and traditional societies, and the growing number of industrialized urban societies over rural agricultural societies. This movement brought Indonesia into the next phase, namely The Globalization Project.

The Globalization Project

The Globalization Project occurs with the existence of technology, market capitalism and world trade, the global divisions of labor, and global production networks. As a standard requirement that the IMF placed on countries in order for them to access funds, Indonesia has made some policy restructuring and national restructuring, which formed into structural adjustment. By joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 and ratifying the agreement through state law, it has given Indonesia access to a freer market and brought rapid progress on its exports and imports.[7] The entry of many transnational corporations at this time is also one of the barometers of the condition of Indonesia which is stepping stone for the globalization project. At this time, Indonesia also adheres to neoliberalism where there is full support for private property rights, free markets, and free trade.

However, with the existence of democracy and liberal freedom brings hedonism, also national and international trade competition. The existence of borderless interactions between individuals, groups, and countries with different levels is an effect of globalization itself. Surely there are good and bad things that Indonesia experienced from this phenomenon. The good thing is that there are a series of policies aimed at opening up the domestic economy in order to expand and deepen integration with economic actors at the international or global level. The bad thing is that the level of intensive movement and unlimited people’s consumption is enough to raise concerns about global warming. The arrival of various technologies and transportation systems has had an impact on the environment, where public awareness is needed to put the break on it and make several adjustments for sustainable development within the country.

The Sustainability Project

In the sustainability project, there is great concern about global warming which has led to the implication of a green economy in various developed countries. Indonesia has not reached this stage even today. Indeed, Indonesia is experiencing the issue of global warming which is very alarming, marked by the uneven distribution of the population that caused several large cities become overpopulated, resulting in an increase of serious air pollution. Floods that are getting worse from year to year also mark the environment in Indonesia that is very unhealthy. Green islands such as Kalimantan and Sulawesi are not spared from the exploitation of foreign companies and investors who give them access to large-scale tree cutting and land burning. I need to explain that Indonesia is a developing country which until now still relies on investors from other countries, Indonesia is also still struggling with deep-rooted corruption, so that the green economy has not become one of the main agendas of this country.

However, as an active member of the United Nations starting in 1950, Indonesia has joined the sustainable development goals, with a world development agenda for peace and prosperity for people and planet earth now and in the future.[8] Also, as one of the UN’s promise of “leaving no one behind”, Indonesia has been actively involved in working on several projects that are created by the SDGs. Some of the several projects are:[9]

  1. Building resilience of health systems to ensure continued provision of SRH services during emergencies in Kalimantan
  2. Integrated Participatory Development and Management Irrigation Project in Sumatera and Sulawesi
  3. FAO-EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance, and Trade (FLEGT) Program in Java
  4. Promoting the gender equality in the HIV responses and reducing stigma, discrimination and violence against women living with HIV and other women affected by HIV in Bali
  5. Strengthening capacity to generate and utilize food security and nutrition evidence to address food insecurity and malnutrition and inform decision making in Papua
  6. Health Governance Initiative (HEART) in Sumatera

With these projects, it is hoped that Indonesia will recover for the better, but it will take a long time and gradually. As we know, sustainability is not a transition, but a longstanding political project. We can understand the development in Indonesia through the lens of the discourse. A discourse can mask itself as a-historical, universal and scientific, but is always located in historical, social and geographical power structures and relations (Focault 1973,1983). The existence of a strong relationship between history, community, and the geographical location of Indonesia is the key for development to occur, moving in a more advanced direction and having boundaries as a standard.


As discussed above, Indonesia is a country that has experienced all four of the chronological approaches that have been mentioned. As a developing country, in my observation, Indonesia is still struggling in the sustainability project, because Indonesia is still in the stage of improving and recovering its economic situation and still has several issues experienced by other developing countries, such as corruption, poverty, low education levels, exploitation of resources. nature, lack of experts and human resources, low standard of living, as well as pollution and lack of clean water.

The SDGs place a disproportionate emphasis on developing countries needing to raise additional finances domestically. This perspective largely ignores the historical injustices and structural inequalities that are the underlying cause of poverty and environmental problems, such as the extraction of wealth and resources from developing countries during the colonial era, or today’s unfair international trade and finance arrangements (STWR 2015). This statement really describes what Indonesia is currently experiencing. In my opinion, the Sustainable Development Goals can be easily implied by developed countries which have been facilitated by stable sources of funds and sophisticated technology. Even the communities and human resources in developed countries have been very supportive in the SDG process itself, but Indonesia still needs a long time to keep up and must carry out a thorough revitalization first in order to achieve the optimal SDG goals.

[1] Conrad, K. (2020, October 5). Which countries have the most islands? WorldAtlas. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/which-countries-have-the-most- islands.html

[2] McMichael, P., & Weber, H. (2020). Development and social change: A global perspective. SAGE Publications.

[3] McMichael, P. (2016). Development and social change: A global perspective. SAGE Publications.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ricklefs, M. C. (2008). A history of modern Indonesia since C. 1200.

[6] Sultana, F. (2019). Decolonizing development education and the pursuit of social justice. Human Geography, 12(3), 31-46. https://doi.org/10.1177/194277861901200305

[7] WTO | Indonesia – Member information. (n.d.). World Trade Organization – Global trade. https://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/countries_e/indonesia_e.htm

[8] Administrator. (n.d.). APA ITU SDGs. SDG Indonesia. https://www.sdg2030indonesia.org/page/8-apa-itu

[9] Sustainable development goals. (n.d.). Sustainable Development Goals | The United Nations in Indonesia. https://indonesia.un.org/en/sdgs

Sekarsari Sugihartono
Sekarsari Sugihartono
I am an international relations master's student at Gadjah Mada University. My interests are SDGs and International Trade Dispute.