Why is there a gap between national policy and law and local social realities?

By Jan Michiel Otto

Quote: “Such an approach challenges the assumption that policies are implemented in accordance with their normative content…”

The findings related to jatropha show a disturbingly wide gap between the objectives of national policy and law and local social realities. This has made us wonder what are the reasons of this implementation failure.  Indonesia’s policymakers may have learned lessons from the past, when in  the first decades after decolonization, many overambitious policies and laws were promulgated –  not only in Indonesia but in most countries which had become newly independent after the Second World War. Their aim was often a transformation of societies in the name of ‘development’. Successes and failures in implementation have been documented, rom the 1950s to the 1990s, in many  international studies of policy processes in developing countries,  trying to explain them (1) (2) (3).

Many of these studies in ‘development administration’ aimed at  developing a coherent set of explanatory factors. These factors looked at a particular policy, and explained the success or failure of its implementation by looking systematically at an implementing institution as well as its  target group or addressees, and at their wider contexts. Since the 2000s such explanatory frameworks have often been regarded as a rather outdated type of functional analysis – as too narrow, too positivist. Present explanatory frameworks generally lean towards broader concepts of governance, as elaborated by Hyden (4), focusing on the interrelations between state, politics, economy, and civil society, or emphasise, like Arnscheidt,  the ‘framing’ of policy processes, rather than the actual processes (5) .

In JARAK we have employed an up-to-date actor-network approach following actors in the jatropha network as they have moved between institutions involved in various activities within the jatropha value chain. This ‘governance’ approach has allowed us to understand how policy is translated by each actor, whether public or private, in order to fit particular objectives and interests (6). In the end, however,  for a comprehensive analysis of implementation failures of jatropha policy, much of the abovementioned development administration’ literature has not lost its explanatory power. In this literature two distinct strands can be distinguished.

The first strand focuses on the government, the development problems it faces, the policies (goals and tasks) designed to deal with these issues, and the removal of ‘barriers’ in state and society.  Explanations usually refer to the quality of policies, of state institutions, notably their resources and capacity, as well as information and compliance of the wider public. Such perspectives are often referred to as being state-oriented, policy-oriented, managerial, instrumentalist, top-down, normative, and positivist. From the late 1950s until the 1990s Cornell’s Milton Esman was a pioneering author (1), (2) in this strand of development administration.

Scholars belonging to a second strand, in contrast, see the whole process of policy implementation primarily as derived from, and part of, society. Implementation in their view consists of the sum of the actual decisions made by institutional and individual actors, like  civil servants and citizens. The latter may decide to interact, or not, and they may do so in accordance with the prescribed goals and procedures, or not. Their positions and decisions are obviously influenced by the wider socio-cultural, economic, and political contexts in which they live and work. Such studies are often referred to as being society-oriented, people-oriented, contextual, bottom-up, empirical, external, interpretive, critical or anthropological. Since the late 1950s until the late 1990s Riggs (7) (8) was a leading author in this second category of research in development administration.

In our view, unsurprisingly, implementation of people-oriented policies can best be explained when we combine the two approaches, i.e. the state perspective with the peoples’ perspective, in other words, the system’s view with the grassroots view, the institution’s side with the citizens’ side (9). Hence, in this combined functional analysis we look first at a policy and its implementation’s successes and failures. Subsequently we focus on the causational factors residing in state institutions and officials (building on the first strand), and in the local communities of citizens who are ‘targeted’ or ‘addressed’ by the policy. Finally, we take into account  the larger contexts – legal, governance, political, economic, socio-cultural, historical and geographical – which may have affected the policy, the implementing institution(s) and the ‘target group(s)’ (building on the second strand).

To start with the citizen’s perspective, for a people-oriented  policy to have the officially desired effect, it is firstly required that addressees perceive it to be in their interest if they would behave  in accordance with what the policy expects from them (9). This interest is likely to be present if such behaviour would fulfill a pre-existing need, if there is no preferred private alternative available, and if the expected behaviour would not violate respected local norms. Secondly, even if such interest is there, an effective interaction requires proper access or reach. People’s access to state institutions is often hindered by barriers, notably of a cognitive, economic, geographical or psychological nature. Conversely, the capacity of state institutions to reach out to citizens is often reduced by a government’s physical capacities, the quality of its communication, and the actual availability of citizens at certain places and times. If, as a result of all this, there is no perceived interest on the side of the people, the state may still impose its political and administrative will by enforced implementation.

In the case of jatropha, it turned out that, after all, farmers do not have sufficient interest in jatropha cultivation because there is no profitable outlet for their produce; the same applied to plantation companies.  Another addressee of Indonesian biofuel policy is Pertamina, a state-owned oil and gas company, which was assigned a role as a stand-by buyer of biofuel produced from jatropha. Pertamina’s core business, however, is based on fossil fuels. It was clearly against the interest of Pertamina to buy biofuel, which is more expensive than fossil fuel. As a consequence policy targets for biofuel blending were not met.

From a state perspective, implementation failure may also occur if state institutions are not equipped with adequate resources, i.e. personal resources, material resources and financial resources – of sufficient quantities and qualities. Budgetary constraints did play a role in Van Rooijen’s study on jatropha activities in Flores’ Sikka district (10). The district agency for agriculture and plantations only continued jatropha activities for as long as there was a budget allocated to them from the national level. However, the allocation for the development of jatropha plantations and the acquisition of processing equipment was not continued, and the district government was not willing to allocate its own budget for jatropha activities. In addition, the lack of trained staff was also a factor, but more crucial were perhaps leadership and internal structure, which have to do with administrative culture and motivation. In Van Rooijen’s case there was a lack of “ownership” of the jatropha policy, as it was considered “national,” not “district” policy. In addition, there were diverging policy priorities at the district level. At the district planning office (BAPPEDA), for example, most financial and human resources were directed towards the development of a new spatial plan and the coordination of the provincial Anggur Merah program, which involved direct cash transfers to farmers’ groups to develop small-scale enterprises. At the agricultural and plantation agency the first priority was food security (the distribution of hybrid corn varieties) and combatting pests and diseases that threaten the productivity of two of the district’s most important cash crops (cacao and coconut). The head of the agency perceived these programs to be more important for poverty reduction than jatropha, as the market for jatropha seeds was still very insecure.

The JARAK study also looked at law in its socio-legal dimensions. In fact, the factors mentioned above in italics, explaining policy implementation, can also be applied mutatis mutandis to socio-legal studies into the implementation of law. Problems of implementation, i.e. the limits of effective legal action, have been extensively studied in socio-legal studies. Whereas western countries have seen ‘clear examples in legal history of grotesque and costly failures in the attempts to use law to alter deep-rooted patterns of social behavior’ (11), this is even more the case with laws of developing countries, which have often deliberately been enacted as programs for ‘development’  involving  radical transformations of society (12), without paying due attention to the people, who as ‘role occupants’ in the words of Seidman et al. (13), were supposed to change behavior according to newly prescribed laws.

In the case of jatropha, laws and regulations sometimes created unintended opportunities. The rule that investors need to have applied for a location permit prior to negotiations with individual landowners created an opportunity for project developers to make money. Ignorance about legal procedures among international investors enabled those developers to operate as gatekeepers between international investors, government agencies and local communities. Misunderstandings about the nature of such location permits creates the opportunity to trade in “legal commodities”: location permits are traded as “development options” (14)(15).

In sum, over the last decades the key variables mentioned in this short piece, such as policies, tasks, legal rules, interest, access, resources, leadership, internal structure and administrative culture, reach, and enforcement, have been quite common in functional ex-post implementation research. If they would also have been applied in a solid ex-ante study about the government’s jatropha plans, an exceptionally unrealistic and costly piece of Indonesian policy and law body of policy and legislation could have been avoided.


  1. M. J. Esman, The elements of institution-building, in J. Eaton (ed.), Institution Building and Development: From Concepts to Application. p. 19-39 (Sage Publications, Beverly Hills/London, 1972).
  2. M. J. Esman, Management Dimensions of Development: Perspectives and Strategies (Kumarian Press, West Hartford, CT, 1991).
  3. T. Smith, The policy implementation process. Policy Sciences 4, 197-209 (1973).
  4. G. Hyden, J. Court, and K. Mease, Making sense of governance: empirical evidence from sixteen developing countries (Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, 2004).
  5. J. Arnscheidt, “Debating” Nature Conservation: Policy, Law and Practice in Indonesia. A Discourse Analysis of History and Present (Leiden University Press, Leiden, 2009).
  6. J. A. C. Vel, “A framework for studying developments in the jatropha sector,” paper presented at the JARAK workshop, organized by the Van Vollenhoven Institute and the International Institute of Asian Studies, Leiden, March, 30 and 31, 2011;
  7. F. Riggs, The Ecology of Administration, (Asia Publishing House, Bombay, 1961).
  8. F. Riggs, Administration in Developing Countries: The Theory of Prismatic Society (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1964).
  9. J.M. Otto, Politics, Administration and Rural Development in Egypt, in H.K. Asmerom and R.B. Jain (eds), Politics, Administration and Public Policy in Developing Countries,  p. 103-133 (VU University Press,  Amsterdam, 1993)
  10. R. Cotterrell, The Sociology of Law. An Introduction (Butterworths, London, 1992) p.55
  11. A. Allott, The Limits of Law (Butterworths, London, 1980).
  12. A. Seidman, R. Seidman, N. Abeyesekere, Legislative Drafting for Democratic Social Change (Kluwer Law International, London/Cambridge, 2001).
  13. James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1990).
  14. J. McCarthy, J. Vel, S. Afiff, A land grab scenario for Indonesia? Diverse trajectories and virtual land grabs in the Outer Islands. The Journal of Peasant Studies 39(2) 521-549 (2012)
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