Through South-East Asia with the Foreign Minister

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This past week I accompanied German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on his trip to South-East Asia as part of a delegation consisting of CEOs, MPs and journalists. As an anthropologist who tries to impart her know-how regarding cultural globalization to her co-travellers, I have quickly acquired the reputation of not only coming up with surprising and often slightly absurd stories, but also of expanding the tight official schedule to include a few extras.

Thus when I set off in Singapore to visit the headquarters of the WTO, I was accompanied by two members of the press, as curious as me to find out first hand what this NGO was doing. Contrary to what you may think, the WTO is not the World Trade Organisation, but the cleverly chosen acronym for the World Toilet Organisation, founded in 2001 by Jack Sim.  Together with country-based NGOs around the world, the WTO works on creative approaches to break the toilet taboo, creating better toilet conditions and build capacity for people to help themselves in this effort. For their activities they received the Social Entrepreneur Award from the Schwab Foundation in 2005.

But then, the day had already started on a bad note.

That morning, at 7:30 a.m., a phone call had woken me up in Jakarta. At the other end was not the automatic voice delivering the wake-up call I had ordered the night before, but a panicking employee of the German embassy, who told me that the convoy to the airport was about to leave in 2 minutes. “If you don’t turn up immediately, you will be left behind”, the voice said. I slammed down the receiver, slipped into my clothes, grabbed my baggage and ran downstairs to find myself, all sweaty and uncombed, in the car taking us to the airport and from there to Singapore.

Unfortunately Deepa, the director of WTO, with whom I had corresponded electronically, neither answered her phone nor reacted to the mails I sent to her while on board the Singapore Flyer, the largest observation wheel in the world. Not to be discouraged, the three of us set off to the WTO headquarters in Singapore’s Race Road. How disappointed we were, when we found out that WTO had moved its office the very same day to a location too far for us to reach without missing our plane to Hanoi, our next stop.

In Jakarta, I had been more successful. Here, Johanes Herlinijanto had introduced me to William Kwan and his Indonesian Pluralism Institute (IPI) (Thanks Johanes!).

Shortly after our arrival in Indonesia I had had the privilege to attend a round-table discussion about Islam and Religious Pluralism in Indonesia with Steinmeier and high-ranking Indonesian representatives of the Islamic and Christian communities and consequently was curious to find out which approach IPI was pursuing in order to improve the relations between the various ethnic communities. (In 1998 tensions between the Chinese minority and other Indonesian populations had resulted in the killing of Hundreds of citizens and again and again one hears about violent encounters between Muslims and Christians, as well as public demonstrations in favour of the introduction of Sharia law.)

In his research institute in a pleasant Jakarta neighbourhood, William explained his approach towards peaceful community relations. Instead of organising intercultural workshops with members of different ethnic communities (whose effectiveness I myself also greatly doubt), William believes that cultural conflicts are not rooted in cultural differences, but in economic and social power differentials. In order to bridge those, he advocates small but effective local interventions.

Two years ago IPI started a project with the aim of revitalizing Lasem Batik in Central-West-Java. Traditionally Javanese women produced the characteristic and very beautiful Lasem batik textiles, which were than marketed by Chinese merchants. In the wake of modernisation, the demand for Lasem Batik decreased and only a few of the women capable of producing the textiles still do so.

With a combination of microcredits, capacity trainings, innovative designs and a small network of international supporters, IPI has set out to stimulate both demand and production of the beautiful fabrics. I hope to hear more about the project on betterplace.

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