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Aceh a testament to aid successes and failures

One year after the tsunami, Aceh is testament both to the successes and the failures that can come from billions of dollars in aid money.
Port workers load a World Food Program aid boat with sacks of rice to be shipped from the port near Banda Aceh to the coastal city of Calang in November.David Guttenfelder / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It has been a year since the tsunami laid waste to the isolated Indonesian province of Aceh, but tens of thousands of people still live in a vast archipelago of shanty towns made of scrap wood spit back by the sea. Along the coast, towns and villages remain nothing but swampland and ankle-high rubble. In plywood barracks hurriedly built across the region, survivors are jammed together in windowless rooms.

Many people are desperately frustrated.

“We know a lot of money is going to Aceh, but where is it? Where are the buildings? Where is the construction?” demanded Zoelfitri, a 32-year-old man who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name. He lives in a homemade shanty on the fringes of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital on the northwestern edge of Sumatra island, and cares for nearly a dozen relatives who lost parents, children and siblings in the tsunami.

But the reality here runs deeper than the devastation, deeper even than the frustration of survivors.

Slow recovery
To see only the destruction is to miss what else has come to Aceh since the tsunami: the villages slowly rebuilding with the help of aid workers; the miles of sewage pipes drilled in the rich Aceh soil; the hospital emergency rooms that, despite the dread of the early days, never filled with victims of post-tsunami disease epidemics.

One year later, Aceh is testament both to the successes and the failures that can come from billions of dollars in aid money.

It is also testament to the strength of the Acehnese people, a long-ignored Indonesian minority who were already suffering through a bloody separatist movement and a brutal government crackdown when the sea rose up that Sunday morning, killing at least 131,338 people in Indonesia and leaving more than 25,000 missing.

It wasn’t just Aceh that suffered. At least 31,229 people died in Sri Lanka, 10,749 in India and 5,395 in Thailand. More than 500 others were killed in countries as distant as Somalia. The total across the dozen nations hit is at least 216,000 dead and missing.

But it was in Aceh, just 160 miles from the epicenter of the undersea earthquake that fathered the tsunami, that the destruction reached biblical proportions, with 100-foot walls of water slamming into the coast at more than 350 mph.

It was 7:59 a.m.

In a moment, tens of thousands of people were dead and much of Aceh’s coastline was in ruins. The worst-hit areas were simply obliterated. Even now, it is often difficult to distinguish between a destroyed rice paddy and a once-crowded neighborhood. In many areas, both remain nothing but swampland.

Enormous sums
Within hours, as the world watched on TV, the international aid community began one of the biggest emergency assistance programs in history.

The sums involved, both what was needed and what was donated, were enormous.

Indonesia estimated its post-tsunami needs at $5 billion to $5.5 billion and received pledges totaling $6.5 billion, of which nearly $4.5 billion has been collected, according to estimates compiled by The Associated Press.

Where has the money gone?

—By the end of the year, the World Food Program estimates it will have spent more than $125 million in Aceh. Among its expenses: nearly $20 million on helicopters and airplanes that have ferried 40,000 passengers and 1,000 tons of cargo across the region and $26 million to buy more than 72,000 tons of food aid.

—Oxfam, the Britain-based aid organization, has spent some $11.5 million on public health, water and sanitation programs in Aceh. That includes everything from building or repairing 3,200 wells to delivering more than 300 million liters of drinking water.

—Save the Children spent more than $1 million buying textbooks and school supplies after one-fifth of Aceh’s schools were damaged or destroyed.

Billions, though, remain unspent, now earmarked for the years of work ahead.

Save The Children, for instance, still has nearly two-thirds of its $157 million budget for Indonesia, now planned for use through 2009.

The tasks remaining are immense: rebuilding the road that runs along the battered western coast; building tens of thousands of homes; digging sewage systems and pipe networks to bring clean water.

The aid community insists that reconstruction must be viewed in the long-term, despite pressure many feel from donors to get things done as fast as possible.

“We don’t want the situation where the pressure to spend money makes us do things so quickly,” said John Sparrow, of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Invasion of good intentions
In the first few days, though, aid workers were simply stunned by what they found. Corpses filled the streets of Banda Aceh. Entire villages had disappeared. Hunger and disease threatened to kill still more people.

Making things worse, the local government had basically ceased to exist. Officials were dead, hospitals destroyed, electricity connections and phone services were gone.

“It was pretty much a failed state,” said Ahmad Humam Hamid, an academic and longtime human rights campaigner who leads the Aceh Recovery Forum, which has been in the forefront of working for survivors’ rights.

The result was an invasion of good intentions and almost no oversight. “People came and did pretty much whatever they thought was right,” he said.

The early days, many acknowledge, were chaotic as planes and helicopters quickly began ferrying in everything from surgeons to high-calorie food bars.

Soon, at least 200 aid agencies were working in Aceh.

“The result was a messy relief operation,” according to a recent report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, “in which information circulated badly and coordination at times appeared nonexistent.”

Aid agency competition
The early days saw intense competition among aid agencies eager to “plant the flag” — aid community parlance for showing quick results.

Agency coordination meetings were often exercises in barely controlled chaos, with aid workers laying claim to rebuilding destroyed villages they’d “discovered,” and making promises that often remained unfulfilled. As the meetings became known for their disorganization, many people began avoiding them, making coordination even more difficult.

In part, the trouble was the money.

In major humanitarian emergencies, the United Nations is most often the biggest financial player, allowing it to oversee the aid situation as it doles out funding to agencies for particular projects.

This time the roles were reversed, as aid agencies arrived in the tsunami-hit regions with enormous financial resources.

Where $1.4 billion was pledged to the United Nations for tsunami work, nearly four times that much — $5.5 billion — was pledged to non-governmental organizations and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, according to the office of the U.N. Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery.

“You’ve been given all this money by the public so there is huge pressure,” said Sarah Lumsdon, a top official in Aceh with Oxfam. “I think in the early days (the competition) was quite bad ... Now, it’s much better.”

As the weeks passed, order did come to Aceh. The smaller aid groups began to leave, the remaining agencies began to work together more closely and the Indonesian government launched a surprisingly successful agency to help oversee reconstruction.

The Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency is headed by Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, a former energy minister famous for remaining untainted by corruption in a nation where bureaucratic inefficiency is often the norm and where government officials regularly become rich.

Kuntoro began work with a broadside at the chaos.

“It’s shocking,” he told reporters in early May, barely a week after taking over the agency. “There are no roads being built, there are no bridges being built, there are no harbors being built. When it comes to reconstruction — zero.”

Corruption probes
He cast aside much the government’s massive reconstruction plan, brought in outside consultants, asked for community input, and pushed problems into the open.

He also invited international auditors to examine the agency’s books and created an anti-corruption investigation team to probe his own department.

While no one is insisting that corruption has been eradicated in Aceh — the province has long been one of Indonesia’s most corrupt, with the state governor himself serving a 10-year prison sentence in a pre-tsunami corruption case — the reconstruction efforts have been largely free of accusations of serious graft.

Housing shortfalls
If there has been one standout aid failure in Aceh, it’s housing.

Flush with funds and staff, planners at first focused on building permanent replacement houses for the nearly half-million people left homeless.

But problems began to mount quickly. The biggest issue was legal: Only a tiny percentage of people who lost their homes turned out to hold title to their land. Often, their families had lived on the land for generations as renters or squatters, or their ownership papers had been lost in the tsunami.

Compounding this were issues ranging from a shortage of timber to poor planning.

As a result, thousands of survivors were left in tents and shanty towns that began slowly falling apart as Sumatra’s brutal heat gave way to the rainy season.

“For the survivors who are in the tents, the conditions are unacceptable. There is no other word for it,” Eric Morris, the U.N. Recovery Coordinator for Aceh and the nearby island of Nias, said in a September interview with The Associated Press.

It was only in the summer, long after the tsunami, that most aid agencies shifted their approaches and began planning tens of thousands of sturdy temporary shelters that could last until permanent housing could be built.

“This is fundamental,” said Paul Dillon, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, which has become a construction force in Aceh, building roughly 900 homes for tsunami survivors, 37 medical clinics and 113 temporary schools. “People have been patient, they’ve been supportive ... but to have (aid workers) go into a particular area and say “we will do this” and then fail to do it that is unacceptable.”

Across Aceh, though, plenty of aid workers are following through on their promises, struggling to put Aceh back on its feet.

They are a hybrid tribe: Indonesian, American, Dutch, Korean, British, Japanese and an array of other nationalities. They range from people just out of college to veterans with advanced degrees in development economics.

Conversations at the tiny Banda Aceh airport, jammed for nearly every flight with aid workers, revolve around everything from ways to ship 150 prefab houses in from Turkey to tips on prime surfing spots.

Along Aceh’s east coast, one young Spanish engineer has been trying to bring water and sanitation to thousands of displaced people.

David Osorio’s enthusiasm for sewage systems appears limitless.

“For me, that’s beautiful,” Osorio said, pointing to a group of sewage tanks he built outside a set of barracks. “It’s clean. There aren’t so much mosquitoes, not so much flies.”

Spending complexities
A rail-thin man almost always clutching a cigarette, he’s clearly popular among the people in the barracks, and he calls out greetings in his exuberantly bad Indonesian.

His work reflects many of the complexities of aid spending.

The issues are partially about finances, whether it’s $7.50 to deliver a truckload of water or tens of thousands of dollars to install a large sewer system, but more about the larger implications of how the aid will affect people’s lives.

When, for instance, is it right to install running water in a survivors’ camp, which may encourage people to stay there too long? Or when should water be trucked to a devastated village where the wells have turned salty? The trucked water will let people return home, but to a village that remains largely destroyed.

“It’s all about balance,” said Osorio, who works for Oxfam.

Back to the village
He sees his role, in part, in helping restore the pre-tsunami sense of community, even if it means moving back to a village still in ruins.

“Even if they aren’t perfect, they have 1,000 times the dignity” in their own villages, he said. “Before (the tsunami) their life was the village and now it’s back to the village.”

The villagers with whom he works agree.

“The people don’t want to wait for help in the barracks. They want to get back to their daily work. They want to sleep at home,” said Abduraman, a leader in a pair of destroyed twin fishing villages, Geunteng Timur and Geunteng Barat, where Oxfam trucks in water every day.

For now, most villagers are living in homes they’ve fashioned from plastic sheeting and scrap wood, but houses, real houses, with concrete floors, metal roofs and maybe even indoor toilets, have been promised by various organizations. For now, though, the village is waiting.

Asked why, Abduraman shrugs.

“We must be patient.”