On 26 December 2004, an earthquake and tsunami wiped out homes, buildings and roads, and claimed over 167,000 lives in the northern Indonesian province of Aceh. More than US$7 billion in donations and government funds poured into Aceh, which had experienced three decades of civil war, forming the largest reconstruction project in the developing world at the time.
One of the principal activities of the relief effort was to rebuild the estimated 130,000 destroyed homes under the ‘Build Back Better’ slogan, coined by US President Bill Clinton. Some have criticized the effort for resulting in shoddy new buildings.
“If you build houses the prime objective is quality, and not the amount of bad quality and unsafe houses,” said Teddy Boen, a senior adviser to the World Seismic Safety Initiative and a structural engineer based in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.
Experts warn that the ‘build back better’ paradigm - which the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has categorized under “resilience” - although well-intentioned, needs to be tailored to local needs and resources, and balance community involvement with well-managed expectations and results.
With a deluge of money and aid organizations entering Aceh after the disaster struck, some believe reconstruction overlooked quality.
“Experts sent to Aceh by NGOs - foreign as well as local - mostly had no experience in reconstruction. Some had experience in emergency relief and humanitarian problems… how can you expect them to have a clue concerning the construction of houses, not to mention earthquake-resistant houses,” said Boen, who has authored several papers analyzing the re-construction efforts in Aceh.
“I think somebody from the authorities is simply greedy,” he told IRIN, calling incompetent contractors who rushed to get reconstruction contracts“soldiers of fortune”. A 2008 report published by the US-based Brookings Institution and authored by World Bank officials, noted that “a lack of experience and expertise in housing reconstruction was perhaps the greatest challenge facing NGOs”. It pointed out that no standards were set for the quality or type of housing at the beginning of the reconstruction effort.
As the world’s biggest humanitarian operation at the time, the Aceh reconstruction process experienced a range of complications. UNDP said the Indonesian government, which led the relief effort, carried out more than 5,000 of its own reconstruction projects while coordinating more than 12,500 other projects involving more than 60 bilateral donors and multilateral agencies, as well as roughly 700 NGOs. According to an appraisal report by the Asia Foundation, coordination issues plagued nearly every sector of the response.
The battle over “better”
“How do we ensure that we do not raise expectations unrealistically on the ground, while also helping the communities on their own terms?” asked Ilan Kelman, a health expert at the University College London’s Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction. An article Kelman co-authored in 2008, evaluating ‘build back better’ in Aceh, commented, “The word ‘better’ can have multiple interpretations”.
The problem of defining “better” was described as an “uncomfortable question that the humanitarian community has yet to properly address” in a November 2013 Overseas Development Institute (ODI) report. ODI research fellow Lilianne Fan told IRIN the main issue was balancing international expectations with dynamic and diverse local needs.
“Transformation and betterment cannot be understood as ‘do what the international paradigm tells you to do'. It has to have a certain degree of flexibility or it won't work,” she said, echoing a 2009 paper by an official at Global Communities, which used the organization’s experience when rebuilding Aceh to argue that humanitarian actors should position themselves primarily as mediators to ensure that communities are heard while standards are followed.
Problems and process
“There can't be solutions before you know the problems,” Fan pointed out.
“From the outset, the goal should not be a satisfactory conclusion,” said Kelman. “It should be smaller - the free and fair exchange of information about the upcoming processes, and what changes can be expected and when.” He stressed the importance of including people, regardless of ethnicity, gender, disability, or age, among other characteristics.
However, others say despite assertions that the rebuilding in Aceh had mixed infrastructural outcomes, the process has resulted in crucial durable improvements.
Fan noted that “What was built back better in the end wasn't necessarily the physical infrastructure, but the political relationships, which are durable and will lead to better development outcomes in the long term.”