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Aceh's unfinished recovery

Survivors surveying the ruins of their former homes after the tsunami hit in Meulaboh, West Aceh (File photo 2004) Jefri Aries/IRIN
Survivors surveying the ruins of their former homes in Meulaboh, West Aceh (File photo 2004)

Guest post by Lilianne Fan 

The Indian Ocean tsunami, triggered by a massive earthquake just off the coast of the province of Aceh on tip the Indonesian island of Sumatra, released the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs and devastated coastal towns and communities. The impact was global in scale - an estimated 270,000 people killed or missing across 14 countries, with casualties in 46 nations.

But while the tsunami’s destruction was felt around the world, Aceh was by far the region most devastated by the disaster, bearing almost half of the total damage and losses worldwide.

Today, 10 years on, Aceh is widely regarded as a success story in disaster reconstruction. This is not entirely surprising -over the four year mandate of the government-led recovery process, Aceh saw a remarkable amount of construction. With the help of hundreds of aid agencies and donors, under the coordination of the government of Indonesia, more than 140,000 new homes were built, along with around 4,000km of roads, 2,000 schools, 1,000 health facilities, 23 seaports, and 13 airports and landing strips. One of the most prominent symbols of Aceh’s reconstruction is the 242km-long highway from provincial capital Banda Aceh to Meulaboh along the province’s formerly devastated west coast, built with the vision of stimulating economic activity and supporting Aceh’s long-term development.

This is the final part in a five-part series looking back on the  Indian Ocean tsunami
 Part 1: Aceh at 10 - a look back at the response
 Part 2: The tsunami that helped stop a war
 Part 3: The legacy of Aceh's emergency economy
 Part 4:Sri Lanka, the tsunami and the evolution of disaster response

But while Aceh’s physical reconstruction is impressive and the Indonesian government’s Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency for Aceh and Nias (BRR) has rightly been praised as a model of post-crisis governance and leadership, these achievements obscure deeper problems that have made long-term recovery for many Acehnese difficult and elusive. The hard truth is that for most Acehnese, their “recovery” still remains an unfinished journey, as many continue to struggle to make ends meet.

Even after receiving more than US$7.7 billion in aid, from both international and national sources, Aceh remains one of the poorest provinces in Indonesia with 18 percent of the population living below the country’s poverty line (significantly higher than the national average of 11 percent). Today, in spite of much optimism that the province would undergo an economic renaissance on the back of the reconstruction bubble, Aceh’s economy is stagnant and unemployment is high.

And while tsunami aid could not possibly have been expected to lift all Acehnese out of poverty, some critical questions ought to be asked about whether that aid struck the right balance. Was the prioritization on physical rebuilding along Aceh’s west coast appropriate in a province that suffered from not only a tsunami but also a 30-year conflict and decades of isolation and underdevelopment? Should more aid have been spent on supporting sustainable livelihoods and less on physical infrastructure? Could more effort have been made to shift excessive tsunami aid to poor conflict areas?

Ghost villages, empty highway

All along the west coast of Aceh are houses built with aid money - once sturdy buildings, now abandoned and decayed, forming ghost villages, such as in the villages of Lhok Kruet, Nusa and Babah Dua in the district of Aceh Jaya. Without regular income, many Acehnese simply cannot afford to maintain their new houses, nor to pay for infrastructure and utility connections, and have found alternative shelter, including sharing rented accommodation with relatives.

Many tsunami survivors, including children and youth who became heads of households and breadwinners in the aftermath of the disaster, feel they have few options but to migrate, often illegally, to seek work. Moving to big cities in Indonesia and Malaysia in search of work, many have also abandoned their aid-built houses in pursuit of livelihood security. Such economic pressures have a direct negative impact on children’s education - Aceh’s school drop-out rate of 26 percent is one of the highest in the country, and orphans from poor backgrounds are the single largest group among drop-outs. In addition, in 2013-2014, Aceh had the highest number of secondary students who failed the national exams. They also have an impact on women, who are left to take care of children and the elderly, a role which they played during the years of conflict when many men were forced to flee.

In all fairness, tsunami aid cannot be blamed for Aceh’s continuing problems. Indeed, Aceh had multiple problems before the tsunami, first among them the 30-year conflict between the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM) and the Indonesian government that killed an estimated 30,000 people, left over 300,000 seriously injured, and displaced an estimated 600,000 people.

The conflict also devastated the social and economic fabric of the province, and weakened its institutions. During the years of fighting, human rights violations against rebels and civilians alike were rampant, homes and schools became regular targets of arson attacks. The social development costs of the conflict were alarming. In 2002, just two years before the tsunami, the poverty rate stood at 30 percent, more than half the population had no access to running water and one in three children under the age of five was under-nourished. Farmers were too afraid to attend to their fields, while illicit businesses, including in logging, arms, drugs, and extortion, thrived.

Many hoped that the peace agreement, accelerated by the tsunami, would allow Aceh’s conflict-affected communities to also benefit from the large volume of aid in the province. But while damage and loss from the conflict is estimated to be more than $10 billion, conflict aid to Aceh reached only around $800 million, or one-seventh the total of tsunami aid. Today, many rural households continue to struggle to make ends meet: Aceh’s anticipated “peace dividend” has yet to become a reality.

Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, director of BRR, admitted in 2008 that "the rural economy on the coastline that was hit by the tsunami is back, I can say that with full confidence. The rural economy in the hinterland that was affected by the conflict is not back." Recent psychosocial research by the Mulia Hati Foundation, a local NGO, along Aceh’s west coast revealed that many Acehnese experience poverty as a “third wave of trauma”, on top of the trauma of the tsunami and that of the conflict. Indeed, Aceh’s conflict-era political economy hasn’t disappeared since the tsunami or the signing of the peace agreement; it has, on the contrary, adapted and persisted, creating new inequalities and putting control of the economy into the hands of a new political elite.

Blind aid

But while the international community cannot be held responsible for Aceh’s deep structural and political problems, decisions made about how tsunami aid was spent and short time-frames for aid programmes have had a significant impact on Aceh’s continued lack of social and economic development and the persistence of predatory politics and poor governance in the province.

First, international donor funding went from billions to virtually nothing in the space of a few years, making it difficult for most agencies to develop long-term community programmes. Second, aid was dramatically uneven, with the bulk focused on rebuilding housing and infrastructure and only a small portion allocated to livelihood recovery. Third, even when aid was allocated to livelihoods initiatives, these were too often unsustainable, with many agencies involved in “supply-driven” short-term assistance, such as distributing fishing boats and large cash grants which distorted the market, without also addressing the root causes of poverty. Fourth, tsunami aid was conflict-blind, creating new inequalities and exclusions, with an enormous amount of tsunami aid creating a “gold coast”, while the conflict-affected areas received barely any assistance after the signing of the peace agreement in Helsinki in August 2005. At the same time, housing construction also created some opportunities for Aceh’s new GAM elite, some of whom transformed successfully into contractors, deepening perceptions among Aceh’s conflict affected communities that they had simply been forgotten by the international community as well as their own leaders alike.

Part of the problem was one of volume. As Craig Thorburn of Monash University, who led a multi-year research project on community recovery in Aceh, observed: “the sheer volume of this aid -in combination with the ambitious deadlines set for the recovery process -inevitably resulted in serious overlaps and redundancies, mistargeting and hastily planned and implemented programs.” Poor use of aid funds were also due to the intense pressure on aid agencies - from donors, the public and media - to spend funds quickly, rather than to invest it in ways that might support more thoughtful and sustainable recovery and transition processes. At the same time, in their enthusiasm to help, many actors were simply blind to the realities of power in Aceh, including the impact of 30 years of armed conflict. 

A key lesson for the aid community from the 2004 tsunami and the Aceh reconstruction process is the need to think more critically about what will actually help people the most in a given political context in the long-run, not just what we want to do to help them.

While this seems straightforward, such common sense continues to elude the aid community over and over again today, including in the 2010 Haiti earthquake response and the recent Typhoon Haiyan response, both cases where local government, civil society and private sector felt by-passed by international aid actors who created parallel systems and overlapping initiatives.

A more sustainable approach must start with a deeper understanding of the root causes of vulnerability as well as the relationships of power that keep people vulnerable. Even if international aid cannot solve all problems within crises-affected societies, at the very least aid actors should ensure that they are not blind to them. At the same time, international aid donors and agencies must work harder to overcome institutional and financial barriers that prevent them from implementing responses that put the realities of vulnerable people at the centre.

The tenth anniversary of the tsunami is a time for remembrance and reflection; it also offers us an opportunity to recommit our efforts to help Aceh and other tsunami-affected communities complete their unfinished recovery. So much has already been invested in rebuilding these societies. What is now needed is renewed momentum to complete the last mile so that the response to the tsunami can be a proud legacy for us all.

Lilianne Fan is a Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Policy Group in London. She has worked on Aceh since 1999, including four years in tsunami recovery operations.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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