A Journey into Aceh

Published in the South Sydney Herald, Febuary 2008.

As I prepared to leave for Aceh recently, I found myself replaying scenes and images from there three years ago – water and waves traveling up to 300/km an hour, buildings and houses completely flattened and destroyed, cars and boats resting on top of buildings or up trees, streets filled with debris. I remembered watching all this, along with the whole world, as the death toll kept rising, and rising.

In the lead up to the 3rd year anniversary of the tsunami, I had the opportunity to visit Aceh with my work for Caritas Australia, the Catholic Church’s international aid and development agency.

Before the devastating tsunami even struck, Aceh was staggering through a violent war of independence. Social and economic conditions in the province were poor. And in the 1970s American oil and gas companies, in agreement with the Indonesian government, began exploiting Aceh’s natural resources, with little compensation or distribution of profit to the people of Aceh.

Fighting between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian military (TNI) had long been raging, but in 2003, after a ‘Cessation of Hostilities Agreement’ collapsed, martial law was imposed. Aceh was effectively closed to the outside world, a huge influx of Indonesian military occurred, international NGO’s were barred and local media was tightly controlled.

This was the reality of people lives in Aceh when the Tsunami hit in 2004.

On the morning of Dec 26 when the earthquake struck, the epicenter was just 150km off the west coast of Aceh. The tsunamis that followed hit this ‘special territory’ of Indonesia harder than any other.

A staggering 136,736 people were confirmed dead and a further 37,063 have never been found. The damage to infrastructure was massive and around 123,000 houses were destroyed, with some 514,150 people fleeing to refugee camps. Then, sprouting from this terrible death and destruction, was an outpouring of generosity from around the world on a scale never seen before (private charitable donations alone reached $2.5billion).

From the capital of Sumatra we boarded a 12 seater plane for Meulaboh, a small coastal town in Aceh. As we flew into the little airport, the plane arced out over the ocean and I was struck by the calm of the water and the sudden realization that this is where it happened.

Once we landed, the next thing that struck me was the large presence of international NGOs – 4WDs branded with logos, office buildings and large storage depots. This little sea side town, previously cut off from any foreign presence, was now well acquainted with “bule” (local slang for white people).

It also soon became obvious that in Aceh, this development community found itself faced with challenges on such a scale never seen before. I distinctly remember a colleague telling me that he had worked in development for over 20 years, in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Rwanda, and all over the world, but never had he worked anywhere as difficult as Aceh. The scale of the disaster, the scale of the response, and the complexities of the social and political environment were a massive challenge.

A large number of development organisations had become operational in Aceh in a short space of time, due to the previous ban as a result of martial law, creating massive problems with coordination and communications. Some NGOs had more funding than UN bodies or government donors, fuelled by extremely generous public giving.

On top of this, reconstruction projects were faced with land rights disputes – where would the new house be rebuilt if the land had been swallowed up by the sea? How could ownership of land be proved when documents were lost in the waves? And then there were also problems in working in the ‘most corrupt province in the most corrupt country’, along with inflation and the difficulty of transporting much needed materials when roads, bridges and ports were badly damaged.

The enormous influx of funds – and the huge pressure from generous donors to see their money getting results – created an urgency to spend money quickly and visibly. Some organisations were accused of ‘building back fast, not building back well’.

This external pressure to get quick results raised all sorts of questions for me about the psychology of giving, and the meaning of ‘good’ development’. The need for scrutiny and accountability when such large sums of money had been donated is obvious. The pressing need for housing and shelter following a disaster like the tsunami is also clear. But, the concept of holistic and sustainable development, which many aid organisations promote, is built on fostering community ownership and development.

‘Development’ means more than just providing housing. Some of the most powerful aspects of development often don’t have a tangible, material outcome. Fundamental building blocks of communities, like income generating activities, education and training are harder to take photographs of, and therefore harder to prove to external donors that they have occurred.

I was thankful to Caritas Australia for teaching me to have this wider view of development, and was proud to learn that the projects we support in Aceh had been largely successful in overcoming such challenges. I was particularly struck by this on our visit to Kuala Tripa, a village about 70kms south of Meulaboh.

Here Caritas Australia supports housing and community development projects, provided by our partner organisation, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). In a reconstruction environment that has been defined by this pressure to spend money quickly and visibly, to get outside contractors in, and to get houses up fast, JRS has been strong willed in enforcing its approach to have beneficiaries carry out the work themselves, in consultation with expert tradespeople.

A lack of community consultation was identified as a major weakness in the overall international response to the tsunami (fuelled by the kind of pressures mentioned above) but by ensuring constant contact and participation with the beneficiaries, JRS succeeded in granting the community ownership over the projects. Community satisfaction with this rebuilding project was the highest in the country.

When we met with the JRS Project Director, Pudji Tursana , she explained that “we have been very careful not to promote dependency, as this will undermine the long term sustainability of all the programs in Aceh. Our philosophy is to empower the people.”

Pudji is a calm woman, wise and just thirty years old. I remember her sincere face as she went on to stress to me that along with empowerment and education, JRS work on advocating for change, because unless the root causes of conflict, poverty and disadvantage – along with attitudes to development and giving – are addressed, long term development can never take place.


Parts of this article reprinted with permission from Caritas Australia.

Caritas Australia is the Catholic agency of international aid and development.
Caritas Australia helps people to help themselves, regardless of race, political beliefs, gender or religion. To support the work of Caritas, or learn more about their projects visit http://www.cartias.org.au or call 1800 024 413


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