Indonesia: Post-reconstruction Aceh - Leftover problems

News and Press Release
Originally published
On this day five years ago, a 9.1-magnitude undersea earthquake occurred in the Indian Ocean, unleashing an enormous tsunami that swept across the region. Vice President Boediono is scheduled to lead a commemoration ceremony of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami this Saturday in Banda Aceh with several ministers attending. The Jakarta Post's Hotli Simanjuntak reviews how physical reconstruction work and recovery and assistance programs for tsunami victims have been implemented in Aceh.

A building with a unique architectural design stands right on the heart of Banda Aceh, Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam, to commemorate the devastating tsunami both to local and international communities.

Apart from this museum, thousands of houses of the same style and hundreds of public facilities have also been built from the Sumatra's outermost cape of Ujung Batee to West Aceh, once flattened to the ground by the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami.

Data from the Aceh Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency (BRR) shows that during the five-year reconstruction process the agency has built 140,304 houses, 1,759 schools, 1,115 health facilities, 996 government institution buildings, 363 bridges, 23 ports, 13 airports and reconstructed 3,696 kilometers of roads.

"Aceh has completely changed in comparison to before the tsunami. There is no other place in Indonesia that is capable of developing and changing that fast," Aceh Judicial Monitoring Institute chairman Hendra Budian said.

Hendra said the extraordinary change was not just physical but occurred in the local's psyche and behavior. Additionally their language capacity has altered.

"It's now easy to find foreign terminology used among NGO activists used among the local community to communicate with each other," Hendra said.

Other positive things, he added, included the openness among the local community that had long been known as closed and suspicious toward newcomers as the result of years of conflicts.

"The five year reconstruction process has enabled them to become more open, thanks to the cultural penetration by both international humanitarian communities and aid from other Indonesian regions," Hendra said.

He added it was not difficult these days to find Acehnese sitting at cafes, browsing the Internet with their laptops and using free Internet services. This excluded other business opportunities opened for Acehnese including restaurants or Western eateries.

"This has also influenced the way the Acehnese community think," he said.

Hendra, however, expressed concerns that the condition might change when the NGOs left the region as their term to work there was also finished.

Currently, he said, there are still about 200 domestic and international NGOs working in Aceh. But they will end their programs in between 2010 and 2015, leaving only some of the UN organizations for a few more years to finish their rehabilitation and reconstruction programs.

"Acehnese have been too dependant on NGOs and other donor institution aid.

"They tend to have NGOs solve their problems once they encounter ones without trying to solve them by themselves," Hendra said.

This, he added, would be a problem for the community if the local administration did not deploy exit strategies to eliminate their dependence on NGO aid.

"Five years of rehabilitation should have given the Acehnese enough time to become independent, with the help of their respective regional administrations," he said.

Unfortunately, according to Hendra, the Aceh administration seemed to have failed to create the right exits when the NGOs left the region. In fact, the reconstruction process has left many potential problems that could anytime surface and explode.

Among others include the unfinished distribution of houses to tsunami survivors and the not-yet finished development of the main road connecting Banda Aceh and Meulaboh that has been funded by USAID.

Due to uncompleted road construction, in many places people are forced to cross rivers on traditional rafts because there are no bridges.

The BRR has similarly been criticized for building infrastructure or facilities considered as providing no benefits to the wider community. Among others are the development of a tsunami museum and other public facilities that have yet to function well.

"All the economic sectors have been moved using the fund from the reconstruction and rehabilitation programs. Once the programs are over, we are not sure what will move the wheel of economy in Aceh in the future," Hendra said.

He added that the Aceh administration as well as the Aceh Reconstruction Sustainability Agency (BKRA) realized that the fund would not last forever and prepared for economic recovery programs for the survivors, for example, by inviting investors to invest in the province.

"So far, however, no investors are coming to Aceh for long-term investment," he said.

Many have also expressed concern about the negative impact of both national and international NGO activist presence, saying that many Acehnese have developed materialist, money-oriented attitudes, valuing everything with money.

"Even when we have a social program to help the community, it is money focused," Mulyani said, former Red Cross staff in Aceh.

Mulyani said such pattern of thinking had been developed among almost all the tsunami survivors. Providing an example, Mulyani said if an NGO was to have a community gathering to decide on the future, they would not show up if they knew no money would be distributed during the meeting.

It has been a public secret that NGOs wanting to gather the community have to have incentives for those coming to the meeting.

This is believed to be reminiscent of the post-tsunami reconstruction process, where hundreds of humanitarian organizations came to Aceh and created thousands of job opportunities for the community.

To help create professional positions, many NGOs employed staff officers recruited from other regions as well as expatriates from around the world with relatively high salaries. Many of the Acehnese became instantly rich.

"Prices were skyrocketing as the result of high inflation rate in Aceh," Mulyani said, who has been applying for an NGO position after the Red Cross she formerly worked for ended its mission in the province.