Indonesia: A review of NGO coordination in Aceh post earthquake/ tsunami

Evaluation and Lessons Learned
Originally published


BACKGROUND: An Earthquake measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale was recorded in the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004 just miles west of Banda Aceh, a province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The earthquake caused considerable damage and created a Tsunami that swept to the shores of Aceh, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and even Somalia. In Aceh the death toll (buried bodies) is currently at 126,000. Ninety thousand (90,000) persons remain missing and are presumed dead. Approximately 407,000 persons are registered as IDPs as a result of the disaster. Since martial law was established in May of 2003 approximately 40,000 troops have been deployed in Aceh. During the period of May 2003 until the tsunami an estimated 2,800 people have been killed and 125,000 people displaced related to a conflict between the military and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Schools, health centers and considerable private and public property has also been destroyed.
The Aceh Province of Sumatra was the hardest hit by the disaster of Dec. 26. A second quake measuring 8.7 on the Richter scale on March 31 took another approximately 1,300 lives on the island of Nias, just off the western coast of Aceh. The disaster has left 406,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) located in spontaneous settlement camps, host communities, semi-permanent government barracks, areas affected by the disaster but where already some families are rebuilding, and areas where people are still living in their homes, but whose houses have been damaged and who may have to relocate.

The International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) was contacted and asked to 1) obtain an understanding of the needs and expectations of the NGO community with regards to NGO coordination and collaboration, 2) assess current mechanisms for NGO collaboration and coordination, 3) query NGOs concerning on-going policy issues, 4) identify options for housing an accountability mechanism (as follow up to a previous mission), and 5) provide recommendations for NGO and ICVA involvement in further NGO coordination. A consultant was hired and spent 2 days in Geneva and 12 days (March 22 - April 2) in Aceh. This report is based on individual interviews with 24 staff from 18 International NGOs in Aceh, OCHA, Red Cross Banda Aceh, ICRC, IOM, UNHCR, and the leadership of four local NGO consortiums in Aceh with a combined membership of 150 NGOs.

CONTEXT: The issues of coordination need to be put into the context of the complexity of the disaster, ensuing response, and the political/security environment pre-existing in Aceh. The following are important considerations that have shaped the issues of coordination:

  • The tsunami was a huge media event with many tourists in Thailand and Sri Lanka providing video footage of the event,

  • The effects as seen on television evoked an unprecedented outpouring of concern, action, and financial assistance,

  • An estimated 300 international NGOs responded to the disaster; an estimated 2,000 foreigners and thousands of Indonesians arrived to help in Aceh,

  • Governments have pledged a total of 5.8 billion for recovery efforts, while impossible to date to know, estimates of private contributions given to NGOs range from 5-7 billion dollars,

  • A number of NGOs eventually informed donors that they had received adequate donations,

  • Only a handful of NGOs had any presence in Aceh before the tsunami and that presence consisted of small offices; the estimated NGO expenditures of those handful of NGOs was $ 2 million in 2002,

  • Aceh was (is) in the throes of an insurgent (GAM) -- military (TNI) conflict, Aceh is in a state of civil emergency, only a handful of international staff of either UN agencies or NGOs were working in Aceh at the time of the disaster,

  • Local NGO capacity in Aceh (as well as police, health, education, ministry of welfare, etc.. institutions) has been diminished in the short term due to loss of staff, traumatized staff, and loss of material possessions and equipment,

  • Organizations were able to assign staff or recruit new staff for very short periods initially (weeks) due to the need to also respond in Sri Lanka and India, staff turnover has been very high in NGO and UN organizations from the start,

  • The vast majority of foreign staff do not speak the locally used languages,

  • The humanitarian actors are operating in what international businessmen consistently vote the most corrupt country on the planet,

  • The emergency phase ended quickly.
COORDINATION EFFORTS TO DATE: OCHA, in carrying out its mandate, has taken the lead in overall coordination of the humanitarian community. In Banda Aceh, they have developed a Humanitarian Information Center (HIC) at which NGOs registered and also where NGOs, UN agencies, and others could indicate where they were intervening or planning to intervene. This has resulted in the production of maps which indicate who is working in what areas (sectors when possible) and a list of NGO contact information. OCHA also conducted bi-weekly humanitarian meetings which recently became weekly. Minutes of these meetings are circulated. Further, sectoral meetings have been set up and meet usually once per week. Regular Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) meetings have been taking place which have included NGO representations. "Heads of UN agencies" meetings are also being conducted on a regular basis. Finally, an informal meeting among a few NGOs has been taking place once a week in Banda Aceh.

In both Banda Aceh and Jakarta the government met regularly with the humanitarian community (OCHA, UN, NGOs, foreign government representatives) and among themselves from the outset of the disaster. These meetings continue. Recently, a "blueprint" for rehabilitation and recovery has been published by the government which outlines the priorities and time frames for recovery and rehabilitation. Further, they are expected to announce, in the near future, the names of important persons who will constitute a special committee to oversee the recovery and rehabilitation program as outlined in the "blueprint."

This report does not focus on an analysis of either OCHA's or the government performance in coordination. Suffice it to say that the unprecedented number of actors in

the context mentioned above has made coordination exceedingly challenging. Overall efforts have resulted largely in exchange of information and generally have not arrived at a rationale assessment of needs, capacities of organizations, and a subsequent agreed upon division of labor. The government is in the process of developing criteria which will provide them the basis to determine which NGOs will stay and which will be invited to leave the province. Requests for information from OCHA to NGOs have not produced the results desired in order to deepen analysis of the situation. The mid term review recently published by OCHA does not adequately portray the amount of money NGOs have dedicated to the tsunami crisis nor in what sectors do they propose to conduct their activities. It has been difficult for NGOs to determine where and in what sectors they will definitively intervene while the blueprint was under development. The UN Under Secretary - General for Humanitarian Affairs has made a plea to NGOs for greater disclosure and transparency in regards to funding received and expenditure plans for the tsunami response.

Note that the humanitarian response to the recent earthquake resulted in further damage and loss of life (primarily on Nias Island) but did produce a better coordination of response on the part of the international community. This reflects the overall understanding of the need to coordinate and increased capacities on the ground among the UN, Government of Indonesia, and NGOs.

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