Anti-corruption tsar helped Aceh

Greg Roberts
AAP, 18 December 2014

The humanitarian response to the tsunami in Aceh worked out well because of a surprising lack of corruption from the Indonesian side, says World Vision Australia chief the Reverend Tim Costello.

One of the most deadly natural disasters in history, killing 170,000 people in Aceh, also changed the way aid organisations did business forever.

First, the images of utter destruction came in and broke people’s hearts, then they gave money generously – about $US10 billion globally in government and NGO funds – and then they wanted to know how their money had been used.

Mr Costello said he feared it would end up in the pockets of Indonesian generals who would build mansions with it.

“That bit didn’t happen,” he told AAP during a visit to Banda Aceh to mark the 10th anniversary of the disaster.

Indonesia has long been considered one of the world’s most corrupt countries and corruption, along with bureaucracy and nationalism, is regarded as having had some adverse impact on the humanitarian response to the tsunami.

However the fact that anti-corruption tsar Kuntoro Mangkusubroto ran Aceh’srehabilitation and reconstruction agency made it a success, says Mr Costello.

You can see it driving around the province today: from rehabilitated rice paddies, entire towns of new homes, schools and hospitals, bridges and roads, potable water and drainage systems.

In the weeks after the tsunami hundreds of charities from around the world arrived and planted their flags like it was a gold strike, but were not working together.

That is not meant to happen anymore, charities that do the same work are supposed to cluster, get a line of authority and work absolutely cooperatively.

“At one time we had 500 different organisations implementing 12,000 different projects,” says Mundzir, a researcher from the Aceb-based International Centre for Aceh Indian Ocean Studies.

“The tsunami response was one of the biggest humanitarian actions in history at the time and the funds were beyond the capacity of a lot of organisations to implement and absorb.

“Post tsunami rehabilitation was supposed to be about building back better but sometimes I found that building back better was compromised by building back faster.”

Entire fishing villages had to be relocated.

The 50 per cent of Padang Sirahet’s 7,000 residents that survived were moved to a new home 7km away, because the environmental impact of the tsunami left it below sea level.

There was immense pressure from the public and media to show instant results, which rushed the NGOs to spend the money, Mr Costello said, leading to complaints about issues such as poor quality houses.

“That led lots of agencies to do foolish things, when you start building houses when the titles aren’t clear all you do is set up intrigue, competition and anger,” he said.

“The only thing the poor have is community and you don’t want to start to break that down.”

Mr Costello said the biggest lessons for NGOs were that disaster preparedness was everything and the development of the cluster system.

The cities now have multi-storey escape buildings to flee to if a tsunami strikes, newly planted mangrove swamps and coastal forests and evacuation drills for schoolchildren.

There are limits to what you can prevent, but the NGOs insist the small number of deaths from this month’s typhoon in the Philippines was due to better preparation.

While Australians were generous – the government’s $US1.1 billion-plus aid was the largest from a foreign government – Mr Costello says we are selective in our generosity.

World Vision raised more in a week for typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year than it had in two years for Syrian refugees, which involved far lager scale suffering and who were at risk of starving due to World Food Program shortages.

“It is really hard to change this attitude, our brains are not wired to respond if its the suffering of women and children from war.” he said.

Greg Roberts first travelled to Aceh with APJC in 2005, and returned with APJC in 2014.