Tsunami reconstruction plan leaves Acehnese no wiser

28 Jun 2005
Aguswandi, TAPOL
Appeared in: 

Post-tsunami reconstruction in Aceh is difficult work. It is not made any easier by the public being rendered illiterate by the process. Many local activists and local people I have spoken with say that many international groups and even the government seem to be more accountable to their donors and international bodies than to the Acehnese.

On May 13, the newly established reconstruction authority (BRR), set up to oversee the post-tsunami reconstruction process, held its first meeting with local NGOs and international NGOs working in Aceh. It was a meeting to communicate their presence and their mandate in Aceh. This was a positive initiative in order to share their plans as widely as possible.

The introduction to the meeting was made in English by Kuntoro Mangkusubrata, the chairman of BRR. A friend who attended the meeting assumed that English would only be used for the introduction. However, in the following sessions, during which the participants divided into small groups for discussion, English was still being used as the language of communication.

The friend, an NGO activist, who has good English, started to speak in Bahasa Indonesia, to encourage the other participants to speak in their own language. Yet, the many foreign workers attending the workshop continued to converse in English. This left many Acehnese participants only able to grasp the "yes and no" of the discussions.

This week I attended the House of Representatives Civic Information Fair in Senayan. The fair was supposed to provide information and discussions about work being carried out in Aceh. Not only did visitors get very little information, but many of them were disappointed to see that most of the representatives standing by their organizations' stalls were too junior or too lacking in in-depth knowledge to explain what their organizations were doing in Aceh.

This was especially true of UN agencies and some international NGOs. Among the international agencies, only OXFAM saw fit to send senior staff to stand at their stall and share information about their work in Aceh.

This picture of international agencies at the fair contrasted sharply with many of the local NGOs, who appeared more serious in providing information on their work in Aceh. Save Emergency for Aceh (SEFA) and the Joint Committee for Aceh (KBKA), two main local NGOs, made sure that their directors represented the organizations at the fair.

Then I visited the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) desk. Out of all the organizations at the fair, it was OCHA that had the most comprehensive information. A young woman standing at the stall showed visitors their wonderful electronic information, ranging from a blueprint to assessments that had been provided. She said very enthusiastically that the public could also access this information on the OCHA website. I walked away noting the good range of information that they had, but wondering how local people without access to a computer, let alone the Internet, were going to access this information, which of course was all written in English.

These experiences have been confirmed by a tsunami survivor, Tengku Malkun. Like many Acehnese affected by the tsunami, he is living in a camp for displaced persons. When I told him the government has prepared a blueprint and that it had all sorts of plans for the reconstruction of Aceh, Malkun said he did not know anything about these plans.

Not a single group had gone to explain to him and the many other people in the camp anything about the reconstruction process and how they could be a part of these plans that would affect their future. This is the case with many other Acehnese. They are not being informed enough about what is going on, nor are any groups coming to explain in simple language the practical meanings of the bold blueprint produced last month.

The establishment of the BRR is good move. It has a direct reporting line to the President and can avoid the all too common complex bureaucracy of other institutions. We also hope the BRR will counteract the overlapping power structures in Aceh, which are the result of the endless impositions of military operations in the region.

Locals also hope that the establishment of the agency will transform the way Jakarta is represented in Aceh. The appointment of a clean bureaucrat for the region is welcomed. However, the challenge for the BRR is to provide the public with full and accurate information.

International groups should also be more proactive in explaining their work to the Acehnese in an accessible manner, and to engage more with ordinary people. Many groups have come to meet Acehnese, endless interviews and assessments have been carried out and too many consultants have been hired at very high salaries to identify the needs of the Acehnese. Not many of these groups have come back to explain in an understandable manner what plans they have developed.

The lack of information for locals contravenes accepted international standards, including the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards Response. The Humanitarian Charter 2004 clearly states that women and men of all ages affected by disasters, including vulnerable groups, must receive information about assistance programs, and be given the opportunity to speak with assistance agencies at all stages of the project cycle. So far this seems not to be the case in Aceh.

Tagged: Aceh