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Aceh, Haiti and the Perils of Post-Disaster Reconstruction

Can Indonesia’s Aceh province provide Haiti and the global community with lessons about rebuilding after a catastrophe?
Peter Fragiskatos
1 February 2010

Touched by the images on their television screens, ordinary people from across the world have responded to the crisis in Haiti by generously donating tens of millions of dollars over the course of the past two weeks. The power of celebrity is now being used to help generate more funds. Governments have already granted close to $1 billion in relief assistance. World leaders met in Montreal last week and pledged their long term support for Haiti’s reconstruction and an international conference on rebuilding is said to be upcoming. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, director of the International Monetary Fund, has even called for a Haitian “Marshall Plan” to be devised.

But how will the money be spent once the initial emergency assistance effort is completed?

Indonesia’s Aceh province could provide an answer. In fact, some have pointed to the probability of Aceh being used as a model for Haiti’s reconstruction while others have written favourably about the potential merits of such a course.

With the epicentre of the December 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake striking less than 200 kilometers off its coast, Aceh bore the brunt of the tsunami that followed. More than 160,000 died while 500,000 lost their homes.  Mirroring what is being witnessed in Haiti today, the response of the global community was swift, even overwhelming. Hundreds of relief agencies and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) quickly established a presence in the territory. Together with the government of Indonesia – and acting under the authority of a single coordinating body, the Aceh-Nias Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency – they have helped rebuild a shattered society.

Some $6.7 billion in aid has been used for the reconstruction of schools, clinics and 140,000 homes. Newly built bridges, fishing ports, airports and roads are helping set a foundation for a meaningful economic recovery to take shape. In the cases where Acehnese workers were hired as labourers in rebuilding projects during the first months that followed the tsunami, they were given a source of much needed revenue. Together with the allocation of modest loans used to develop small businesses, such measures have helped address the needs of what is still a desperately poor population. These developments were helped along by important changes in the political realm. The fighting between the Indonesian state and the rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) that had carried on since 1976 came to an end in 2005 when a peace agreement was signed. The decision to end the violence was, at least in part, an effect of the destruction wrought by the tsunami.

The damage to a poor neigbourhood in Haiti

The damage to a poor neigbourhood in Haiti

As impressive as some of the changes have been, those that would eagerly point to Aceh as an appropriate template for Haiti risk overlooking some of the major problems that have plagued its reconstruction. Poverty and displacement marked the experience of Acehnese long before the tsunami. The conflict between GAM and the Indonesian state was fought throughout the territory, along the coasts and in the hinterland. As such, those affected by the strife were equally deserving of development assistance. However, the focus of most NGOs remained fixed on the northern and western coasts since these were the areas that experienced most of the tsunami’s impact.

This was not because of a lack of funds. In fact, the NGOs operating in Aceh and the rest of the countries hit by the tsunami quickly found that too much money had been donated for relief and reconstruction – a situation that will also probably arise in Haiti’s case.

Instead, while there were (and remain) many suffering people in Aceh beyond the survivors of the tsunami, nearly all of the media’s attention centred on the plight of this group. Discussion of the conflict and its legacy was rarely mentioned. This naturally created an expectation among donors that aid would be used to benefit tsunami victims. The questions raised over the handling of donations in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks by the American Red Cross meant that NGOs faced strong pressures to strictly earmark funds for specific projects. As a result, most organisations operating in Aceh were extremely reluctant to even ask permission to reallocate aid money in any way, no matter how worthy the cause. On top of this, many NGOs recognised that valuable publicity for their organisations would only be obtained in areas where there was a strong media presence.

With the situation in Port-au-Prince now dominating news coverage of Haiti, it comes as no surprise that  the relief effort will apparently be centred on that city, with much less attention being given to other regions. Yet, Carrefour (the epicentre), Leogane, and Jacmel have also been devastated, and serious damages have been felt in towns far away from Port-au-Prince.

Apart from this, the terrible poverty and underdevelopment of the Haitian countryside must also be addressed, especially now that the rural areas are being settled by earthquake survivors from Port-au-Prince. In addition to the problem of soil erosion, the desire for access to jobs, schools, and hospitals – all of which have historically been concentrated in Port-au-Prince and a few other cities – has been a primary cause of the migration away from the countryside and into urban shantytowns. These problems will only be exacerbated if aid is directed predominantly to the reconstruction of Port-au-Prince and its environs, since this is where most of the access to employment, housing and basic services will be found. Violent struggles over these and other scarce resources could easily arise in such a context, particularly at a time when the earthquake has made the lives of all Haitians even more difficult and placed  greater strains on what was already a very weak government.

These dangers must be kept in mind if Haiti is to have any reasonable hope of overcoming this latest tragedy.

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