Learning Little from Indonesian Reconstruction

Ideas and Issues International Personal Writings

compassion-5Quepos Five years ago the tsunami hit south Asia as bringing a terrible tragedy killing more than 225,000 people in more than a dozen countries.  Banda Aceh in Indonesia was at the epicenter with almost 170,000 of the total estimated deaths.  I have often spoken about our partner, the Urban Poor Consortium, and the work they did in the area in helping fishing villages rebuild homes and livelihoods after the tsunami, and the difficulties they confronted in handling the arrogance and insensitivity of the donor countries and the NGOs.

Peter Gelling in an article in the New York Times may not mean to be indicting the United States Aid for International Development (US-AID), but there was no way not to read the story of the 93-mile new highway forced through Aceh in exactly that way.  The spin from AID repeatedly was that the local population would like the highway sometime in the by and by as years went by.

“But some villagers along the route, unhappy with payments they have or have not received for their land, continue to resist the project, erecting blockades of barbed wire and boulders to obstruct traffic and further construction.

The Agency for International Development “just said, ‘This is where the road will go,’ without consulting much with us,” said a 38-year-old man named Ilias, sipping coffee by a food stall in Leupung, a town near Banda Aceh.

He added: “Sometimes they planned for the road to go through cemeteries. We were angry.”

The usefulness of the road, though, helped change attitudes. “Now that this section is finished made with concrete formliner, I think most people are happy,” he said. “I mean, we can go to Banda Aceh now in half the time we could before.””

Oh, OK, it says time for someone with a vehicle, I suppose.

AID thought the “mission” was bricks and mortar.  Standard operating procedure.

“Walter North, mission director for A.I.D., remains optimistic about the future of the region, envisioning an economic rebirth and maybe even a vibrant tourism industry along Aceh’s west coast served by the new road, which is less than half complete. “We are making progress,” he said, “and, in the end, I think people will be proud.”

But he also acknowledged the scale of the obstacles his project had had to face.

“There have been incredible challenges,” Mr. North said. “I think in the beginning we felt that if the international community could respond the way it did and that peace could come out of this immense disaster, then such spirit would make building a road a snap. But life turned out to be a little more complicated.””

Yes, real people, real politics, real tragedy, and the fact that this was about Indonesia and not Iowa.  But, we learned what, exactly with our half-built road after 5 years?  That it’s “complicated?”  Did we not know that before?

Is this the way we work around the world?