Four Lessons from the Conflict and Tsunami disaster Aid Response in Aceh


Authored with guest blogger Agus Wandi

Ten years ago, as if to complete the destruction of 30 years of war that took the lives of 30,000 people  and displaced many thousands more in the Indonesian Province of Aceh, nature added to the devastation by making 120,000 people victims of a Tsunami that decimated the province. The other side of the story is that, on that day, a person would wake up on the east coast of the province as the survivor of a 3- decades long war, while someone living on the east coast or in Banda Aceh found themselves a survivor of the Tsunami. Stories of hope and resilience abound. Ten years on, Aceh has come a very long way. Here are four lessons from the conflict and tsunami disaster aid response that we learned from working on peacebuilding in Aceh following the 2004 tsunami.

1. Disaster Response Impacts Politics, and it can be Positive.
Whether we like it or not, any post disaster intervention will have a political impact.

The question is how (in some cases, whether or not) to use the disaster opportunity, not only to avoid doing no harm, but to expand to do more good beyond our narrow and specific mandate of humanitarian assistance. The main narrative of the Aceh success story is that great achievements can come from terrible adversity. The tsunami that devastated the province also created a unique opportunity for putting an end to the decades long conflict that had been fought between The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian state. Another part of the story is that of the persistence of the International Community in creating opportunities for local political actors to engage in a peace process. An understanding of the local politics was the key here. The UN appointed coordinator Dr. Eric Morris of Stanford University was an unusual example of the extent to which the power of individuals’ sensitivity, understanding and networks can influence outcomes. Many other agencies working in Aceh also emphasized recruitment of local staff and internationals with strong local experience.

2. Keep Talking after the Peace Talks
Implementing the Aceh peace agreement was difficult. The former rebel group GAM had to give up its armed struggle and hand over all its weapons. In exchange for this it would enjoy broad autonomy, including the right to create local political parties, and receive a share of oil and gas revenues. There was also a (legally weak) provision for a Human Rights Court, and mention of the types of compensation and reintegration to be offered to former combatants. Whilst negotiating and getting agreement in Helsinki on the MoU was an achievement, continued talks in Aceh were also critical to the success of sustained peace. Once the Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM) had completed its action and time-bound mission, many of the outstanding details of implementation – such as an accurate estimation of the number of former combatants, the methods by which they would receive their reintegration packages, the legal framework and mandate of the human rights court and so on, still had to be navigated and to some extent negotiated, brokered by development and peacebuilding agencies. These largely non-political agencies, despite including experienced personnel, found that process very challenging, and at times the peace agreement could have been derailed because of lack of agreement on the details.

Aceh was lucky to have a strong political will of both parties to try to continue various small talks to find solutions to any problems. Initiatives by some agencies in the province, including USAID and the European Commission, helped to fill the gaps in brokering and mediation that had been left behind by the AMM’s departure. Continued visits by Clinton and Marthi Anthisaari to Aceh were undoubtedly also helpful in keeping up the pressure on everyone to make it this peace agreement work.

3. Reconstruct the Whole, not the Zone
Immediately following the end of the emergency phase, the Indonesian Government’s reconstruction agency (BRR) and the government declared the whole of Aceh as the reconstruction zone. The intent was that there would be no division between the west as the Tsunami zone, and the east as the conflict zone. Dividing communities into various zones can be the source of internal conflict that often weakens the social solidarity and local capacities and harm the long-term economic and political landscape. But the picture was not always as pretty, and coordination was tested to the limits here.

At the time, the outpouring of assistance after the tsunami in Aceh was one of the largest aid responses the world had seen. The downside of this huge influx of volunteers and financial assistance was that coordination issues between 360 NGOs who were involved in the response plagued every sector. On top of that, there was a disjuncture between the humanitarian response, development programing and the peacebuilding activities. Many of the coordination issues experienced in the humanitarian response arose simply because with so many agencies and NGOs, and so much work to be done with so much money, there was little incentive for coordination.

The poor coordination between peacebuilding and reconstruction resulted because of the rigid paradigmatic silos that agencies often have in their response to complex humanitarian-development-conflict situations. The central government and provincial government, by establishing BRR (Aceh Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency) took a much stronger control and oversight role over the peacebuilding activities than it did (and than it was able to do) over the reconstruction. And while that was largely politically motivated and came with its own set of problems, it also meant that all the key actors in peacebuilding knew what others were doing and coordination was much stronger.

4. Don’t Back off, Build Back Better- Thoughtfully.
Bill Clinton coined the slogan ‘Build Back Better’ during his visit to Aceh in 2005 as UN Special Envoy for the Tsunami Relief. The slogan spoke of the commitment of the development community in delivering a high level of quality in its response to the disaster. If we don’t take the mantra too literally, it talks not just about houses and community infrastructure, but also about the institutions and political relationships within Aceh and between the province and the central government.

Governance reform was firmly on the agenda in Aceh after the end of the conflict/ post the tsunami. For those working on such issues, contrary to Clinton’s slogan, we would hear often “For a place like Aceh, good enough is what we can hope for”, or “lets be realistic about what we can achieve” and “we’re just aiming for ‘good enough governance’”. The same arguments are expressed about Afghanistan and elsewhere. But is good enough really enough? The question itself should probably be interrogated, as has the notion of ‘better’ in building back better; better in what way? Defined by whom?

In the context of Aceh, where a deepening of political conservatism and a (notably un-Islamic) Sharia law was and is still taking place; it means that building back better takes place under the threat of a potential long term regression. Facilitating ‘good-enough governance’ in such a context meant ensuring that an informed, ongoing public debate would take place. It meant helping to open up democratic spaces where citizens of all social groups and political persuasions could air differences of opinion, without being seen as being ‘too liberal’ and without fear of being intimidated.

The values that underscore development frameworks- such as participation, voice and equality- could be found in Acehnese cultural codes and need not have been (nor were they always) represented by international actors as prescriptions by western development spin-doctors. With the massive loss of life and destruction of existing social relationships and hierarchies there was a huge opportunity to help reconfigure decision-making in the province, including facilitating women in playing a stronger role in community level decision making processes and in provincial governance. A little less shying away from the more tricky issues by international actors, and more  facilitation of a robust and open public debate involving all Acehnese may have led to quite a different outcome today; certainly one that is more reflective of the vision of a broader range of Acehnese.

Agus Wandi is a UN Mediation Roster Team and UN Staff member in Afghanistan, his views here are personal and not representative of the position of any organization with which he is affiliated. Click here to read his summary bio.


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