Monday, May 02, 2005

Aceh's misery lingers on as foreign help pulls out


TODAY
Singapore

April 27, 2005

By Thang D Nguyen

Four months after it happened, the Asian tsunami seems to be, for the most part, a thing of the past. While victims and their families in Aceh, Indonesia — and other affected areas, for that matter — still suffer from this tragedy and struggle to rebuild their lives, homes and communities, the media has moved on to new, more happening global events.

But, let's not forget, the threat of tsunamis and earthquakes is still there, if not greater than before. Thus, the need of an international warning and migration system for countries where earthquakes and tsunamis have happened before and are most likely to happen again remains urgent.

Most importantly, the reconstruction works in regions affected by the Asian tsunami and earthquakes remain to be done. To be sure, the world community has so far given Indonesia and other tsunami-hit countries generous assistance.

Altogether, the world has pledged US$7 billion ($11.5 billion) of aid to help tsunami victims. A common problem with aid pledges, however, is delivery. In other words, aid pledges are often made, but not delivered. And if delivered, they are usually less than the amounts originally promised.

So, in a nutshell, the global community should live up to its word and deliver the pledges it made to tsunami victims.

Another challenge with aid is management.

Corruption is often a major problem. Therefore, when aid reaches victims, it needs to be distributed properly, used efficiently and monitored closely. Otherwise, it won't go to the right victims and the right projects. Instead, it gets wasted and, worse yet, ends up in someone else's pocket.

For this reason, the reconstruction works in Aceh — and other tsunami-affected regions — require the participation of international aid agencies.

While foreign aid agencies have the resources, expertise, and experience needed for reconstruction works, their presence can be perceived as a threat to national governments.

Indonesia is a case in point. Roughly one month after the Asian tsunami, Jakarta set a deadline on March 26 by which all foreign aid agencies would have to leave Aceh. A few days before the deadline, however, Jakarta decided to extend it for one more month, until April 27, which is today.

Jakarta's call for foreign aid agencies to leave Aceh is understandable for two main reasons.

First, because of the on-going conflict between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement, which has been fighting for independence from Indonesia for decades, the presence of foreigners in the province worries Jakarta.

Second, Indonesia wants to rebuild Aceh on its own. On March 24, it announced an elaborate 5-year plan to rebuild Aceh that it said would cost US$5 billion. While Indonesia feels strongly about this blueprint, one cannot help but wonder if it has the resources, know-how, and experience required.

As much as foreign aid agencies want to stay and help the people in Aceh, some are not welcomed, however. For instance, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) pulled out of Aceh on March 24 after the Indonesian government refused to approve an extension of the agency's stay in the province.

The departure of UNHCR and other foreign aid agencies is indeed unfortunate as the Acehnese victims of the tsunami and earthquakes and their families need all the help they can get to rebuild their lives.

The battle that Indonesia's tsunami and earthquake victims have been fighting since last December is not over.

And the turf fight between the Indonesian government and foreign aid agencies on the reconstruction works of Aceh only makes it worse.

The writer is currently a Jakarta-based columnist. He has published several books, including The Indonesian Dream: Unity, Diversity, and Democracy in Times of Distrust (Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2004).

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