Six months after tsunami, Aceh rebuilds slowly

Many projects were held up waiting for the Indonesian government's approval.

No time was wasted in the days following the Dec. 26 tsunami that leveled Indian Ocean coastal villages. Navies turned around their ships, aid workers hopped on planes, and millions of ordinary people opened their wallets.

Six months and some $1.8 billion later, the massive effort in Indonesia has helped clear the debris and provide food and temporary shelter. Some 100,000 people have returned to their homes or host families in Aceh Province. But that's only one-fifth of those made homeless in the worst-hit province - and the rebuilding of roads, harbors, and schools has only just begun.

The scale of the work ahead remains daunting, and aid workers in Indonesia and other tsunami-hit countries complain that bureaucratic inertia, politics, and in some cases, graft and corruption, are slowing efforts to rebuild cities, villages, and livelihoods. Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the outspoken director of Indonesia's official tsunami reconstruction and rehabilitation agency, shares these frustrations and wants to rekindle a sense of urgency.

"I'm not satisfied with the pace [of reconstruction] because things are still slow," Kuntoro told the Monitor, adding that when he arrived in May "there hadn't been any improvement" since the initial relief work.

After his May appointment Kuntoro immediately slammed what he called the "shocking" complacency of the country's bureaucrats. Kuntoro, a former minister with a record of quickening stale bureaucracies, has vowed to get reconstruction moving during his tenure at the $5 billion agency that has a five-year mandate.

To be sure, the scale of the Dec. 26 disaster means there are no benchmarks to gauge the pace of recovery against. Kuntoro in later public comments said that bureaucrats and legislators realized the emergency in Aceh, but said that the administrative machinery was designed to work in a "normal" situation and is still cleaning up the remains of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.

But in an interview Monday, Kuntoro shifted some blame to Jakarta's 550-seat national parliament, which had held up approving essential budgets until last month. He railed against the central government, which had forced foreign donors to wait months - until April - before the government completed a grand development blueprint for Aceh and set up a reconstruction agency.

The problems on the ground, Kuntoro says, include a lack of coordination among ministries, donors, and government. A particularly delicate problem holding up reconstruction is the question of land rights: Many Acehnese respect traditional and ancestral claims over national laws.

Aid workers and government officials agree that the most urgent task is helping people return to permanent homes, though other projects are urgent as well.

The main road to Lampulo fish market has begun to wash out where massive breakwaters were washed away by the tsunami. Barely 200 yards from the fish market itself, the road has been eaten away up to 12 and 15 feet, and unseasonable rans this month have sped up the erosion. Inaction in this case could cut off the last fish market for an industry that used to account for 80 percent of Banda Aceh's economy.

Returning from a day's work visiting camps for survivors, Azwar Hasan, an Acehnese NGO worker in Banda Aceh said, "I'm incredibly frustrated to see how slowly things are going - in some places it looks like things haven't changed." Mr. Hasan said that impatience was rising in the camps and that expectations had been raised by the promises of foreign money.

Critics say that much of the pledged funds has not reached survivors, due partly to unfulfilled promises by donors. The Institute for Human Development, an independent Indian research group, said in an April report that only 39 percent of the $6.7 billion pledged by governments, agencies, and private donors for the entire tsunami region had been released. Lag times after pledges are common in most international efforts, and the good news is that $2.6 billion has already gone out. The Indonesian government says it has received $1.8 billion of the $7 billion pledged to it.

Sluggish use of development dollars is a story heard in other tsunami-afflicted parts of Asia. The Indian government, which rejected assistance from other governments, announced an aid package of $810 million for rehabilitation and reconstruction. The money was to include funds for fisherman and the repair of harbors, yet much of it, according to aid workers, is held up in the bureaucracy.

Kuntoro is promising to break through such inertia. In the past few weeks Kuntoro has approved $1.8 billion for spending on major projects, including rebuilding some of the 100,000 damaged houses. He said he would sign away funds to build orphanages, schools, and to help fishermen. To motivate lazy bureaucrats, he said, he would: "force them, force them !"

Ridayat La Ode Ngkowe, who works on the Aceh project for the Indonesian Corruption Watch, a private group, says that Kuntoro would face major challenges working through the local bureaucracy. "Aceh is one of the most corrupt provinces," he says.

Kuntoro denied any corruption, vowing that aid would be spent properly. "We're not proud of our history [regarding corruption]," he says. "I don't want any money donated by Maggie from Michigan to be used unwisely or to be corrupted."

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