Monday, August 25, 2014

Why we should still be concerned with the effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami (1st part in a series)

Terrible things are happening all over the world. 

Even in Aceh, the media is speculating about how soon the Ebola virus will get to Sumatra, and how religious intolerance in the province is contributing to the near-global view of the perils of unchecked fundamentalism.

This may be why current stories and reports, such as that of Bill Clinton’s April trip to the province, seem to place the devastation and political/economic collapse following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami firmly in the past, with current stories of herculean reconstruction, improved living conditions, and reconciliation between a once-hostile province and a national government that only wanted the best for its people.

Indeed, if you look at the headlines, Aceh almost seems utopic in comparison to other troubled regions.

But it is not, and this unfortunate masking of some serious issues, many caused by the response to the tsunami and subsequent peace accord, is contributing to Aceh’s spooky trajectory towards being a repressive dictatorship of kleptocrats that parallels, albeit on a lesser scale, the uncontrolled brutality we’ve been witnessing in the Middle East.

Do not forget that it was only 5 years ago that Acehnese men were reported to be the largest Muslim group per capita to volunteer to join Pakistan/Afghanistan Al Qaeda for the jihad against the West.

Something made them this way, and it’s my contention that it wasn’t just misguided religious fervor.  It was desperation, and seething anger at Jakarta for having once again sold them down the river in terms of livelihoods, assistance, government positions, compensation, land acquisition, political self-determination . . . and these acts of marginalization didn’t just happen over years and years; they were also immediate products of the tsunami and subsequent reconstruction. 

I have been interested in the reconstruction efforts ever since I became part of them in early 2005.  And I witnessed firsthand how certain funds always went to certain groups.  And I kept track of this, because I knew that sooner or later this seeming inequity would affect me personally and the agency I supported.  And it did.

So during this year, the 10-year anniversary of the tsunami and the peace accord, what we will see around November is the media beginning to ramp up stories like Bill Clinton’s visit in April, where he was shown all the good things that reconstruction did.

I am not interested in demonstrating that the mismanagement of the funds led to further political instability and environmental devastation in the province, although they did.  I’m interested in helping the global donor community change its practices in the future, so that when a natural or man-made disaster hits a developing region, the first act of assistance after the emergency lifesaving measures have been accomplished is the empowerment of the local community to take charge and run the reconstruction—no matter how hard that is and how much money the foreign NGO will not be able to take back to its homeland. 

I want to start with one story.  It’s not the first example of how we knew something was not right with the reconstruction money, and it’s certainly not the most glaring example of problems with the multi-donor funds, but what it does show is how the mismanagement of 2004 reconstruction funds continues to have negative economic, environmental and political repercussions on an entire region well into 2014.

And it involves, of course, cocoa.

Stay tuned!

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