Saturday, August 30, 2014

Would you like to see a list of projects that assisted 2004 tsunami survivors? Tough luck!

 When I start to get really good and steamed about how the reconstruction money was spent, JMD staff will try to soothe me.
They sit me down, give me a cool drink, and madly try to think of projects that have been helpful, and that are still functioning.
They usually come up with The Road.  The 104km Banda Aceh to Calang (Aceh Jaya) road was completely washed out in the tsunami, and one of the first infrastructure projects attempted was its reconstruction, funded by USAID to the tune of about $200million.

It was an impressive project and involved an inordinate amount of activity other than just engineering and construction.  Parts of the road had to be re-sited due to the erosion caused by the tsunami; I think that over 3,000 separate land use/right-of-way agreements had to be finalized.  So I’m not saying that this task was not herculean in nature and did not serve an incredibly useful and vital purpose.

Some of the final audits of the project happened as late as 2009.  But by this time, and what the audits do not report, is that great sections of the new road were already falling apart.  Even after the roadbed was moved, the edges were still prone to erosion.  And whether the donor never verified this or the government just fibbed, there was never any money available for the maintenance and repair of this road.  So this was a $200million short-term emergency measure. 
I’m saying, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, call it a duck—not a wonderfully sustainable addition to Aceh’s legacy 10 years later.

So after I natter on about the road for a few minutes, the staff tentatively suggests . . . housing?  Knowing that this will really tee me off, because when I arrived in Aceh in early 2005 this was what I did—I helped build houses in Rumpet, Aceh Jaya, the epicenter of the disaster.  

I asked how I could help and people told me, we need houses. And I learned the hard way—but quickly—that you don’t build people a house that you think is nice, you build a house that people will live in.  And there are hundreds of MDF-built houses on the west coast that are still vacant, because none of the NGOs ever asked the Acehnese where they wanted the houses or what constituted good housing (hint: indoor bathrooms are considered disgusting.) 
“ . . . Community consultation about basic decisions such as whether the tsunami survivors wanted health clinics, new, wide escape roads, and even drainage . . .  was a very time consuming process. And on closer inspection there was a major miscalculation of local needs. ‘Aid organisations were under pressure to spend the money,’ says Muslahuddin Daud, reeling off a list of empty facilities spread across the province. [schools, health clinics, water treatment plants, etc.]”  (  

But after the emergency phase of assistance, what was the rush?  Well, I know one reason: many aid agencies were frightened that the as-yet still active fighting between GAM and the Indonesian army would jeopardize worker safety, so they either left projects half-finished, hoping a local agency would step in (which is how we got our start), or they raced like mad to complete projects without a thought to the future consequences of the work. 

Remember, the audits of projects (by the international aid agencies who received the funds) were still being finalized as of 2010.  And already, things are beginning to fall apart.
It is a good thing that large NGOs keep records.  Because BRR, the agency set up to administer the multi-donor fund, did not.  It started out trying to, but never could figure out that even if you spent millions of the reconstruction funds developing a database, when your non-Acehnese IT contractors and database managers left, without training any local staff adequately, the system would be useless.

We discovered this pile of useless million-dollar  databases when we tried to find out more about the  AAA/Keumang cocoa project from World Bank.  A colleague who works for WB but not in Indonesia told me that WB did in fact require NGOs to submit final financial accounting reports.  Programmatic reports, addressing proposed goals and activities, however, were apparently of no interest.  If you could account for the money  on paper that’s all they needed. 

In the beginning, when we were all starting this, there was a database called RAN (Recovery Aceh Nias).  Send me an email and I can direct you to the 500-page overview. It was a loathsome beast of a system and for those of us who struggled with it in the early days, it was a good reason to just give up and hope BRR wouldn’t take our funding back. The database was created by Synergy, a company that I am sure will never set tootsies in Aceh again, and designed to “collect, track, analyze and display project and funding information.” 

This is what Synergy had to say about their baby:
Within the RAN Database, Synergy developed a number of other systems to build the capacity of the Government to track tsunami reconstruction and enhance the management of the work-flow processes. [No government official that I ever heard of had been trained in this.] These included a Donor/Partner Profiles Module and a Concept Note Submission and Approval Module for organizing the bottom-up and top-down budget planning process of the reconstruction. The Concept Notes online submission and approval process involved the entire NGO community in sharing data on their planned activities for better coordination.” Ahahahahahahahahahaha. 

“The RAN has become the central coordinating database for Tsunami recovery data in Indonesia, tracking 1700 projects and a total of USD 3.7 billion in commitments." And we couldn’t find it—it is offline and we don’t know whether any of the information that some of us had painstakingly entered in it is even in existence anymore.

What is interesting is that RAN’s creators say that it “won the Innovative Government Technology Award in the Information Management category at the 2008 FutureGov Summit . . . recognised as an innovative model of information management that has successfully promoted improvement in public services, modernisation of government administration and efficiency of public sector management.”
But when we talk with people who were in Aceh in 2005 and beyond, and ask them, “So, where’s the project database?” this turkey never comes up.  No one at BRR ever thought that when their agency folded, so would the database. (

But wait!  It gets better!  Apparently hoping that no one noticed the million-dollar (dead) elephant in the living room, World Bank tries again and develops ANOTHER database in 2008, called KNOW.  Here is its description:

The BRR Knowledge Centre (KNOW) is dedicated to the preservation of data and management of information related to the rehabilitation and reconstruction programme in Aceh and Nias (2005-09). KNOW was established by BRR in June 2008 through support from the Multi Donor Fund and in partnership with UNDP. Its principle activities include the collection, cataloguing and classification of documents and other media formats and to enable this information to be accessed for research and reference purposes. 

There is no longer a working link to this site.  Former BRR officials admit that it was too complicated for anyone left in Aceh to manage. So it no longer exists.  World Bank officials (the current PMU in Aceh and Jakarta) will not comment on the status of any project, or whether any close-out evaluation was done.

A WB employee, not based in Indonesia but with knowledge of EDFF and MDF, recently acknowledged privately that “there was so much money” that WB officials in Indonesia could not track it, and many of those working on the MDF have now been “promoted” to other positions, precisely because of the amount of the reconstruction money, not because of its handling.

There does not seem to be any centralized (or even decentralized) accounting of projects, completion status, or post-completion monitoring and evaluation.  Bill Nicol, an Australian who worked with BRR and self-proclaimed “expert” on the reconstruction process, when asked about KNOW, said he asked his colleagues at WB and no one had ever heard of it. He himself had never heard of it, saying that he “had nothing to do” with monitoring or evaluation or follow-up.  Apparently, neither did anyone else.

So as you can see, it is very difficult to tell, on the 10-year anniversary of the tsunami, which reconstruction efforts were truly useful and/or sustainable.  

Next time: let’s examine all 5,000,000,000,000 pages of inter-agency “lessons learned,” shall we?

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