Thursday, October 23, 2014

Part VII: we trace the phantom databases to their crypts in the ether, and realize that there is no centralized repository of any reconstruction project. What fun!

Although I dearly love yellow journalism and innuendo, I also love getting truthfully to the bottom of things.  So after I wrote the last post I wondered, maybe I am just a stinky researcher.  Maybe the RAN database is operating happily somewhere and I’m just too thick to figure out how to access it.

So I called Synergy and asked ‘em.

The very nice tech, who remembered the project though he was not with the company then, confirmed my fears: when BRR (Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi --Agency for the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Aceh and Nias) disbanded in 2009 and transferred whatever administrative documents they had to Bappenas  (Badan Perencanaan Pembangunan Nasional --National Development Planning Agency Republic of Indonesia), Bappenas let the system lapse.  Since part of the fee included Synergy’s web hosting services (a monthly cost) Bappenas never paid the fee, and all the data went into the ether.

I asked if somehow, someone could have downloaded it to another medium. The Synergy tech said that it was possible that a hard copy was made (a bagillion pages) but he was doubtful.  The system was designed to be able to shift over to another platform, so possible, he suggested, someone might have done that. There was one tech at Bappenas who the tech thought might have done something with the database, and he gave me a name, and I’ll look him up . . . but I don’t have high hopes that after 10 years he is still there.  Because we do not see any vestige of this database anywhere.

The tech comforted me by saying that Synergy designs a lot of databases for countries that do the same thing that Aceh did: use the system while the system administrators are there, but fail to have a universal buy-in to the system as a permanent part of government planning, and fail to allocate resources towards its maintenance and training of IT personnel.  Remember I said I didn’t know if Maldives was still using RAN?  Well, it’s not.  The only country is Sri Lanka, and they have adapted it to do national budget tracking and it is quite useful.  I told Simon that perhaps Indonesia’s pragmatic and youthful new president Jokowi might like to hear that BRR had purchased a VERY expensive database for Aceh that was no longer being used and maybe he could have it tweaked to do national economic development planning . . . and Simon practically squeaked with joy.
At my next luncheon with him and the First Lady I’ll be sure to bring that up.

But seriously, BRR/World Bank paid for the development of this custom-made-for-Aceh database, and its “shell” has not been discarded.  It’s just waiting at Synergy for someone to use it.

But do not think that BRR stopped at one database, no siree.

Little Merry Sunshine, so they have named me, and so I believed that somewhere was information regarding the AAA/Keumang project (remember them?  The thing that got us started?) so that we could find out exactly what activities were performed in the field, and write a proposal to a donor asking for funds to complete a post-project evaluation.

(Okay, I’ll admit that I had a pretty good idea of what this evaluation would show—bupkus—but I think it is important for the donor (and recipient) community in Aceh—and anywhere else tons of aid is going these days—to see that unless you hold agencies and individuals accountable for their promises, you just throw money away and end up with a vast quantity of nothing in an area which on paper says received overwhelming support for thousands of people.  So when they a) ask for more or b) malign the government for not keeping promises, the administrative response is “ungrateful hordes.”  When it should be “My god that agency just ripped us off for $6 million and 4,000 people are now starving and really mad at us.”)

Sorry.  Where was I?
Oh, right.
Well, I came across a document that heralded another love-child of BRR and World Bank, and it was called KNOW, or the BRR Knowledge Center, and it was funded in 2008, one year before BRR disintegrated and prior to RAN being dismembered. Here’s how it’s described on BRR's Wikipedia page:

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, cataloging 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 admitted to JMD staff that it was too complicated for anyone left in Aceh to manage.  And it was a piece of cake compared to RAN.  
 So: two down . . .

KNOW and RAN were born, and died, before EDFF.  So it stands to reason that unless there was yet another database created, all the EDFF funds ($50 million) would have no tracking mechanism other than what their respective implementing agencies kept at their own HQs.

I contacted a former colleague who worked with BRR and refers to himself as “the only person who knew anything that came close to the whole story of reconstruction.” He reported having no knowledge of either KNOW or RAN and “didn’t much pay attention” to what went on after BRR closed.  Of course he didn’t.  Like everyone else, he’d already collected his money and gone home.  Who cared if anything actually worked or was sustainable?

We wrote back and forth several times.  After he saw I wasn’t going to go away and didn’t really think he was much of an expert if he didn’t even know about BRR’s tracking systems, he changed his tune and started telling me he felt my pain, and was quite disillusioned himself at the end.
My response:
“ . . . It is very difficult to tell, 10 years later, which reconstruction efforts were truly useful and sustainable.  There is a 104-page BRR document with which I¹m sure you¹re familiar: 10 Management Lessons for Host Governments Coordinating Post-disaster Reconstruction, but it¹s an overview, not an objective database.
   “Many people at BBF and JMD have over the past 3 ­4 years tried to get information from former and current reps of the UN, WB, USAID, DAI, and several of the larger implementing partners regarding large livelihoods and infrastructure projects funded through MDF and later through EDFF. We have also investigated road reconstruction projects in the eastern part of Aceh with an eye towards understanding which roads got built or repaired, and which did not, and why.  Which of course leads to the depressing paradox of the end of the conflict signaling a commercial and environmental destruction free-for-all involving foreign interests complicit with government officials in the name of "economic development."  But you know all this.
    “What tiny JMD wants is to be able to matter, in the future, with respect to providing needs-driven rather than donor-driven development. And what BBF, now JMD's administrative donor, wants to do is illuminate the failure of the "large system" to address anything but the most basic of emergency response needs, choosing instead to focus on what the large NGOs could dream up in multi million-dollar "sustainable development" proposals that robbed the local NGOs of their ability to retain employees, compete for funding, or participate collectively in the recovery of their own province. 
   “We're a little vexed, you see.
   “But we were hoping you could shed some light on the trajectory of the reconstruction funds from extremely useful and lifesaving earlier good works to a series of projects with dubious ability to be sustainable and with no consideration for the conflict-affected areas that BRR promised to include in the MDF disbursement.

The silence, I tell you, was deafening.

But wait!
Did I say that was the last of the databases???
Surely not!

We are forgetting the first database, the granddaddy of all repositories, started in 2005 and the one, apparently, that RAN and KNOW thought they could out-do: “e-Aceh!”

Bappenas, those lords of information technology, launched e-Aceh in May of 2005, claiming that In response to the need of transparency and effective coordination” e-Aceh “is intended to be an information tool for everyone involved in the rapid and coordinated recovery process.” It is  the unitary information sharing portal” designed to “strengthen the fiduciary framework surrounding the implementation of the [Aceh recovery strategy] and to support the rapid & coordinated multi-actor recovery.” Ulp.

And if that weren’t enough, “The information available in e-Aceh includes: rehabilitation & reconstruction planning & public consultation; program, projects & activity implementation; procurement information; private funds tracking; sectoral information; results-orientated monitoring & evaluation; situation reports; complaints handling &monitoring; job & volunteer opportunities.”

They list e-Aceh’s website. Go ahead and click on it.  If you like Chinese smut.

So: quick recap: 2005: e-Aceh developed and dropped like hot potato, 2006 RAN developed, 2008 KNOW developed, 2008 KNOW dies, 2009 RAN plug pulled.

Now that we’ve established that there is no documentation confirming that any of the billions of dollars in projects ever was satisfactorily completed, we will turn to the EDFF—the last $50 million—and how Bappenas, Bappeda, and AAA/Keumang fit into a bizarre Reconstruction Time Warp.

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