Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Portuguese journalist visits Aceh and asks for our help

Andreia Noguiera, a journalist from the Portuguese news outlet LUSA, visited Aceh last week as part of an investigation into the successes and challenges of reconstruction 10 years after the 2004 tsunami.  We were told by the Clinton Foundation that November would be the month that the global media would invade Aceh to do commemorative stories, and they were right.  What I wanted to make sure of was that the positive gushing that I am anticipating by other media will be tempered by a small sliver of journalistic integrity, which takes into account the economic and political situations of people outside the capital, in the rural areas, in the ostensibly protected forests, in the lands of the ex-combatants.

Andreia contacted us after seeing a 2010 video done by the Australian Broadcasting Company of how we stayed in the province long after most international NGOs had left. 

Aceh Afterwards, Foreign Correspondent - ABC, April 5, 2010
Sara Henderson is interviewed in the field in this ABC News report that reviews lessons learned from the international relief effort and ways to improve future responses to disaster.

She was especially interested in the hundreds of houses that were constructed by BRR (the reconstruction agency) in Aceh Jaya which were never finished and never lived in.

We were most eager to help her and so Junaidi, JMD’s Associate Director, volunteered to be her guide and gave her a very thorough tour of the parts of the province that were the hardest hit by the tsunami, including Lamno where JMD had conducted many projects and where some JMD staff are still living.  
Here is Andreia in Lamno with JMD's Education Coordinator Rosie and two of her boys 
in front of the home that JMD built for her.

I spoke briefly with Andreia on the phone but the connection was rather terrible so she sent me some questions and I’m re-printing them below. I answered as truthfully as I could.  I am just wondering if when other news media visits Aceh, they will see just a little of what I am talking about, or only have a day to zip in, get the whitewash tour, and zip out, pronouncing Aceh’s reconstruction a “success.”

And at this point I don’t know that acknowledging the many flaws in this effort will improve anything.  What it might do, however, is prepare people to administer the next huge humanitarian relief effort (and we all know there will be one) with a bit more far-sightedness and a lot more emphasis on the local population's involvement in and management of  their own recovery based on their own identified needs.

What are the biggest problems that you identify in the reconstruction?

·      No training of Acehnese staff to implement projects
·      Gutting of local NGOs to fill international vacancies
·      Misplaced priorities (tons of food was sent to Aceh but food was not needed—the survivors always had enough to eat and cargo ships full of food were rotting in the ports)
·      No involvement of local communities and Acehnese civil society in the planning process and implementation of projects
·      Insistence on the part of the international community that Aceh’s local NGOs and institutions can’t be autonomous in implementing projects
·      Infrastructure initiatives based on international business community needs (such as roads to palm oil plantations but no farm to market roads)
·      BRA never received promised portion of MDF funds for ex-combatants
·      Culturally inept approach to community needs
·      donor-driven rather than community-driven projects based on the donors’ preconception of what was “needed”
·      after the emergency health/medical services were rendered, there was no investigation into appropriate and needed sustainable livelihoods initiatives (see above: no interaction with local communities and civil society)
·      World Bank representatives admit there was too much money to keep track of
·      No coordination between NGOs and donor agencies/countries—everyone wanted to work independently in order to get credit—so duplication of services was rampant
·      The thing that was most needed early on was listening—no one listened to survivors.

From your point of view what still needs to be done in Aceh?

The question is hard to answer because “still to be done” implies that progress was made with reconstruction.  I do not think that things are any better now in 2014 than they were before the tsunami.  Reconstruction cleared away debris and attended to immediate health needs.  Beside the emergency response, there was no planned “way forward.” So the following are a few suggestions of things that need to be done in Aceh, but it is by no means an exhaustive list:

·      Capacity building for local NGOs and official support of local NGOs/community organizations by the provincial government
·      Elimination/reduction of sharia police activities
·      Education campaigns regarding conservation
·      Upholding laws protecting forests
·      Developing maintenance plan for all the infrastructure
·      Teacher training
·      Public works plans in the outlying districts
·      Transparency in terms of dealing with extraction interests
·      Appropriate funding in place to patrol forests, and arrest/fine/jail illegal loggers and poachers—strengthen the Department of Forestry and the environmental protection ministry
·      Fines and sanctions for extraction interests that do not follow fair labor and conservation practices
·      Opting out of MPOC (which is corrupt and useless) and developing independent standards for palm oil
·      Removing the new zoning regulations for protected forests which have rendered them unprotected
·      True promotion of smallholder farmer and small-business enterprise
·      Compensation for ex-combatants
·      Holding civil servants accountable for their positions, hiring based on qualifications and not political/family affiliation (revamping and adherence to labor law) 

Many of these changes require that a select few very wealthy, very powerful people in Aceh (some of them legislators) forego their billion-dollar (illegal) profits and work to make the province more stable, as opposed to making themselves wildly wealthy.

(The 4 richest men in Indonesia own and have made their fortunes from palm oil plantations.  This fact alone shows how incredibly difficult it is to separate the reconstruction and the peace accord from ex-combatant violence, rampant deforestation and destruction, corruption, increased rural poverty and displacement, and political greed.)

In Aceh Timur there are a minimum of 100 ex-GAM fighters who have declared war on the current governor.  They are armed an there are more joined daily.  What they want was promised by the MoU (and never delivered) which is distribution of land and training for sustainability.
And in Gayo coffee country (central Aceh), indigenous citizens want autonomy; they say that they are not treated fairly and they are the indigenous people.  Many of them are armed also.
These types of legitimate grievances must be heard by the provincial government or violence will erupt throughout the province and the TNI will once again be frighteningly called in to “neutralize” the threats.

Could you tell me why do you think that the reconstruction made by your organization was better for the people?

JMD was one of the few agencies working in the province that was local and staffed by Acehnese.  In most cases we were the only ones working remote districts. Staff were given training in administration, financial management, liaising with donor agencies, and preparing proposals, reports and budget documents.  The other local NGOs were gutted by international NGOs who stole staff and paid them wages that the local NGOs could not afford, including extremely highly paid “consultants with little on-site knowledge or awareness of traditions, cultural issues, etc.  When the projects were over there were many well-trained Acehnese but no local agencies to return to.  So the majority of these people left.  Aceh currently has very few locally-staffed NGOs for this reason.  There is no donor who is willing to invest in local capacity building with the objective of leaving the donor community autonomous—there is still too much money at stake for international NGOs to bow out.
The other reason JMD was successful is that it developed projects based on community need and not donor demand.  It conducted many focus groups and lived with rural and marginalized communities to understand what and how communities wanted their projects to look like. JMD went to the most remote, hard-to-access, and insecure areas because that’s where the most need was, and international NGOs were not willing to take those risks.  Additionally, JMD worked on small scale projects whose beneficiary count was sometimes too low for larger NGOs to serve due to the extreme amount of administrative overhead that they worked under, so they could not provide direct services to small pockets of individuals. 

JMD finished many of the projects started by large international NGOs because when security issues arose, the NGOs left to go back to their HQs and asked us to remain—at this point JMD was a tiny local agency with no experience at all—but was trusted to complete projects such as health clinics, water projects, schools, markets, community centers, etc. tat netted the international NGOs millions of dollars.  At the same time, JMD was deemed “too small” to apply for these same funds in order to do projects on our own and receive these funds.  Yet JMD completed them.

Until the MoU was signed, there wasn’t proper security—we used to travel through the mountains all the time—apart from a few TNI checkpoints there was little security—there were many instances of shootings, kidnappings, etc.

JMD stayed in Aceh after the worst was over.  The majority of other NGOs left.  Paradoxically, those international NGOs that have stayed are still not training local staff to eventually become autonomous.  There is a pervasive feeling in the international NGO and donor community that local NGOs are intellectually incapable of running their own programs, so “we” must remain to assist them.  And at the same time, regardless of Aceh’s (and Indonesia’s) posturing to the contrary, local agencies are seen by the government itself as weak and inefficient; the government would always prefer to do business with a foreign NGO than a local one. 

This misconception cripples Aceh’s ability to adequately address its own social, economic and infrastructure issues. Unfortunately, it is not a total misconception for the reasons outlined above—civil society in Aceh died with the tsunami, both literally in the form of the majority of NGO staff being killed, and administratively through the refusal of the global community to include local capacity building as a priority of the reconstruction effort. (This is mentioned over and over in al the post-reconstruction reports from BRR to World bank to the UN—the failure of the groups that got the most money to engage with the people they were supposedly “helping.”)

One good example of this is the establishment of three consecutive databases designed to track all reconstruction projects.  With costs of tens of millions of dollars, each of these incredibly complex and comprehensive databases were developed by global teams funded with reconstruction funds and maintained by international IT specialists.  At no time were Acehnese staff trained in their implementation, and so when EDFF closed, and international staff went away, there was no one left who understood how to operate or maintain them. Three separate databases were established, as if each consecutive one would be different in terms of sustainability.  The waste of resources was phenomenal.  There exists no centralized project database for the reconstruction effort.  (Financial data exists, we are told, and individual organizations kept their own records, but nowhere in Aceh is anything centralized.)  Additionally, there was no thought to budgeting for the maintenance and future upkeep of these databases—or any of the capital improvement projects in Aceh (roads, bridges, schools, ports, etc.)  So when Bappenas took over after EDFF closed, no one paid the hosting fee and the database disappeared.  And the roads that were built are now falling apart—not a criticism of their construction but of the knowledge that infrastructure here needs lots of maintenance—and never received it.

Beside the fact that some builders and suppliers got rich with this process, do you also think that there was corruption among NGOs and the local authorities?

We know of at least one documented instance of corruption, which we have investigated and documented extensively and received confirmation from EDFF/World bank regarding its veracity. (It involves Action Aid Australia and Yayasan Keumang and a $6.7 cocoa farming improvement project that was never implemented—and no one knows where the funds went.)  However, there are many, many more instances of this.  I would call it “corruption” when an international NGO continues to pad its administrative costs, sending 80% or reconstruction funds back to its own country HQ, leaving 20% for direct services.  Just looking at the EDF completion report, about 90% of the $50million in projects were rated “Moderately unsatisfactory” by World Bank, due mostly to project proposals that promised goals that were impossible to achieve, and hence had to “scale back” on expectations and services.  International NGOs got very, very wealthy with these funds.  It is no wonder that many in Aceh consider “NGO” to be a dirty word.

The government/BRR staff was also complicit in fairly widespread and well-known corruption.  It was common knowledge that if an agency wished to implement a BRR project and get funds from the Multi-Donor Fund, it had to pay an official or staff member to "accept" the proposal and/or release the funds. Local officials tried to extort money from JMD a couple of times—the payment was usually around 20,000,000IDR (about $1,500) the cacique or someone would say “if you want to do this project it will cost X.”  But we never would pay; we'd threaten to do the project somewhere else, and they would back off and eventually let us do it.  But we never asked for BRR funds—even if we had, as I mentioned, we were deemed "too small."   We just went and did projects without the MDF money—as many other agencies also did.  And most were asked to pay the "premium" for the "opportunity" to do projects.  Some paid, some did not.

The ill-fated “peace accord” directed funds and positions of power to certain ex-GAM leaders, who then forsook the remaining 3,000 ex-combatants and, we are sure, profited from reconstruction in some form. As I mentioned, the agreement to take some of the reconstruction funds and direct it to ex-combatants through BRA never was carried out; BRA was (and is) considered a miserable failure.  

What is painfully obvious is that despite the billions of dollars spent in Aceh, no government official, agriculture extensionist, health/education professional or ministry representative received any additional training or got any better at his/her job. Local authorities’ responsiveness to community need also did not improve.  Why should it have?  The international community basically told Aceh, “Stand back—we’ll handle this.”  So the Acehnese—what was left of them—said, “okay.”  And when the money ran out, the foreigners left.  Very little technical or educational capital was left.

Why do you believe that GAM is a threat again in Aceh and why do you think this is happening?
What can be done to solve this problem?  
 Below is a position paper that was written at the request of President Clinton for the Clinton Foundation in 2012.   The political situation in Aceh is extremely complex, and at this time I believe that the majority of ex-combatants who are not in government positions are merely pawns in a power struggle between Partai Aceh and PDIP.  No good will come of it.

This time, it will become GAM against GAM.  Although TNI has said that if these GAM guys try to overthrow Zaini, they will act quickly and squelch this uprising, and it will not be pretty.

May I know your nationality?
I was born in Brooklyn, New York and am a US citizen.  I lived and worked in Jakarta for 20 years prior to the 2004 tsunami, and remained in Aceh for seven years afterwards.

GAM "White Paper" 2012

Dear Mr. Clinton,
I enjoyed speaking with you during the Nelson Mandela reception held in your office; it was an honor to join you and the other attendees in paying tribute to such a great man.  I’m also grateful that you are still concerned for, and continue to monitor, the welfare of the citizens of Aceh, and had asked me to give you an update on the situation with former GAM combatants and their potential for violence especially during the next few election weeks.  I’m more than happy for this opportunity sum up what we believe to be about as close to the truth about this situation as possible, and I’ll be as brief as I can.

As I mentioned to you, Jembatan Masa Depan (JMD) has been working in the more remote areas of the province since 2005 and as a small grass-roots sustainable livelihoods and adult education agency we have strong ties to both local communities and political/government institutions, and are also fortunate enough to have over the years gained the trust and cooperation of a number of leaders in the Free Aceh (GAM) movement. The experience we’ve had and the information we’ve received during these past years is a bit different from the summaries presented in World Bank-funded reports and government-issued statements regarding the attention paid to ex-combatants and the very real problems they currently face.

Numbers vary slightly, but approximately 3,000 of the 21,000 known GAM combatants were reported by GAM leaders to the government immediately following the peace agreement/MoU signing.  (Indeed, even the 2009 World Bank-supported Multi-Stakeholder Review, considered to be the seminal document on the GAM issue, estimates that “there currently are around 14,300 former GAM combatants in Aceh, many more than the 3,000 claimed in the Helsinki MoU”).  There are many reasons why the large remaining numbers were not reported, chief among them being that GAM feared that the Indonesian government, once receiving the surrendered weapons of GAM’s entire militia, would renege on any peace agreement and retaliate with violence on now-unarmed “enemies of the state.”  Subsequently, the 3,000 who were registered were compensated in the form of government positions, financial remuneration, etc.  GAM members felt that these 3,000 would be the harbingers of a finally integrated province and would act as their advocates and supporters in the form of insuring that their remaining ranks of 14-18,000 would receive reintegration assistance as well.

This was not the case.  While many of the 3,000 registered members became quite powerful and “reintegrated” comfortably into their communities (Governor Irwandi himself is a former GAM leader) they abandoned many of the promises to their constituents that had elevated them to this status in the first place.  Former combatants had taken to heart Governor Irwandi’s promise of approximately $40 million for rural development projects, as well as assurances that they would receive land and livelihoods training as part of reintegration activities.  Although many public documents state that all ex-combatants have received some type of assistance, the reality is that very few have received any assistance at all.  They live in remote districts where few if any government officials or agency has visited, and the assistance that they may have received has come through tsunami relief, which was far more broadly distributed and tracked than any relief to former GAM Members.  Indeed, the tsunami relief (Multi-Donor) funds were significantly lacking in any mandated provisions for ex-combatants and their particular issues and needs.  Notes one publication, “In their rush to provide assistance to tsunami victims, many international agencies signed undertakings that they would not ‘interfere’ in the conflict.  By and large the US$600 million Multi-Donor Fund (MDF) could not be used in conflict-affected areas that were not hit by the tsunami. As a result, there has been a significant discrepancy between the aid reaching tsunami-affected areas and that to many heavily conflict-affected regions, creating an artificial dichotomy between post-tsunami and post-conflict Aceh.”

Many of the authors of the documents extolling the (relative) success of the reintegration programs were in fact hand-picked by those government officials eager to put a successful face on the reintegration issue, and much of the data and conclusions are suspect.

In successive Governor’s Decrees, BRA (the agency responsible for reintegration) has been tasked with “formulating programs for the reintegration of former GAM into society in the fields of government, political participation, integration, and community empowerment in the social and economic spheres.” Public documents also indicate that BRA “has managed to directly facilitate individual assistance to approximately 20,000 conflict actors.”  This is not true.  Very little money has flowed directly to former combatants.  The reason for this are presented eloquently in a number of publications, usually accompanied by complaints from BRA as to why they could not comply, but the results are the same: approximately 15,000 fighting-age males in Aceh province feel as though they have been abandoned by the government that they believed, through the peace accord, had promised to welcome them as citizens with bright futures.

The violence surrounding the elections is a culmination of sentiment that has been percolating in Aceh for years.  The Aceh party, comprised of former GAM members, is furious with Governor Irwandi for what they perceive as near treasonous actions towards them.  BRA and other agencies have not bothered to address the issue of appropriate reintegration and what it means.  Much-needed education and vocational training programs, land allocations, agriculture and livestock and training have never been launched, despite claims to the contrary.  “Field reports” go out of their way to explain the complexity of the MoU and how it can’t be implemented easily due to language regarding individual vs. community-wide benefits.  Partai Aceh is now seen as filled with strong-arming thugs who disrupt elections in order to get their needs met and who have their fingers on the pulse of all large development projects.  In a sense, these non-3,000 former GAM members have played as cast—marginalized, ignored troublemakers who according to those in power should have been grateful they weren’t all rounded up and dispatched.

These former combatants extend through the province like a web, earning money by growing marijuana, logging illegally in protected forests, and sometimes committing robbery and shootings for hire, trying to compensate for the sustainability the government refuses to give them, says it has already given them.  They are also resourceful, determined, and in some cases very well-respected in the communities they inhabit, and their disgust with the care that has been extended them and their families transmits exponentially through the districts so that young men in remote villages with few opportunities of their own begin to see these disenfranchised fighters as their role models.

It is JMD’s belief that far more attention should be paid to providing education assistance (high school equivalency programs) and vocational training to former combatants, and that the Acehnese government can facilitate this initiative quite easily.  The hardest thing for NGOs to address is a community of former GAM saying “Our government gave us nothing. We were promised land and training.  We were promised that we’d be able to care for our families legally and respectfully.  There is no way for us to survive now except through violence and crime.”  Because we can’t tell them “No, that’s not true, you weren’t abandoned, your government cares about you.”

There are many specific and documented instances of former combatants’ not receiving the services that various entities claim to have provided.  If you’d like a more “formal” presentation of what agencies on the ground in Aceh see as the cause and possible solution to the “GAM vs GAM” issue, I would be most happy to provide it. I would also welcome the opportunity to discuss further with your team how you may be able to influence a positive outcome in terms of both mitigating election violence and helping the doubly-marginalized citizens of Aceh reclaim their livelihoods, their dignity, and their ability to help the province grow and flourish economically and socially.

Thank you so much for your time, sir.  I do look forward to being able to speak with you again.

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