In the dreadful days between Christmas and New Year 2004, when each day brought new horrors on the massive scale of the tragedy, none of us realized how this would change our lives in the coming year. I'm writing this on the flight from Jakarta to Banda Aceh -- my seventeenth visit of the year since the tsunami.
The scale of the tragedy was unparalleled, of course, even for those of us who had worked in other disaster reconstructions. With 167,000 dead or missing along an 800 kilometer strip of coastline that had been swept clean of buildings and all signs of life, the task of rebuilding seemed, and was, overwhelming.
The response was also unprecedented. Never in history had so many individuals, businesses and countries contributed so much in response to a single event. It now appears that around US$9 billion in total will be available to rebuild Aceh and Nias, with around one third from Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and the private sector, one third from international donors, and one third from the government of Indonesia.
Never before has non-government actors played such a central role in the long term reconstruction. Twelve months on there are 124 international NGOs and 430 local NGOs working alongside dozens of donor and UN agencies engaged in the largest building program in the world.
President Bill Clinton, the UN Special Envoy for the Tsunami, and Paul Wolfowitz, President of the World Bank, have both noted that the scale and spontaneity of the response to the tsunami offers a test for us all. If funds are used efficiently to quickly restore communities and livelihoods, then this type of response could become a model for future disasters. But if reconstruction is seen to be inefficient or delayed by bureaucratic bottlenecks, cynicism will set in and it may be decades before such generosity will be seen again.
So how goes the battle one year on? There's good news and bad news.
A comparison with reconstruction following other recent disasters shows Aceh doing better than average. But this is largely because the average is so low. Reconstruction after disasters is almost always much slower than expectations, mainly because we fail to grasp how difficulties interact and multiply. We tend to plan our programs as if land titles, ports, roads and power supply still exist, and as if public officials suddenly learn to cooperate in a manner never seen before.
Such over-optimism is true in advanced industrial countries such as Japan (Kobe earthquake, 1995) and the United States (Hurricane Ivan, 2004), just as it has been in recent years in Turkey (1992 earthquake), Honduras (Hurricane Mitch, 1998), Iran (Bam earthquake, 2003), and Venezuela (floods 1999).
Being above average gives no satisfaction knowing that 60,000 people are still living in tents a year after the disaster. Such an outcome is surely a statement of failure. Importantly, however, this failure is not due to a slow program of permanent housing construction: The initial plan of 30,000 in the first year is close to being achieved. It is rather due to an error in judgment regarding temporary housing. Nobody wanted to divert resources away from the job of permanent housing, so almost no agencies invested in temporary housing that would last for the two years until the permanent housing was ready. Perhaps the silver lining to this mistake is that permanent housing is now likely to be completed earlier than planned. With 5000 houses per month now being started, it is realistically hoped that everybody will be in permanent homes by mid-2007.
The government made two decisions early on which slowed down the start-up of visible reconstruction, but which we believe will have a high pay-off in quality and even speed as we enter 2006.
The first was to reject a top-down Jakarta-led reconstruction strategy in favor of one led firmly by the affected communities themselves. It would have been quicker to hire a dozen large construction companies and send in the cement.
But consultation with Acehnese citizens reminded the planners that rebuilding communities is as important as rebuilding houses and that allowing them to take the lead will help healing and recovery. In several thousand villages in Aceh and Nias communities have been helped to map their own land, choose their house designs, and in many instances to build their own homes. More than 35,000 facilitators are helping this happen.
The second decision was to establish a new government Agency, the Badan Rekonstruksi dan Rehabilitasi (BRR), charged with leading the entire effort. Staring an agency from scratch is not cheap, easy or quick, and it was after mid-year before the agency was capable of adding real value. This was one reason why there was a sharp dip in activity in the April-September period as the relief teams left well before the construction teams arrived. Now the benefits of this decision are outweighing the costs, as we are seeing coherence and drive to the program that would have been unlikely had existing government departments been left to do the job on their own.
A year on, what have we learned?
Bureaucracy: Doing things at normal speed would leave people in tents for years. Strong measures may be needed to cut through red tape.
Coordination and Partnership: Holding meetings to share information is not enough. There must be disciplined coordination and joint decision-making. There are some important experiments in this regard. The Multi-Donor Fund, which I have the privilege to co-chair (together with Pak Kuntoro and the European Commission Ambassador) is a $540 million fund that pools resources of fifteen donors who are more concerned about setting the job done than in who gets the credit for it.
Passion: Reconstruction in a devastated environment is for the strong-hearted. It is messy, frustrating and extremely difficult. Visit the Multi-donor office in Banda Aceh (or the BRR Office or NGO offices) at 10 pm on any evening, and you will be inspired. Never in my career have I seen greater commitment to get the job done, month after month.
Resilience: We are mere guests in Aceh. The main players are those whose home it is. We have staff members who lost spouses, children, and homes, yet insisted in getting back to work immediately. Of the 500,000 who were displaced in Aceh, 320,000 of them no longer count themselves as displaced. They received help to be sure, but it was with their own initiative that they have picked up their lives.
The Year Ahead
About $1 billion was spent on relief in the first half of 2005, and nearly $1 billion on reconstruction in the second half. The real work of reconstruction -- perhaps $2-3 billion worth -- will take place in 2006, and an equivalent amount in 2007. Its thus much too early to tell whether the recovery will be rated a success or a failure. If we apply the lessons of the past year, and redouble our efforts, Aceh's reconstruction could introduce a new better way of doing business in such recoveries. The second anniversary will be the one that counts.
The writer is The World Bank Country Director for Indonesia.