- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 24, 2006

KAMPUNG JAWA, Indonesia — The 2004 tsunami triggered the biggest humanitarian response in history, feeding the hungry, heading off epidemics and engendering the hope that out of a calamity that took about 250,000 lives, a better world would emerge.

But about two years later, recriminations are rife as aid agencies are accused of planning poorly, raising unrealistic expectations and being incompetent.

Brand-new homes infested with termites are being torn down in Indonesia, and families in India were put into shelters deemed of poor quality and uninhabitable because of the heat. Thousands of boats donated to fishermen in Indonesia and Sri Lanka are idle because they are unseaworthy or too small. Only 23 percent of the $10.4 billion in disaster aid to the worst-hit countries — Indonesia and Sri Lanka — has been spent, according to the United Nations, because so much of it is for long-term construction projects.

“I think mistakes occur in every disaster, but for the first time, we are seeing it on a large scale,” said Anisya Thomas, managing director of the Fritz Institute, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) based in California that specializes in delivering aid and has surveyed survivors in India and Sri Lanka.

“Many large NGOs are involved in rehabilitation and reconstruction activities beyond their capacity,” she said. “The large NGOs had trouble finding local resources and … they often had trouble holding them accountable.”

‘Missed opportunity’

Days after the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami, such outfits rushed in alongside the U.S. military and other government agencies, and their quick response was credited with preventing the situation from worsening.

But as the NGOs shifted to reconstruction, excessive amounts of money meant that spending decisions often were driven by “politics and funds, not assessment and needs,” according to the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition, an independent body that includes more than 40 humanitarian agencies and donors.

In a July report, TEC called the aid effort “a missed opportunity.” It said there were too many inexperienced groups working in disaster zones, while seasoned agencies jumped into areas they knew nothing about: Belgium’s Doctors Without Borders built boats, while Save the Children built houses.

The report also accused NGOs of leaving many survivors ignorant about their plans or failing to deliver promised aid. “A combination of arrogance and ignorance characterized how much of the aid community misled people,” it said. The agencies are studying the report, and many are overhauling their training and staffing.

“The tsunami was unique in so many ways,” said Scott Campbell, program director for Catholic Relief Services in Aceh, the Indonesian province hit hardest by the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami. “It has made every organization rethink how to approach this.”

Bad housing

With large swaths of its coast reduced to damaged homes and flooded farm fields, the challenge in Aceh was enormous. More than 150,000 survivors there spent over a year in rotting tents, and hundreds of families are still in them.

There are communities with brick homes, while others look like slums of clapboard shacks. A few hundred yellow homes that look like big mailboxes are held together with duct tape.

Clusters of homes were abandoned by their new owners because of leaky roofs or termites in the untreated wood. Hundreds more were built without water, electricity or sewer hookups. The NGOs later said they assumed the government would provide utilities, not realizing the disaster had decimated many government agencies.

“The quality is bad. I won’t even use this wood for a chicken coop,” said Hamdan Yunus, 57, an Indonesian fisherman in Kampung Jawa who tore down the home donated by British-based Muslim Aid after the wood began crumbling.

In India’s Tamil Nadu state, temporary homes built by Western-based charities were of “poor quality” and “uninhabitable” in daytime because of the heat, according to a July 2005 evaluation of relief efforts.

Crippling corruption

Not all the shortcomings were the fault of the NGOs. Corruption played a big part. British-based Oxfam halted operations in the city of Aceh Besar for a month, and an investigation led to charges of misconduct against 10 Indonesian staffers over the loss of $22,000.

Save the Children says it has to rebuild hundreds of termite-stricken houses in Aceh after discovering that contractors pocketed funds earmarked for construction. It has fired three housing inspectors, bolstered oversight of its $156.6 million Aceh program and is buying timber from Canada.

An Indonesian government audit found as much as $5 million missing in the first weeks.

“The corruption has spread everywhere. It goes all the way down to the village level,” said Akhiruddin Mahjuddin, who leads Gerakan Anti-Korupsi, an Aceh group. “I’m really disappointed. I would say from 30 percent to 40 percent of tsunami aid money is missing.”

The Asian Development Bank is spending $4 million on anti-corruption measures in Aceh, and the provincial government is working to improve its accounting systems while putting up billboards warning the public about bribery.

Transparency International, a global anti-corruption watchdog, has accused Sri Lankan officials of demanding bribes from survivors who want to get on lists for new homes and directing a disproportionate amount of funds to areas that support the government in the island’s civil war.

In Thailand, the most developed of the hard-hit countries, businessmen were accused of stealing land in damaged villages to build tourist resorts.

Under pressure to spend the donations, agencies increased their pace toward the end of last year. In what the United Nations called “unmistakable progress,” agencies have been credited with building 57,000 houses across the 11 countries that bore the impact of the tsunami. And 81,000 are under construction. Hundreds of schools and clinics have been built.

But there were plenty of missteps.

Some agencies gave cash grants and loans for survivors in ill-conceived plans — a factory in India to make tiles where there was no market for them or the planting of thousands of mangrove seedlings that died.

‘Quantity over quality’

The World Bank found that 40 percent of the 7,000 boats donated in Indonesia would be “unusable in 12 to 18 months” and that many of the boat-building plans failed to consider how fishermen would store or sell their catches.

“The donors at first seemed to pursue quantity over quality and the actual needs of the fishermen,” said Adli Abdullah, secretary-general of an Aceh fishing organization.

The problems have beset many of the top names in humanitarian efforts.

Habitat for Humanity International, based in Americus, Ga., is struggling to get utilities to the several thousand houses built in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Oxfam, which received the most funding of any NGO, is pondering whether to rebuild 750 of the 800 homes it built in Aceh.

Save the Children says all the 708 houses it built at two sites in Aceh will need work — 64 are being rebuilt, and the rest are being repaired extensively.

The Indonesian government, frustrated by the amount of bad housing, has set aside up to $1 million to repair or rebuild “several thousand” homes.

“We made the assumption that these NGOs didn’t need our guidance when it comes to building houses. What happened is that they were not prepared,” said Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, who heads the government’s reconstruction work.

“Building is not just houses. It’s building communities,” he said. “You have to construct the drainage, the septic tanks … [The NGOs] just thought about money and building materials.”

NGOs blame some of their problems on the scope of the disaster and the difficult environment.

Timber as well as expertise were in short supply. Prices of many materials have doubled in the past year. Land ownership often has been impossible to determine with so many owners dead. Some areas are isolated by bad roads and rough seas.

Former President Bill Clinton, the U.N. special envoy for tsunami recovery, has said the goal should be to “build back better.” His deputy, Eric Schwartz, says he’s confident NGOs are open to oversight, provided their independence is respected.

The pressure for a process to accredit NGOs “is substantial,” he said. “I think they understand this.”

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