Relief Agencies Look Inward

Hundreds of houses in Indonesia's Aceh province that were erected with aid funds following the 2004 earthquake and tsunami were built with untreated lumber that became infested with termites. The homes had to be torn down.
Hundreds of houses in Indonesia's Aceh province that were erected with aid funds following the 2004 earthquake and tsunami were built with untreated lumber that became infested with termites. The homes had to be torn down. (Photos By Binsar Bakkara -- Associated Press)
By Michael Casey
Associated Press
Sunday, September 24, 2006

KAMPUNG JAWA, Indonesia -- The tsunami of 2004 triggered the biggest humanitarian response in history, one that fed the hungry, headed off epidemics and engendered the hope that out of a calamity that took 216,000 lives, a better Indian Ocean rim would emerge.

But 18 months later, recriminations are rife, with aid agencies accused of planning poorly, raising unrealistic expectations and simply being incompetent.

Newly built homes infested with termites are being torn down in Indonesia, while 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 sit 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 earmarked 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," Anisya Thomas, managing director of the California-based Fritz Institute, a nongovernmental organization, or NGO, 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," Thomas said. "The large NGOs had trouble finding local resources and, when they did, they often had trouble holding them accountable."

Days after the tsunami hit on Dec. 26, 2004, relief groups rushed in alongside the U.S. military and other government agencies, and their quick response was credited with preventing an even greater disaster.

But as aid agencies shifted to reconstruction, excessive amounts of money meant that spending decisions were often 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, the coalition called the aid effort "a missed opportunity." It said there were too many inexperienced aid groups working in disaster zones, while seasoned agencies jumped into areas they knew nothing about.

The report also accused the nongovernmental groups of leaving survivors uniformed 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," Scott Campbell, program director for Catholic Relief Services in Aceh, the Indonesian province that was hit hardest by the earthquake and tsunami. "It has made every organization rethink how to approach this."

With large swaths of Aceh's coast reduced to damaged homes and flooded farmland, the challenge was enormous. More than 150,000 Acehnese survivors spent more than a year in rotting tents, and hundreds of families still live in them.


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