Relief Agencies Look Inward
Poor Planning Hurt Response to Tsunami, Assessment Finds


By Michael Casey
Associated Press
Sunday, September 24, 2006; A26

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.

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

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

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

Corruption also played a big part in the reconstruction failures.

British-based Oxfam shut down operations in the city of Aceh Besar for a month and an investigation led to charges of misconduct against 10 Indonesian staff members over the loss of $22,000.

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

An Indonesian government audit found as much as $5 million went 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.”

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

Under pressure to spend donated proceeds, 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 felt the impact of the tsunami. Another 81,000 are under construction. Hundreds of schools and clinics have also been built.

Many relief groups are looking for ways to respond more quickly to disasters by creating emergency response teams, opening regional supply warehouses or partnering with the private sector to ensure a steady supply of professionals.

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, said he was confident that nongovernmental organizations were open to oversight, provided their independence was respected.

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

© 2006 The Washington Post Company