Failure of Tsunami Reconstruction Leaves Humanitarian Agencies under Fire

The tsunami of 2004 triggered the biggest humanitarian response in history, feeding the hungry, heading off epidemics and engendering the hope that out of a calamity that took 216,000 lives, a better Indian Ocean rim would emerge.

KAMPUNG JAWA, Indonesia — The tsunami of 2004 triggered the biggest humanitarian response in history, feeding the hungry, heading off epidemics and engendering 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 standing accused of planning poorly, raising unrealistic expectations and simply being incompetent.

Brand-new 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, an NGO, or non-governmental organization, 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 Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami, NGOs rushed in alongside the U.S. military and other government agencies, and their quick response was credited with preventing the disaster from getting worse.

But as the NGOs 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 or TEC, an independent body that includes over 40 humanitarian agencies and donors.

In a July report, TEC called the aid effort "a missed opportunity." It said there were too many inexperienced NGOs working in disaster zones, while seasoned agencies jumped into areas they knew nothing about -- Medecins Sans Frontieres Belgium built boats while Save the Children constructed 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," 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 farmfields, the challenge was enormous. More than 150,000 Acehnese survivors spent more than a year in rotting tents and hundreds of families are still in them.

There are communities with brick homes to rival some American suburbs, while others look like slums of clapboard shacks. A few hundred yellow homes looking like outsized 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 acknowledged that they assumed the government would provide utilities, not realizing that the disaster had decimated many government agencies.

"The quality is bad. I won't even use this wood for a chicken coop," said 57-year-old Hamdan Yunus, 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.

Not all the shortcomings are the NGOs' fault. Corruption played a big part.

British-based Oxfam shut 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 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. 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 Aceh 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, also has accused Sri Lankan officials of demanding bribes from survivors to get on lists for new homes and directing a disproportionate amount of funds into areas that support the government in the island's civil war.

In Thailand, the most developed of the hard-hit countries, unscrupulous 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 U.N. called "unmistakable progress," agencies have been credited with building 57,000 houses across the 11 countries that felt the impact of the tsunami waters. Another 81,000 are under construction. Hundreds of schools and clinics have also been built.

But there were also plenty of missteps.

Some agencies handed out 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.

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 the humanitarian business.

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

Save the Children says all of the 708 homes it built at two sites in Aceh will need work -- 64 are being rebuilt and the remainder are being extensively repaired.

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 effort.

"Building is not just houses. It's building communities," he said. "You have to construct the drainage, the septic tanks... They (the NGOs) just thought about the 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 has often been impossible to determine with so many owners dead. Some areas are isolated by bad roads and rough seas.

Government agencies have also come under fire for dragging their feet on issuing regulations over what housing can be built in Indonesia, and by limits on coastal redevelopment in Sri Lanka. Fighting in Sri Lanka has forced agencies to halt reconstruction and pull staff out.

Still, NGOs acknowledge they share some of the blame.

They 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.

A more far-reaching reform would be to set international standards for NGOs and follow the U.S. example of making tax-exempt status dependent on agencies meeting accountability requirements.

Former President Bill Clinton, the U.N. Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, liked to say 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."

Source: Associated Press

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