• Open Access

Post-Disaster Reconstruction – Lessons from Aceh

Edited by: Matthew Clarke, Ismet Fanany and Sue Kenny , Published by Earthscan Press , London UK , 2010 , 268 pages , hardcover , ISBN-13: 978-1844078790 , RRP $144.00 .

Reviewed by Priscilla Robinson

School of Public Health, La Trobe University, Victoria

This book is both startling and touching in its approach and content. It reflects the experiences of the people of Aceh in the reconstruction of their lives and livelihoods after the disastrous tidal wave of 26 December 2004. I am writing this review one week after the triple events of 11 March 2011 in Japan, and am struck by the lessons and messages this book contains, not only for the agencies now attending to the response to the events but also those involved in the recovery.

The book begins with a touching preface from the executive director of the Wahid Institute in Jakarta. He describes the sights of the streets of Bandah Aceh, the metres-high confusion of belongings and buildings ‘as if hurled about by an angry, insane giant’. He talks about a place he had been used to visiting, where there was now gently lapping water, and how ‘emptiness can be blinding’. He describes the evolution of his feelings and understandings and concluded that the tidal wave had affected the people in two main ways: destruction of the physical environment, including a physically reconstructed coastline; and destruction of the soul. Rebuilding both, especially souls, has been the challenge in Aceh. It was the physical destruction that the world responded to; the loss of soul went largely unnoticed. The introduction chapter reminds us that, like the recent events in Japan, a huge earthquake had preceded an enormous tidal wave, and both caused widespread destruction in different ways. In Aceh, 170,000 people died and half a million were rendered homeless, with a quarter of a million homes damaged or destroyed. The extensive and graphic media coverage brought with it much-needed aid, but not necessarily in the ways that the local population wanted or needed. In addition, the multiple aid agencies appeared to be competing, rather than collaborating, to help with the obvious physical needs; however, the sometime expectation that recipients would be overtly grateful towards donors and aid workers belies the fact that these people were neither necessarily helpless nor mercenary, that they had personal resources which they could use themselves given assistance to do so.

The book covers substantively the context of reconstruction, with chapters on the role of sharia (Islamic law), political reconstruction and the place of participatory practice. Five chapters provide case studies of models of interaction between donors and recipients, village government three years after the disaster, the international NGO voice, the experience of the local Indonesian department responsible for rehabilitation/renovation and reconstruction, and the reconstruction of neighbourhood life. The book concludes with a ‘lessons learned’ chapter and an afterword called ‘Reconstructing the Invisible Landscape’, and describes some aspects of experiences of local people during and after the tidal wave.

The chapter discussing the place of sharia in a deeply religious Muslim community is fascinating, and considers this from the perspective of the humanitarian aid agencies, the Indonesian government and the GAM (Free Aceh movement) and Acehnese NGOs and other civil organisations. Sharia is not ubiquitously interpreted, and the international NGOs were quite critical (sometimes openly and usually unthinkingly) about it, leading to requests to leave Aceh which in turn resulted in the remaining agencies to be generally not opposed to a Sharia approach if not actively supporting it. The arrival of groups who are proponents of sharia were there ostensibly to defend Aceh from decadent influences arriving with western aid; and that some western NGOs were actively Muslim was extremely helpful to humanitarian aid efforts. The analysis offered suggests that, although potentially an empowering mechanism for egalitarian rebuilding and development, it has been used more as a moral policing, and overall has not been a positive influence for Acehnese people. Political reconstruction has been enormous, but not in the ways which might be supposed (that is, to the structures in place before the tidal wave which included guerrilla warfare and governmental reaction to it) but by a more peaceful one; so in this way it made way for a better political environment.

Participatory reconstruction is the process by which people affected by a reconstruction participate in the processes designed to enable it, thus owning the process and its outcomes. The chapter devoted to this provides an analysis of the various kinds of participation and how they were used and adapted in Aceh, which includes the size and complexity of the problem and consequent required effort, tensions in humanitarian aid delivery, participation and power issues, and local cultural and government factors. An interesting section is concerned with how aid is ‘marketed’.

Each of the case studies provides a different lens on the experiences of people who were there at the time, or who have spent a lot of time with people who experienced the disasters, and each offers lessons learned and a better ways of doing things.

I highly recommend this book to students of public health, international health, international development, and to people working for non-government organisations who provide humanitarian assistance in disaster settings. There are many lessons here for all of us, at whatever level we engage with the provision of assistance after major emergencies, some of which are not comfortable; this is the voice of experience and needs to be heard.