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December 24, 2006
They're Still Devastated Two Years Later

Last Monday, the Times of London reported on the rise of shari'a police in Aceh, funded by the billions of dollars pouring into Indonesia after the tsunamis of Decmber 2004. These forces have attacked women and established a far more repressive society than existed before the tsunamis, thanks to the money that the local government received. One might hope that this constitutes a single bit of bad news in an otherwise successful campaign to lift the victims of this catastrophe out of their misery, but apparently it's just the beginning of the story. The Times once again reports on the lack of progress made in assisting the victims despite the largest outpouring of international aid in history:

Part of the problem is that in some of the worst affected areas, physical access is difficult and skills are in short supply. Bringing in large quantities of bricks and other building materials to Pulo Aceh, for example, is hampered by the shallowness of the harbour.

There are more insidious issues, too. In nearby Banda Aceh, the international charity Save the Children halted a housebuilding project earlier this year after evidence emerged of corruption, mismanagement and incompetence involving local staff and contractors.

John Bugge, communications director of Save the Children, said the charity had halted the project because contractors had been “playing games” with the charity’s local staff and victims had been left with seriously substandard homes.

“It wasn’t appropriate or safe for the children to live in them,” he said.

Local NGOs said it had become common throughout Banda Aceh for builders to subcontract tsunami housing projects to cheaper local firms and turn a quick profit. One project was subcontracted to a small firm that failed to provide water pipes or electricity cables. It also used untreated wood which was partially eaten by termites before the houses were even completed.

This is a lengthy story, worthy of a full read, and not all of it is bad news. In some areas, the NGOs have done excellent work with the funds they control. In fact, where governments have a lower level of involvement, the money stretches rather far. In one Sri Lankan village, it took only $100,000 to rebuild homes for 25 families, a project already completed. However, these success stories are few and on a small scale.

Overall, according to Bill Clinton -- who made tsunami relief his signature issue -- only a third of the homeless in the affected areas have been rehoused, two years later. The money has gone into corrupt hands. Sri Lanka's president managed to have almost 4500 houses built in his home district, even though it only required half than number and the rest stand empty. Instead of buying new land for vulnerable shore-hugging communities to relocate, local governments have dithered and finally allowed them to rebuild in the path of the next tsunami.

Not all of the money has been collected, either. Private individuals immediately pulled out their wallets, as did the US and other Western nations. However, other nations made pledges which they have yet to meet, notably China, Germany, and Spain. Even the UK has only funded 20% of its total commitment. Normally this would be just cause for a great deal of criticism, but considering how the monies have been spent thus far, it's hard to castigate these nations for contributing to even more incompetence and corruption.

One can come up with plenty of excuses for this debacle; local corruption, a lack of oversight, and so on. However, given the billions of dollars that went towards aid, it's simply ridiculous to see that the victims still lack shelter or even the hope of it two years after the waves first hit. It demonstrates once again how dumping truckloads of cash on a problem without a plan for spending it and a strong organization to enforce that plan can turn into a worse catastrophe than the one the aid was intended to mitigate.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 24, 2006 8:55 AM

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