Past lessons for Haiyan recovery

Authors: Hendri Yuzal, University of Hawaii, and Muamar Vebry, European Union to Indonesia

At the end of 2013, Indonesia commemorated the 9th anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. The calamity was unprecedented, the loss of life was staggering. Yet the worst brought out the best in Indonesia, and the worst affected province of Aceh has now been rebuilt in a more resilient way.

The 9th anniversary also provides a milestone for Indonesia to inspire long-term recovery in the Philippines, recently struck by mega-typhoon Haiyan, locally called Yolanda. There are many lessons of which Indonesia can humbly share with the Philippines. Both countries share a common fate as disaster-prone countries and are bound together under the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response.

Within less than four years the long-term recovery in Aceh and Nias was concluded. This was a tremendous pace. Spearheaded by the BRR (Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency), more than US$7.2 billion of funds were pledged for recovery.

One of the very successful examples of coordinating foreign aid was showcased in the establishment of the pool of funds under the Multi Donor Trust Fund for Aceh and Nias. The Trust Fund pooled nearly US$700 million dollars in grant money provided by 15 international donors of which 85 per cent came from European taxpayers. The Trust Fund was established responding to the Indonesian government’s request to support the Indonesian-led rehabilitation and reconstruction programs. Through this pool of donor funds more than 100,000 permanent homes were built, thousands of healthcare facilities and schools constructed, and over 3000 kilometers of roadway completed.

How was the BRR, an ad hoc agency, able to deliver such results at unprecedented speeds? An important factor was the strong sense of urgency embedded in the BRR’s unique bureaucratic system — a system that was conceived with a very strong and clear mandate to coordinate, deliver results and ultimately get the job done.

The 2004 tsunami recovery’s success is attributed to the post-disaster institutional design that early on put forward a unique governance mechanism beyond business as usual. The nontraditional approach entailed flexible, very responsive and action-oriented operating structures by light-weight and non-cumbersome bureaucratic procedures, and accountability and transparency principles that incorporated an anti-corruption entity as an integral part of the governance structure.

A lesson learnt is that it is very important in a mega-scale disaster to appoint a single agency to coordinate reconstruction. Organisations involved in post-disaster recovery often do not coordinate effectively among themselves, either because they are not equipped to do so or because they view other agencies as competitors for favoured projects, labour or supplies. In Aceh there were some 900 reconstruction actors, so the chances for geographical and sectoral overlaps were high. Donors later praised the Indonesia government for its decisive action in managing reconstruction.

In 2005, following the tsunami, ASEAN member states signed the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER), which binds ASEAN members together to promote regional cooperation and collaboration on reducing disaster losses and intensifying joint emergency response to disasters in the ASEAN region.

The AHA Centre (the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management), was established as an institutional centerpiece for the AADMER’s implementation, serving as the operational engine for coordinating disaster management efforts in ASEAN and assisting ASEAN member states in post- and pre-disaster settings.

Despite a few negative remarks on ASEAN’s response to Typhoon Haiyan, one should acknowledge that ASEAN, and in particular the AHA Centre, has played a critical role in supporting the Philippine government.

From the very beginning, the AHA Centre worked with the Philippine government, without trying to duplicate the government’s response mechanism, by exerting their support from within the government’s structure. This included by providing critical telecommunication services to the government, providing logistic support, deploying an assessment team, and facilitating mobilisation of humanitarian assistance from other ASEAN members. In fact, the AHA Center was among the first organisations represented in the City of Tacloban before the typhoon stuck.

While the AHA Center is only two years’ old it has much potential. It has carefully picked its niche, gaining support through its inclusive style and by working silently with and in support of the affected government. In the humanitarian world this kind of silent operation is less appreciated and often underestimated simply because it is less visible compared to the massive humanitarian efforts that are backed by huge donor funding (and often outspoken against government efforts). But in reality the low-profile but well-targeted boutique operations conducted by the AHA Centre are highly valuable, particularly in assisting government relief efforts.

The AHA Centre as the ASEAN’s operational engine might not be the biggest and most well-seasoned agency, but it has the best means to facilitate knowledge transfers on long-term recovery. ASEAN has assisted in the post-Cyclone Nargis recovery in Myanmar in 2008 and also has a strong understanding of how the BRR-led operations in Aceh were successfully conducted. More importantly, ASEAN, as proven by the AHA Centre, knows how to work with governments in a humble and low-profile way. The AHA Centre’s support to the Philippine government for the long-term recovery would be extremely valuable.

Hendri Yuzal is a Graduate Degree Fellow at The East West Center, and a postgraduate student in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.

Muamar Vebry is a Program Manager for Disaster Management, Border Management and Climate Change at the Delegation of the European Union to Indonesia. The views in this article are personal.

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