WDR 2005 - Chapter 4: Information black hole in Aceh

The tsunami which devastated Aceh on 26 December 2004 left 164,000 people dead or missing and over 400,000 homeless. It rapidly became the most reported and well-funded disaster in history. Over 200 humanitarian organizations – plus 3,000 military troops from a dozen countries – arrived to offer aid.

This chapter focuses on information flows in the first month. Did systems for exchanging information work? Where were the gaps? How did a lack of information coordination affect survivors?

Local people came to each others’ assistance first, despite enormous difficulties. Red Cross volunteers, helped by the army, removed bodies and distributed food and water. Aid organizations familiar with the terrain – including Indonesian NGOs and the Red Cross – had the benefit of local knowledge. Even so, their baseline data was incomplete, while the government’s information was considered outdated.

Neighbouring countries were quick to respond. Language and culture proved no obstacle to their teams, which swiftly grasped immediate needs. Yet many international agencies brought in staff from Europe or America, when they could have exploited regional expertise.

Initially, aid organizations had to base their relief distributions on informed guesses – overwhelmed by logistics, they lacked the time to undertake detailed assessments or consultations with affected people. The situation on the hardest-hit west coast remained the big unknown. “We were taking steps in the dark”, said one aid worker.

Although international agencies were right in guessing that water, food and shelter would be survivors’ initial needs, they were wrong to assume these needs would not be covered, at least partially, by Indonesians themselves. Agencies did little to suppress the myth of disaster victims dependent on external aid to survive.

With roads, bridges and ports destroyed, the best solution was delivering aid by air. At Indonesia’s request, military aircraft from other countries arrived within days. Because of the huge number of places to reach and the small number of helicopters, pilots couldn’t land for long in one place, but would carry out rapid assessments, leave instructions with survivors and return the next day to deliver aid and collect the injured.

Collaboration between Indonesian and foreign troops was excellent, but less good between the military and civilians. Initially, there were no civil-military coordination experts to persuade the military to share information or take aid workers on flights to assess needs. Nevertheless, most agreed that without the military, this would have been a major crisis.

As dramatic stories of suffering hit the headlines, more agencies poured in, expecting the worst. But aid workers arriving at Meulaboh, dubbed ‘ground zero’ of the western coast, on 4 January were surprised to find survivors being well cared for by the Indonesian army and authorities. A scramble for beneficiaries began. Some agencies jealously guarded their information to ensure their ‘niche’. Within weeks, the ‘humanitarian space’ had become too small for all these actors.

Coordination became difficult. Out of 200 agencies present in late January, only 46 submitted reports to UN coordinators. Joint needs assessments were rare. Language proved problematic, with UN meetings held in English and government meetings in Indonesian. Without knowing who was doing what and where, some communities were overwhelmed with aid while others were neglected.

At the root of coordination problems was one key factor: too much money. Nearly everyone could hire a helicopter or boat, make their own needs assessments and distributions, and ‘fly the flag’. The classic situation, in which NGOs queue to become implementing partners of the UN, was reversed.

A month after disaster struck, the aid effort was in full swing. Yet despite a massive response, some of those in greatest need missed out. Most agencies flocked to Aceh’s devastated west coast – but 150,000 people displaced on the east coast received far less aid. Meanwhile, although over 200,000 homeless people found a roof with host families, very few of these families received aid in the first month.

The highly ‘visible’ health sector attracted the most agencies: 22 health NGOs were operating in one area on the west coast. Ten international field hospitals were set up in Banda Aceh, none of which worked at full capacity. There were too many surgeons. One UN witness in Meulaboh saw “20 surgeons competing for a single patient”. Yet midwives and nurses were in short supply. Women had to give birth without medical assistance – “an unacceptable risk” according to the UN.

For their needs assessments and aid distributions, most international agencies went through village heads. But a few organizations – concerned that local structures were too patriarchal – deployed female workers to assess women’s specific needs. Out of earshot of men, Acehnese women asked for underwear, headscarves, sanitary protection and the contraceptive pill, as well as complaining about sexual harassment.

To conclude, the obstacles to information gathering were particularly numerous in Aceh. The geographic scale of the disaster created huge logistical constraints. Settlements along hundreds of kilometres of coast were devastated and cut off from the outside world. Relief players were overstretched trying to reach survivors in time. Detailed assessments were sacrificed in favour of delivering aid. Rivalries between agencies, competing to spend unprecedented budgets, did not encourage information sharing.

The enormous international response succeeded, in its own chaotic way, in getting aid to most survivors and preventing further hunger or disease. Yet the duplication of effort and resources, and the competition for profile give pause for thought. Can it be right, just because donors have given so generously, for certain agencies to fly their own flag rather than work alongside others? Some recommendations, to be implemented from the very start of an intervention, follow:

  • Dedicate more staff to assessments, so relief workers can concentrate on relief. Include local staff in assessment teams.
  • Appoint an information coordinator in the field, to promote well-informed decision making during hectic, exhausting relief operations. Train people in reporting and information sharing.
  • Promote joint assessments, by agreeing that specific organizations coordinate sector-wide, inter-agency assessments to provide baseline data for all agencies.
  • Deploy enough civil-military liaison staff, so that mutual information needs can be negotiated.
  • Work with local NGOs, rather than poaching their staff, to avoid misunderstanding local issues and weakening local structures.
  • Work through alternative local groups, to avoid perpetuating existing power inequalities that may lead to unfair aid distribution.
  • Prioritize the needs of women, particularly in patriarchal societies and where there is a risk of sexual violence

Three myths – among many

MYTH: Survivors are ‘victims’ dependent on external aid. After 30 years of armed insurrection, the Acehnese have developed considerable survival capacities. But rather than talk of local resilience – including the strength of extended families and the Islamic community – most media simply painted a picture of hopeless catastrophe and loss. Images of tented camps predominated, whereas most survivors sheltered with host families. Of 67 BBC reports on Aceh, self-reliance was scarcely mentioned more than three times. Only Indonesian media emphasized the courage and solidarity of the Acehnese.

MYTH: Hordes of abandoned orphans. On 15th February, Reuters – citing Indonesian government and UNICEF figures – reported: “Up to 10,000 Aceh children seek parents after tsunami”. In reality, there were more orphaned parents, as a higher proportion of children were killed by the waves than adults. By late February, only 60 children had been identified as ‘unaccompanied minors’ – left without support from any adult they knew before the disaster. The remaining 6,000-10,000 orphans were being fostered by their extended family, neighbours or friends.

MYTH: Dead bodies spread infection. Faced with tens of thousands of corpses, both the media and the authorities argued that bodies should be swiftly buried to avoid spreading disease. However, WHO has repeatedly emphasized that dead bodies are not infectious. In the vast majority of cases, germs die a few hours after their host. The mass burials in Aceh were condemned by WHO as a “violation of the human rights of the surviving family members”.