Out of Aceh’s experience, hope for rebuilding Haiti

By Joachim von Amsberg, published in the Washington Post, January 29, 2010

Houses Before and AfterThe official death toll of the recent earthquake in Haiti is more than 110,000. That tens of thousands more may have been killed puts this tragedy on par with that wrought by the tsunami that struck South Asia in December 2004, killing about 200,000 people and displacing more than half a million just in Indonesia’s Aceh province. There are other parallels between these disasters. Haiti is a poor country long plagued by governance issues. Even though Indonesia is a well-functioning state, Aceh at that time had been ravaged by decades of conflict between the Indonesian government and Acehnese groups fighting for independence. Whatever government had existed in Aceh was severely diminished by the tsunami.

Yet Aceh today is a vibrant place where families live in houses and communities, children attend school and farmers tend to their fields. Its reconstruction is widely recognized as a success, and that work could offer a silver lining for Haiti.

In Aceh, about 140,000 houses have been rebuilt, 2,500 miles of roads have been constructed, and 200,000 small and medium-size businesses have been supported. Indonesia concluded an agreement seven months after the tsunami with the independence fighters that gave important autonomies to Aceh in return for a peace that has lasted. That pact laid the foundation for the investment and economic development that have taken place.

While the memories of the tragedy linger, what can be rebuilt has been rebuilt. In numerous trips to Aceh over the past 2 1/2 years, I have seen enough redevelopment and spoken to enough local people to know that Aceh has been built back better than it was before the tsunami. Today, Aceh has functioning local and provincial governments that work together with the national government to provide services for its people. There is a functioning state in Aceh. By no means is it flawless, but it holds promise for more social and economic progress and development.

Aceh’s experience provides hope that at least the physical and economic damage from natural disasters can be overcome. Hope that out of the desperation of disaster can come the desire for reconciliation after conflict and for establishing an effective state or nation that can address the challenge of rebuilding. No two disasters are the same, but a few keys to success from the Aceh tsunami reconstruction experience should be kept in mind as international support is channeled to Haiti:

First, local and national leadership count. While Aceh’s local government was decimated, Indonesia’s national government led the recovery and reconstruction efforts. The president appointed a personally trusted, experienced leader to manage the reconstruction and created an agency with overarching powers to coordinate billions of dollars of investments by 350 organizations in 12,500 projects. International partners may have to take the lead in Haiti during a transition period, but there is no substitute for national leadership in the long run.

Second, empowering people is key. In Aceh, strong top-down leadership was complemented by the empowerment of the people and communities. Victims became development workers. Aid recipients and former combatants became community facilitators. Displaced families became workers who rebuilt their houses. By channeling a large share of reconstruction funds directly to communities, the people of Aceh’s problems were transformed as they became part of the solution. Their hard work meant that houses were built faster, at a lower cost, and better met the needs of the people.

Third, coordinating global aid is critical. International development partners supported reconstruction through coordinated approaches that were aligned behind government leadership and Aceh’s priorities. Fifteen donor countries and donor organizations pooled $700 million in a multi-donor fund administered by the World Bank. Instead of 15 separate housing and road projects with different procedures and criteria, which would have overstretched the limited capacity of local institutions, one well-coordinated program was implemented by communities, government and U.N. agencies, and respected nongovernmental organizations.

There are, of course, many differences between Haiti today and Aceh five years ago. But as we found in Aceh, recovery is possible. The first priority, as it was after the tsunami, is the vast humanitarian task that is underway. But if the international community comes together, aligns its efforts and coordinates support that prioritizes the interests of the people affected by disaster and puts them in the driver’s seat, Haiti’s future can look much brighter than its past ever did.

Joachim von Amsberg, the World Bank’s country director for Indonesia since 2007, oversees the bank’s management of the Multi Donor Fund for Aceh and Nias.