Aceh five years after the tsunami: where have all the customers gone?

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ImageIt surprised me a little bit when I was driving my family along the west coast of Aceh a couple of weeks ago. Not too far from Banda Aceh, the capital city of Aceh’s province, a 15 meters wide- fresh-paved asphalt road built by the US absolutely has framed Aceh into another window of opportunity. This strategic road will connect Banda Aceh and some other districts in the west coast, which was washed away by the tsunami. Before the disaster, it was narrow and poorly maintained. This reminded me of the slogan that Mr. Clinton, former US president and also the UN special envoy for the tsunami recovery often advocated: to build back better!

The dramatic news that tv stations kept airing for weeks after Christmas five years ago prompted an unprecedented response from across the world. Governments, individuals, and aid agencies pledged at least $7billion for Indonesia, of which an astonishing $6,5 billion was allocated. According to BKRA (Reconstruction Continuation Agency for Aceh) by mid 2009, more than 140,00 houses, 3,700 km of road, 36 airports and seaports, 1,600 schools and more than 900 government buildings had been built, and 70,000 hectares of farmland were restored by various agencies, apart from the intangible assets gained from many technical assistance and capacity building programs.
These great accomplishments were not without daunting challenges. Aceh was a conflict area, plagued for more than 30 years by an armed conflict with the central government over its rich natural resources. More than 17,000 people had been killed by this conflict until August 2005. Lack of trust in the capacity of local government on the ground was spotted as one of the biggest barriers to reconstruction.  The central government, through the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency, decided to coordinate this effort.  Aceh hosted around 2,200 projects across all sectors implemented by more than 400 agencies. A strong government’s grip on the driver seat was one of the influential contributors to the success of Aceh reconstruction, which is now known as the largest reconstruction effort in the developing world (see some details on a paper I co-authored, .pdf).

I pulled over to one of my favorite coffee shops along the road. It was prominent during the reconstruction’s peak period. It serves local grilled fish along with fresh vegetables, one of the best I should say. Nothing wrong with the taste and services, but not more than 5 people were there, enjoying the sunset. A year ago, you would´ve found the chef and waitress busy taking orders during the weekend. It won’t surprise me too much if this coffee shop is gone in the next 3 months (some have already closed actually). Where have the customers gone, what will the waitress do, how will the economy look like ? As the reconstruction is nearing an end, the demand perhaps is vanishing. Fueled by the reconstruction, the economy had grown for the last couple of years but seems it has failed to maintain its pace. It is true that Aceh has been rebuilt even better than it was before, and yet, perhaps not so much in terms of being able to sustain the economy. Let me share details on this in another post.


Harry Masyrafah

Research Analyst at the World Bank Office in Aceh

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