Aceh Diary: Banda's beehive

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The Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency for Aceh and Nias (BRR) was set up in April 2005 by the Indonesian government to coordinate the frenzy of donor and NGO activities that has gripped Aceh in the wake of last year’s tsunami. A visit to the BRR office is a must for anyone working in Aceh.

The impressions begin even before you leave the parking lot, typically packed with four-wheel drives sporting organizational logos which, had they been depicting the who’s who of the fashion rather than the development world, would run the gamut from an Aigner to a Yves Saint Laurent. The spacious front steps are framed by neat gardens with a rather charming but incongruous vegetable patch in one corner – apparently someone more important than me thought so as well since I found the veggies had disappeared on my last visit a week ago. Friendly guards sign you in at the security desk, but you can only pass through the heavy wooden doors beyond after depositing your shoes amid the sea of sandals, loafers, and pumps that is pretty much a customary sight outside most offices in Banda.

Walking into BRR for the first time is a bit like being on the deck of the Starship Enterprise. Two wide sets of stairs flanking the reception desk curve upward to meet at a central gallery overlooking the lobby where more often than not no less than half a dozen meetings are underway at any one time. The gallery itself is usually abuzz with people from different agencies being patiently assisted by BRR staff in accessing the RAND database created to house information on all projects processed through the BRR approval system. On either side of the gallery are the two main office areas, in addition to two more on the lobby level. My fleeting thought on initial visits was that the office was probably breaking a few records on how many staff a space that size could conceivably accommodate, what with too many people squeezed into too few cubicles and conference rooms, and the mountains of papers, files, laptops and PCs spilling over the furniture vying with people for any spare inch of space. And sometimes you’ll even see the BRR kitten happily at play, entirely comfortable amid the bustle after having spent the first few weeks of its life tucked up in a shoebox on filing shelves under the tender loving care of McKinsey and Accenture consultants.

Organizationally, BRR is headed by a Director, Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, former minister of mining and energy, with several deputies, each responsible for a specific sector, reporting to him. Each Deputy has a staff, in addition to which there are several key advisors, specialists in their field, funded by different donors who provide guidance to them and the Director. These key officials at BRR are among the most important people in Banda Aceh, with their time and feedback highly sought after by countless sources on any given day.

So what’s all the fuss about? Well, aside from the fact that all projects related to rehabilitation and reconstruction of tsunami areas need an official BRR blessing to take off, it’s also seen as key by everyone working here to keep BRR informed and involved in all that they’re doing. The much calmer and less crowded BRR that is evident in the new year made me realize that the earlier whirlwind activity was a temporary phase – resulting largely from the urgency to get as much as possible accomplished before the all-important one year anniversary of the tsunami arrived. Several advisors and groups like McKinsey helped BRR complete their assignments at year end 2005, after putting in place structures, systems, and strategies to facilitate BRR’s work going forward. In the months leading up to the 1-year commemoration, BRR’s capacity to successfully tackle the mammoth job it's been trusted with was subject to much discussion. Many feel that for such a new organization BRR, a government agency, has accomplished a great deal in a few short months. However, particularly given its mandate lasts only another 3 years, BRR more than anyone is aware that the road ahead is far tougher and its effectiveness in leading the longer-term reconstruction will shape its legacy, as well as the future of Aceh.

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