Aceh diary: the housing hole

This page in:

Many development agencies and NGOs working in Aceh are in a rather unenviable position right now. This is especially true in certain sectors like housing. The saying that you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t, is quite apt in this scenario.

Earlier this month, Kuntoro Magkusubroto, the head of BRR—the government-appointed rehabilitation and reconstruction agency for Aceh and Nias—blasted NGOs in the Jakarta Post. He accused them of dishonesty and lack of professionalism. Care and UN Habitat came under fire in particular, the former for having supposedly often behaved duplicitously and the latter for having allegedly been “slow in some areas.” Kuntoro at the same time lauded smaller agencies and the Salvation Army for being quick and effective and not beset by excessive overheads and internal governance problems. The article also talked about BRR measuring the performance of NGOs against their pledges so that donors could better target their funding, and whichever ones failed to deliver on commitments by mid next year would be asked to leave, with the BRR and more efficient NGOs assuming their work.

This outburst by the BRR chief came soon after the BRR, UN, and Red Cross announced they were pushing back by several months the March target of moving people out of tents into temporary shelters. According to the article, so far only 235 of 16,000 temporary shelters for the 70,000 Acehnese still living in tents have been constructed since the program took off in September 2005, and 12 percent of 120,000 permanent new houses required have been completed. So to say things are moving a tad slowly would be an accurate observation. To say that the NGOs and BRR are under tremendous pressure to deliver would also be quite true, as would the fact that such articles can certainly stress working relationships between the two.

Knowing very little about the state of things in the housing sector, given that its an area IFC has no involvement in, I can’t offer any real insight on who’s right, or why. What I can see however, pretty much as well as anyone who’s worked in Aceh for a while, is that there are serious issues across the board, and some have been there since before the tsunami. Especially since the province was all but closed off from the rest of the world during the 30+ years of separatist conflict. Institutions and government agencies are weak, corruption is rife (this is more of a national problem as exemplified by the illegal timber issue and how much its slowed things down with housing construction here), land rights is still a problem, lack of clarity on content and timing on passage of the autonomy law for Aceh is keeping the political situation a bit on edge and investors gun-shy, economic distortion and aid dependency are growing steadily, geographical coverage has been patchy with some districts and villages overrun by too many players while there are next to none in other more remote areas, and the list goes on.

Oxfam recently announced that it was temporarily suspending its programs in Aceh until some irregularities caught by internal auditors had been resolved. Another large NGO I spoke with working on community infrastructure projects in Nias said they had all but decided to pull out of the island and even announced it, following some bad experiences including collusion by villagers on bids for a tender—they had received proposals from three companies, all written in the same hand, where one of the companies was owned by the village head. While they talked with the villagers and finally decided to give it another go, the program had already been significantly delayed. The problem in some cases has been that agencies signed on to do too much within timelines that did not fully appreciate the myriad and complexity of problems they might encounter. Add onto that the pressure to deliver from their donors, as well as the international community and media given how high profile the Aceh reconstruction effort is, and the need to respond quickly while maintaining the strictest governance and quality control.

Not all agencies have had that sort of pressure—one donor told me that they have their own money and are doing the implementation themselves, and so decided to take their time until they had the design for the houses, as well as a quality control and governance system in place that they were entirely comfortable with. This meant that they entered the arena a bit late, but the chance of hiccups along the way is reduced. Such leeway however, is a rarity here, especially for the large, very well-funded organizations who have (or wish for) a say in bigger picture coordination.

Given the current situation, to see how things play out through June 2007 will be interesting to say the least and no doubt fraught with many hard-learned lessons for all stakeholders.

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000