Aceh’s Ordeal and Recovery

Almost exactly six years ago — on Boxing Day 2004 — the Indonesian province of Aceh was hit by one of history’s biggest disasters, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami that killed 127,000 people in the province alone. In all, the disaster caused 229,866 deaths in eight countries.

Along with the tsunami, the province, which perches at the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, was dealing with an offensive by the central government that sought to end a rebellion by the Free Aceh separatist movement which was demanding autonomy and the right to apply shariah law. The magnitude of the earthquake and tsunami was so great that, along with the government offensive, it effectively brought the 30-year-old conflict to an end and spurred real peace talks.

“Long years of military and political struggle, coupled with changing economic conditions and continuing natural disasters, have left Aceh today as one of the poorest provinces in Indonesia,” according to a 175-page report by the United Nations Development Program which was released Wednesday. “Nevertheless, since the tsunami of December 2004 and the Peace Accords that followed in August 2005 the people of Aceh, with support from many key international and national players, have achieved remarkable progress in consolidating peace healing the wounds from conflict and disaster and rebuilding their communities.”

The report was requested by the Aceh government. The first of several planned by the UNDP, its gist is that although the rebuilding of the province has been impressive, Aceh continues to lag behind the rest of Indonesia in terms of poverty, life expectancy and other quality of life indicators.

“Massive recovery programs after the tsunami have repaired much of the damage and destruction caused by both the tsunami and conflict,” the report says. “Most of the people displaced by these events have been able to return home or settle in new locations. Positive social conditions in Aceh provide a potential basis for participatory human development, although the settlement of displaced persons and former combatants has caused friction in some communities. Extortion and domestic violence remain endemic problems.

Following the disaster, Aceh’s Human Development Index, as measured by the UNDP, kept pace with the national average up to 2007 but fell sharply in 2008, “mostly to a fall in personal spending, which reflects the winding down of massive recovery programs that created a large number of temporary jobs after the tsunami.”

Thus the human development Indicator scale ranks Aceh 29th of the country’s 33 provinces. The report notes that women bear the brunt of much of the misery, with women’s health and empowerment still discouraging over the period 1996 through 2008. Women, the report says, are largely left out of the decision-making process at the community level and face domestic violence perpetuated by men. Although life expectancy is low at 68.5 years, compared with a national average of 71.5 years, it is improving, up from 67.7 years in 2002.Aceh faces five major challenges: to improve security; to expand efforts to mitigate future natural disasters; to reduce poverty; to reverse the downward trend in women’s well-being; and to redress inequalities in less developed areas of the province,” the report points out.

Poverty peaked at 30 percent of the populace in 2002 at the height of the separatist conflict but has since declined to a still-high 22 percent in 2010. That is still well above the average of 14 percent for Indonesia as a whole. Although gross regional per capita domestic product places Aceh as one of the country’s richest provinces, the largest share of provincial GDP comes from the oil and gas industry, which is dwindling as the province’s reserves are depleted. How much trickles down to the poor is shown by the fact that household spending is very low. Investment has been negligible for many years, the report notes, partly because of the conflict and because of lingering perceptions of insecurity, extortion and unresolved regulatory issues concerning business activities.

Finally, the report advocates six primary goals to further enhance human development in the province. They are:

Empower people for development, which the UNDP calls “perhaps the single most effective instrument for enhancing human development, enabling people to make their own collective decisions on what needs to be done.

Ensure benefits for everyone: All government programs should pay special attention to addressing the needs of particular social groups that may have been overlooked or who are unable to get the help they need for one reason or another.

Improve the quality of public services: The main challenge is to improve the quality of services, particularly health and education.

Enhance opportunities for productive employment: Reduce the high rates of unemployment and under-employment as a means to reduce poverty and raise household incomes.

Couple disaster mitigation with environmental programs: Disaster mitigation efforts should be coupled with other agencies responsible for the environment. Steps to mainstream measures to mitigate natural disasters should be reinforced in a broad range of government and donor programs, particularly in the forestry, agricultural and fisheries sectors.

Make better use of public resources: The huge increase in fiscal resources flowing into

Aceh underline the imperatives of minimizing misuse and ensuring resources are channeled towards programs and services that are effective in further advancing human development.

Other recommendations: The report makes a number of other recommendations for specific sectors. These include: security, poverty, women, basic infrastructure, education, health care, justice, economic development, and the allocation of fiscal resources.