Govt’s disaster management comes under fire in Indonesia

KILLER WAVES

REBUILDING ACEH

Excessive red tape is a major gripe among foreign and local aid workers.

INDONESIAN President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has called for an unprecedented response to what he described as the ‘most destructive natural disaster in living memory’.

But the reaction in the country most devastated by the tsunami calamity has at best been found wanting and has come under fire. Complaint and criticism are mounting over Jakarta’s disaster management performance.

Domestic volunteers have expressed the most frustration. But they are also joined by international relief agencies and foreign militaries which have found their work hampered by a combination of a slow-moving bureaucracy and a hazy ground-level command structure to oversee the crisis.

Clearly, the biggest obstacle so far has been the tepid response from some Indonesian bureaucrats.

Political observer Arbi Sanit of the University of Indonesia told The Straits Times: ‘There is a culture of inefficiency in the Indonesian bureaucracy. This crisis has magnified this inefficiency.

‘They will act only if an order comes from the top. So, there is a lot of deliberate stalling of initiatives that can help those affected in Aceh.’

A glimpse of the problem was made public in local reports on Thursday by prominent economist Faisal Basri, who heads a private relief coordinating body.

He revealed that his mission had asked Bakornas, the newly set-up national coordinating council on the disaster, to provide barrels to store fuel for its helicopters to dispatch aid.

But Bakornas officials were slow in reacting. Mr Faisal noted: ‘Our request may have got stuck somewhere.’

As a result, his agency failed to dispatch six helicopters to tsunami-hit regions.

Mr Faisal said that volunteers were now bypassing the bureaucracy and turning to private contacts because of excessive red tape.

Officials at Astra International, Indonesia’s largest automotive maker, have made similar complaints. The company eventually mounted its own relief effort using its vast distribution networks in North Sumatra.

At the air force hangar of Medan’s Polonia Airport, a major logistics centre for the Aceh disaster relief effort, international NGOs and even foreign military forces have privately complained about poor coordination.

Aid supplies there are piling up because local officials are at a loss figuring out who is in charge of relief operations.

Mr Arbi pointed out that Jakarta took at least a week to establish the Bakornas with Vice-President Jusuf Kalla as its head.

This council has branches or poskos operating in the areas affected by the tsunami. But many officials in these poskos have no clear idea about the command hierarchy at lower levels.

For example, North Sumatra Governor Rizal Nordin, who heads the local body that implements Bakornas’ policies, made clear to reporters this week that distributing aid in the field was ‘not my job’.

His responsibility, he said, was limited to logistics and moving supplies from the air force hangar and warehouse in Medan.

What is lacking is a clear response from Jakarta which gets down to the provinces, districts and villages.

A reason for this state of affairs is the changing priorities of the national government. Under the 2001 regional autonomy plan, the responsibility for disaster management was shifted from the centre to the local administrations.

With revenues and finances decentralised, the provincial authorities had much greater latitude to determine disaster plans.

But not many regions, including Aceh, displayed any interest in planning for emergencies.

The trudging bureaucracy at top and ground levels is more than just a vexation. Foreign governments and international relief agencies must work through the government structure to distribute aid.

This has allowed the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) to play a much bigger role.

Significantly, during the first week of the crisis, the TNI was the only organisation able to make a crude assessment of critical needs in Aceh.

The rebel insurgency in the strife-torn province, where the past 18 months have been a state of civil emergency, has meant that Aceh, in effect, is governed by the TNI.

But some analysts argue that Aceh’s emergency status could restrict the presence of non-governmental aid groups such as the International Federation for the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, which will play a vital role in the emergency relief efforts.

Despite such concerns, many foreign organisations have begun dealing directly with the TNI without passing through Bakornas or other government agencies.

The magnitude of the disaster and the amount of work to be done present an enormous job for the Yudhoyono administration.

The 9.0 Richter-scale earthquake, the fourth-largest in the past 100 years, destroyed much vital infrastructure in Aceh.

In Meulaboh, air photographs suggested 80 per cent of infrastructure was destroyed.

In Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, three in 10 government employees have been reported dead, according to local press, including many civil society leaders, managers and civil servants.

The devastated west coast, home to at least 400,000 people, saw the roads and bridges that link it with Medan and Banda Aceh destroyed.

The west coast is also separated by a wide mountain range, with only thin ribbons of road threading through them.

The remoteness and damage to infrastructure make communications and logistics relief difficult.

A disaster of this scale is beyond the ability of any one nation to deal with, more so in the case of Indonesia.

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