Measuring Indonesia’s Response to the Tsunami

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

January 12, 2006

“One Year After the Tsunami: Public Perceptions and Policy”

Never before has a response to a natural disaster occasioned so much scrutiny internationally as has the December 2005 tsunami. Its regional impact was one reason. It affected 12 countries plus the nationals of many more, and left enormous devastation in its wake – more than 230,000 killed or missing, 2 million persons internally displaced, and the destruction of large swaths of land and property. Further, the United Nations reported that 430,000 homes were swept away, 5,000 miles of coastline devastated, 2,000 miles of road ruined, and 100,000 fishing boats damaged or destroyed.

The unprecedented amount of money raised was another reason for the international scrutiny. Bilateral and multilateral donors, corporations, NGOs and individuals around the world pledged $13.6 billion. Given the UN oil for food program scandal in which there was so little accountability, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs almost immediately instituted a system to track where and how the funds were being spent. And former US President Bill Clinton was appointed the UN’s Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery to provide oversight.

Overall, the United Nations got high marks for its response to the tsunami. It acted immediately, raising international awareness to the disaster, mobilizing funds — 75 percent of which have been received, and playing a notable role in coordinating one of the largest relief operations in history. Indeed, UN officials often point out that as a result of its efforts, epidemics were averted, food assistance was delivered, most children are now back in school, and tens of thousands are employed and earning money again

The United States has also come in for praise. Its military was quick to undertake rescue and relief operations, and it was among the world’s top contributors (the government pledged more than $800 million, and the US private sector donated about $1.5 billion). Indeed, polls have found a more favorable view of the United States because of its response to the tsunami.

But something is missing from this picture. First, the response to the emergency phase of the disaster must not be confused with the response to the reconstruction phase. It could take five to ten years to succeed at recovery, with sustained attention and staying power needed. Second, a close look must be given to the extent to which the survivors have actually benefited. Eighty percent of the survivors are still living in temporary shelters, many of which are substandard. In Aceh, out of some 500,000 left homeless, at least 200,000 are still living with friends and relatives, 60 to 70,000 are in barracks, and 67,000 in tents. Many are without access to clean water, sanitation and health care, large numbers have no jobs, and there seems to be almost complete neglect of psychosocial health services to deal with trauma. It is the survivors who must be placed at the center of any evaluation together with the response of their national governments, which after all have primary responsibility for their welfare and security.

View full statement here.

View Wilson Center’s Complete Report: “One Year After the Tsunami: Policy and Public Perceptions.”