The meeting hall was packed with representatives of the world’s most renowned humanitarian organisations and assorted others when I reached breaking point. It seemed that every speaker who addressed the crowd of sweating expatriates mentioned the dire need to seek input from local non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
This was week five of the post-tsunami disaster relief effort, and I was at the main coordinating meeting for UN and international agencies in Banda Aceh. Yet not a single local NGO or government representative appeared to be present.
Finally, after updates from the food, education, health and other ‘sectors’, the UN coordinator opened the floor to participants. I raised my hand not knowing exactly what I would say. The desperation and frustration of my Acehnese NGO friends — too busy to come and too proud to appear at a disadvantage in this English-speaking gathering — had rubbed off on me.
But the words came. I told them that local NGOs were hurting badly, but that they were also working to within an inch of exhaustion on the same issues everybody here faced. I also made a suggestion: if international agencies could send several support staff to help out local groups, this would help them recover and also foster better relations. Could any of those present spare a couple of Indonesian staff to work with local NGOs for one or two weeks?
What seemed to me like a modest request drew nothing but blank looks from the upturned faces. After a moment of hesitation, the UN coordinator informed me that I should make my request at the ‘administration and human resources’ sectoral meeting on Wednesday at 11 o’clock.
This story of my first encounter with the international humanitarian industry produced raucous laughter later at the Aceh NGO Forum, where several leaders had gathered. They had been on the merry-go-round for weeks and slapped me on the back, welcoming me to the ranks of the disillusioned.
I nevertheless went to the meeting on Wednesday, where a woman representing a medium-sized organisation from Australia wished me luck getting anything like human resource support out of the foreign humanitarian contingent. Admittedly, the 200-odd international NGOs in Banda Aceh at the time were under enormous pressure to feed, clothe and shelter the estimated 200,000 people living in makeshift camps across the province. Members of their own teams had gone weeks without a day off and there was little time to fill out their own ranks — or supplement those of the local groups. None of those attending the sectoral meeting offered to provide staff to help the local groups.
The laughter of friends was the best balm to soothe the injuries suffered on their behalf that day. Laughter is heard everywhere here. It attests to the people’s deep resilience and stoicism in meeting the fate determined by Allah the Almighty. Now Allah has sent a tsunami and a legion of well-meaning foreigners. If you ask people here, they’ll say that there is a reason for everything. This presumably includes why local and international organisations are struggling to come to terms with each other.
In attempting to explain why, one cannot go past the fact that almost everything about the situation was — and in many ways remains — overwhelming for all concerned.
As a translator volunteering with local NGOs, I found myself traversing the world of local groups into the international orbit and back again. From my vantage point, it seemed that both worlds had many similarities: virtually all organisations lacked transport and telecommunications equipment, ran logistics and medical operations, struggled to assess and meet the needs of displaced communities and operated at a frantic pace.
During the first month, both local and international relief coordinators received around 60 text messages and 50 phone calls each day — and sent out just as many. Everybody stressed the importance of coordinating relief efforts better, but most operated according to their own limitations on whatever information came to hand.
The evident similarities, however, only ran so deep. ‘You’d think the tsunami hit the UN and not Acehnese NGOs,’ a fellow volunteer commented after a particularly frenetic day witnessing local and international NGOs at work. The international groups may have struggled to find staff, office space and equipment, but local NGO offices were wiped from the face of the earth in the space of half an hour, along with countless loved ones, friends and colleagues.
International NGOs also overlooked one important fact: when it came to the humanitarian relief effort, local NGO workers saw themselves not as victims of the tsunami but as survivors toughened by the experience of living under militaristic rule for the better part of 20 years.
The mixed bag of international workers who arrived were generally torn from metropolitan jobs or were more accustomed to working under dictatorships in various states of collapse. They also had little time to consider that in some cases by day two of the disaster the locals had moved into action in cooperation with colleagues from Jakarta and other provinces.
Unfortunately, as the international agencies and NGOs ‘took charge’ of the relief effort, many local leaders felt their — relatively small-scale — work was being dismissed as insignificant.
Talking to one another
If misperceptions were a major stumbling block to fledgling relations between local and international NGOs, a lack of skilled interpreters compounded the problem. This became apparent by week six, when the rapid turnover and shifts in displaced populatiýns began to settle down and international NGOs decided the emergency period was over. International representatives subsequently descended on local NGOs seeking partners, or at least input, into their programs for Aceh’s ‘recovery and reconstruction’.
The handful of experienced international NGO representatives fluent in Indonesian were far outnumbered by jet-setting disaster junkies and rosy-cheeked new recruits, many of whom arrived without securing the means to bridge the language barrier.
Never mind. Even local volunteers with no English grew accustomed to the litany of catch phrases that cropped up with maddening regularity, such as ‘civil society empowerment’, ‘similar programs in Kosovo/Sierra Leone/ Afghanistan’, ‘rapid assessment’, ‘we’re looking for implementing partners’ and ‘organisational capacity building’.
I recall a man from a previously unheard-of international group sitting himself down in the lotus position on the floor of a local NGO office one night and proceeding to drop every one of these phrases as dozens of volunteers rushed around us. The third mention of ‘capacity building’ was too much for me: someone very dear to my NGO friends had just passed away from severe pneumonia caused by inhaling the black dregs of the tsunami water.
This was not the last time I felt compelled to ask an international worker to come back at a more suitable time. A group headed by a particularly curmudgeonly and sweaty man arrived in late January on Idul Adha, the second most significant religious holiaay of the Muslim calendar, which locals looked forward to as a brief respite from the turmoil.
On both these occasions and many others, the local NGO crew sat, smiled and offered whatever information or insight seemed relevant. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ one said to assuage my consternation on Idul Adha. ‘They’re all under a lot of pressure to spend the millions of dollars donated for Aceh.’
There is certainly no shortage of good will. It has been as overwhelming as the disaster itself and is helping to carry the people of Aceh through heartbreaking times. Some of the misperceptions of the past are righting themselves due to the relief effort’s great achievements. The commitment to breathing new life into Aceh remains strong.
But if the international NGOs are emissaries of the private citizens whose individual donations and tax dollars are supporting them, they need to boost the human aspects of the humanitarian effort.
Now that several months have passed, if international agencies and NGOs ask about developing better relations with local groups, I tell them to start by sending a few people to discuss matters over a friendly round of the home-grown coffee that is the pride of Aceh. I did a lot of that in the midst of the craziness and feel I learned more from my Acehnese friends than I was able to contribute.
Linda Mylle (not her real name) is an international volunteer trying her best to work with Acehnese NGOs in Banda Aceh.