Two weeks ago, I visited the northern coast of Aceh, Indonesia, curious to see not only how people are faring one year after the tsunami, but also how NGOs are spending the largest pool of humanitarian funds ever raised. On both counts, my report is the same: Not well.

After one day in Banda Aceh, I spent four more driving through the districts of Pidie and Bireun. Even the view from the highway bore witness to the ongoing suffering of the Acehnese. Where thriving marketplaces and traditional houses once stood, tent cities and government-built barracks spread. The skeletons of washed-up boats and cars still sit on the roads’ shoulders as far as two miles inland. Schools are boarded up. Fishing ponds bleed into each other and into the sea. Even in Banda Aceh, the province’s proud capital, 50% of the surviving population is still homeless. In rural villages, that number climbs to 70%.

When is more help coming? I didn’t know what to tell the village chiefs or the boat builders or my generous hosts in Pente Rheng, Kiran Baroh, Beurembang, and Pasi Lhok. Their stories resembled each other: A flurry of NGOs hurried through their villages soon after the tsunami, asking questions, staking claims, making promises. And then the NGOs never returned. Or the NGOs did return, but only to replace demolished houses, not to repair the badly damaged ones. I heard about one NGO that refused to rebuild any schools in one village unless it could rebuild the most prominent ones, near the highway. The village agreed, retracting its agreement with a smaller organization that made simpler promises. The NGO nailed its logo to the schools, and hasn’t been seen since. I heard about another NGO that decided not to build until it has the materials and expertise to meet the highest European standards of earthquake readiness.

The day I returned to Jakarta, an article in the New York Times confirmed that many NGOs are indeed taking their time. In her article, “After Tsunami, a Rarity: Donated Dollars Remain,” Stephanie Strom reports that NGOs are resisting pressures to spend-down their windfall, and instead are contemplating how to “build back better” with long-term investments in education, health care, and economic recovery. She also writes that NGOs are spending unprecedented amounts of time and money documenting and justifying their spending to donors. Oxfam, for example, has already spent $1.5 million of its $278 million on monitoring and evaluating its own performance. Many other organizations are likewise providing detailed breakdowns of how and where their money is spent.

Meanwhile, it seemed to me that the Acehnese are stranded in a trough between the first wave of emergency aid and a second, promised wave of reconstruction funding. The tents in which many live were never intended to weather two monsoons, as their mold and holes attest. The camps are filthy with litter and the stink of raw sewage. Scabies is rampant. Without boats for fishing, yards for raising poultry, or ponds for farming seafood, the villagers must rely on the World Food Programme’s rations of rice and vegetable oil and sardines. But the rations are never quite enough. The children are skinnier, and not growing to be as tall as their older siblings. Health care is lacking for everyone because most of the medical teams left a few months after the tsunami.

There are no squeaky wheels here. People mourn their dead in the Acehnese way, bearing their hardships quietly. A man who lost his wife, parents, and three children smiled and said, “I’m just trying to forget the past on move on.” 

But NGOs have the grease, and plenty. Are they withholding immediate aid so that they can optimize their long-term planning and donor relationships? Whose needs are being addressed by this strategy? Whose standards are being met? Which sufferings are being forestalled, and which are being exacerbated? Could NGOs do a better job of addressing both immediate needs and long-term goals?

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