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Haiti, Indonesia, Philippines Mark Solemn Disaster Anniversaries
The Washington Diplomat / January 2015

By Larry Luxner

As Typhoon Hagupit closed in on the Philippines in early December with maximum sustained winds of 160 miles per hour, it was an eerie déjà vu for Jose L. Cuisia Jr., Manila’s ambassador to the United States.

“It looks like this one is taking the exact same path as Yolanda [also known as Typhoon Haiyan],” Cuisia remarked Dec. 4 as he prepared to hunker down in his office, directing the embassy’s humanitarian aid efforts from Washington in the event Hagupit — the sixth super typhoon to form in the Western Hemisphere in 2014 — made landfall as a Category 5 cyclone. Hagupit, which ultimately didn’t wind up being as powerful as Haiyan was, hit the eastern island of Samar, killing over 20 people and forcing 1 million to evacuate before being downgraded to a tropical storm.

Only two weeks earlier, Cuisia had led a symposium on the one-year anniversary of another killer typhoon, Haiyan. That storm, known locally as Yolanda, was one of the deadliest tropical cyclones on record, and the strongest ever to hit the Philippines. Its sustained winds of up to 195 mph tore into the provincial capital of Tacloban, killing more than 7,300 people, injuring 28,000 and displacing about 4 million from their homes.

“Because the region does not represent a very big contributor to our GDP, with most of those people in agriculture and fishing, the impact to the Philippine economy was not as great as you would be expect,” said the ambassador. “But we’re still recovering, and it’ll probably take a few more years to fully recover from that devastation.”

As horrible as Super Typhoon Haiyan was, the cyclone pales in comparison to two other natural disasters that left utter devastation on opposite sides of the globe — and whose somber anniversaries are being observed within three weeks of each other.

Ten years ago on Dec. 26, a 9.1-magnitude earthquake hit off the western coast of Sumatra, triggering a tsunami that killed at least 228,000 people in 14 countries, including 170,000 in Indonesia alone, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. But the Indonesian government has estimated that 220,000 of its citizens died — mainly in Aceh province — which would push up the total to around 280,000. Also badly hit were Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, and to a lesser extent Somalia, Myanmar and the Maldives.

In addition, some 9,000 tourists from Europe and elsewhere were among the dead and missing. The image of a lone mosque in the Aceh town of Lhoknga — surrounded by a sea of mud and debris — came to symbolize the devastation wrought by one of the deadliest natural occurrences in recorded history.

And five years ago, on Jan. 12, 2010, a powerful earthquake struck Haiti, leveling the capital of Port-au-Prince and leaving the Haitian economy in ruins. How many people died in that 7.0-magnitude quake is still unknown. Estimates range wildly, from a low of 46,000, according to an unofficial 2011 report by USAID, to the widely reported figure of 230,000, to the government’s own “official” but possibly exaggerated death toll of 316,000.

What’s clear is that, while both disasters unleashed an outpouring of generosity from around the globe, the results on the ground today — long after the waters receded and rubble was cleared away — couldn’t be more different.

Raymond Joseph was Haiti’s ambassador in Washington when the earthquake struck, leaving an estimated 1.5 million homeless.

“Today, five years later, we still have more than 85,000 people living in 123 camps,” Joseph told The Washington Diplomat. “Some say there’s been progress, but when you consider that more than $10 billion was pledged for Haiti back in March 2010, one wonders what has happened to all that money. I’m quite sure there was enough to relocate everybody.”

More specifically, Joseph points to the Assessing Progress in Haiti Act of 2014, sponsored in the House by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and in the Senate by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). Of the $10.4 billion in international aid pledged by donors since the earthquake, Joseph said, $6.4 billion has been disbursed as of Sept. 30, 2013, and an additional $3.8 billion had been committed.

“However, nobody can tell us exactly where that money has gone. So Congress passed a law asking for a quarterly report from the secretary of state on what’s happening in Haiti,” he said, complaining that “after the earthquake, I personally raised more than $4.5 million, which I sent directly to the accounts given to me for the emergency. I don’t know whatever happened to it.”

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the missing money: A thicket of NGOs swarmed the country — some with good intentions, others not so much — and the lack of coordination only undermined the already-weak central government. Meanwhile, the corruption-addled government also most likely squandered some of the funds. And amid the sheer chaos of the tragedy, transparency took a backseat to saving lives and alleviating some of the suffering.

Joseph stepped down as ambassador eight months after the earthquake to run for president, but was disqualified on a technicality. So was his younger cousin, the hip-hop recording artist and composer Wyclef Jean. Joseph, now 83, sharply criticized the man who eventually became Haiti’s leader, Michel Martelly, for extravagant spending.

Martelly has also come under fire recently by thousands of anti-government protesters who have demanded that he step down and call elections.

“Since the new government took over in 2011, they claim they have housed most of the homeless. But still we have all these people in tents,” Joseph said. “Every year they have two major carnivals; the last one in Gonaïves cost $5 million. Whenever I see all this waste and people still living in tents, I’m not happy.”

Haiti’s current envoy to the United States, Paul Altidor, lived through the temblor. He was at a business meeting in the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince and emerged with barely a scratch, while people all around him were crushed to death in an instant. Altidor couldn’t be reached for comment for this story, though he denied in a September 2012 cover profile for The Diplomat that the Martelly government had squandered billions in humanitarian assistance in the earthquake’s aftermath.

“Very little of the aid going to Haiti goes to public entities anyway, so in terms of accountability, it’s hard to even claim that the government is stealing money, when in reality it’s not being funneled to public entities but mainly NGOs,” said the ambassador, formerly vice president of the Washington-based Clinton Bush Haiti Fund. “How can you be stealing something you don’t even have?”

The Assessing Progress in Haiti Act, which President Obama signed into law on Aug. 8, is an effort to clean house, so to speak. It requires USAID and other agencies to regularly report to Congress regarding benchmarks, strategies and contracting for post-earthquake aid activities in Haiti — including efforts aimed at eradicating the cholera epidemic that has killed more than 8,500 people since its outbreak at a U.N. peacekeeping camp.

“This bill could go a long way toward correcting some of the problems with government transparency and effectiveness in the Haiti relief effort,” said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research. “It is a step in the right direction if U.S. taxpayer dollars are to be used in a way that will benefit the people of Haiti instead of merely lining contractors’ pockets.”

According to Weisbrot, 66.2 percent of USAID contracts have gone to Beltway-based firms, while just 1.5 percent has gone to Haitian companies. “There is something terribly wrong with this picture.”

If Haiti is the example of what not to do after a natural disaster of unprecedented magnitude, then perhaps Indonesia should be studied by government planners, humanitarian workers and academics as a country that got it right.

Granted, the two cases are vastly different, even though total death tolls from the Haitian quake of 2010 and the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 were roughly the same. Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest country, with a population approaching 250 million and a thriving economy based on manufacturing, services and the export of petroleum and other commodities. In addition, its capital, Jakarta, is 2,600 kilometers southeast of the tsunami’s worst-hit area, meaning that Indonesia’s government institutions were untouched by the disaster.

By contrast, densely populated Haiti is by far the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Its roughly 10.3 million people scrape by on an average per-capita income of around $1,700 a year (compared to $9,260 for Indonesia, according to World Bank statistics). More than half the population lives in extreme poverty, and Haiti ranks toward the bottom of nearly every international ranking from the U.N. Human Development Index to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report.

It didn’t help that most of Haiti’s government institutions crumbled in the quake, which also killed many of its most capable technocrats. The elegant presidential palace — a symbol of splendor in downtown Port-au-Prince — was also destroyed; its ruins were finally torn down three years later by an NGO headed by actor Sean Penn.

The experiences of both countries’ response to their respective disasters were featured at a Nov. 13-14 conference in Tacloban to mark one year since Haiyan. The meeting was organized by Development and Peace, a Montreal-based NGO that has raised $12 million in aid for typhoon victims. It brought together 150 participants to assess the progress of various disaster reconstruction efforts around the world.

“Sadly, the ‘disaster capitalism’ that was witnessed in other countries is also a risk in the Philippines,” said Jess Agustin, the NGO’s programs officer in Manila. “Poor coastal communities that have lost everything are facing evictions to make way for tourism, shopping malls and industrial fishing, and this needs to be monitored.”

Even so, Budi Bowoleksono, Indonesia’s ambassador to the United States, says he looks back with pride on how his country handled the worst disaster in its history. For years, a separatist movement had been raging in Aceh province, which bore the brunt of the tsunami. But in the wake of the disaster, both sides put aside their animosity and forged an impressive political reconciliation that rebuilt the province and gave it a measure of political autonomy, while earning kudos for the government in Jakarta.

“Ten years ago, the province of Aceh was devastated by a disaster of tidal waves that shook the world,” Bowoleksono told The Diplomat. “After years of rehabilitation and restoration, today the province and the people of Aceh have managed to overcome the catastrophe and continue on with rebuilding their cities and their lives.”

The ambassador cited his people’s “heartwarming sense of togetherness” as a factor in the country’s ability to confront its nightmare. But more specifically, he says credit should go to the Agency for the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Aceh and Nias (BRR), which he helped organize in the months following the tsunami and a subsequent 8.7-magnitude quake that struck the Sumatran island of Nias in March 2005.

He said BRR’s integrity was so highly regarded that its Stanford University-educated chief, Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, received recognition from the United Nations, the Norwegian government and the Clinton Foundation.

“This is also a success story of the international community,” said Bowoleksono. He noted that in the wake of the tsunami, worldwide donors pledged $7.7 billion in reconstruction and development funds for Indonesia — and that by the end of 2007, projects and programs worth $6.4 billion had been allocated by 463 organizations, 65 percent of which had been disbursed by December 2007.

“Usually, the implementation ratio is no more than 50 percent, and this was considerably higher,” he said, noting that the program in Aceh and Nias — involving up to 20,000 projects in all — ranks as one of the largest humanitarian programs in history.

Ten years on, the difference is obvious. Michael Sullivan, a correspondent for NPR’s All Things Considered, reported in January 2014 that the province of Aceh— “where whole villages were swept away by a wall of water so powerful it picked up ships and left them several miles inland” — is barely recognizable today.

“The crescent-shaped, white-sand beach at Lhoknga is impossibly beautiful. It’s popular with families who come from nearby Banda Aceh,” Sullivan wrote. “Banda Aceh is awash in new cars, motorcycles and cell phone shops — all indicative of the trickle-down benefits billions in aid money brings.”

The Aceh Tsunami Museum, located in Banda Aceh, is a 2,500-square-meter, four-story structure that memorializes the tsunami’s victims while housing an emergency disaster shelter in case the area is ever hit by a tsunami again.

Perhaps the most important legacy of the tsunami is an end to the violent conflict between Muslim Acehnese separatists and the Indonesian military. The religious-cultural insurgency lasted for 28 years and claimed at least 12,000 lives on both sides until destruction from the tsunami forced both sides to sign a tenuous peace accord.

In a strange way, the Indian Ocean tsunami was a “blessing in disguise,” concedes Ambassador Bowoleksono.

“The calamity has brought people together to rebuild Aceh, and this accelerated the peaceful settlement in Aceh,” he said. “Everyone believes they should be united, no matter where they come from. In other words, the Aceh tsunami has strengthened unity among the people of Indonesia.”

Like Indonesia with its 17,508 islands, the nearby Philippines — consisting of 7,107 islands — is a tropical country prone to the ravages of nature. And more than a year later, it’s still reeling from Super Typhoon Haiyan.

“This was an enormous disaster. We were there on the military and civilian side, and began funneling $86 million worth of assistance in immediately,” said Scot Marciel, principal deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the State Department and a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia. “We took the lead from our Philippine counterparts who could tell us what was really needed. Obviously, the most important thing is to respond as quickly as possible and save as many lives as you can.”

In all, the U.S. military transported 2,495 tons of relief supplies to the Philippines, with logistical support involving more than 50 aircraft and ships, and well over 1,000 soldiers. Cuisia said 171 municipalities in 14 provinces across the central Philippines were eventually declared priority areas for assistance, with around $12 billion in damages attributed to the killer cyclone.

Since Haiyan, he said the Philippine government has spent nearly $3.1 billion to rebuild the hardest-hit areas, including $1.7 billion on resettlement, $572 million on livelihoods, $544 million on social services and $250 million on infrastructure.

“We’re probably better prepared for the next one, in terms of coordination between local governments and the national governments,” Cuisia said. “In the past, many people refused to heed official warnings to evacuate. But they’ve now seen what happened, so we’re hopeful there will be a better response from local residents.”

He added: “We’re also imposing higher building standards to make houses, schools and hospitals more typhoon-resistant.”

But whether in Indonesia, the Philippines or Haiti, mistakes are always made in the aftermath of calamity.

Patrick Daly, a researcher at the National University of Singapore, has been studying Aceh ever since the tsunami. He says the Philippines could learn from mistakes made in Indonesia.

“I think the first three years could have been a lot more effective and it could have been a lot less internationalized,” Daly told NPR’s Sullivan, adding that projects in Aceh tended to work better once they were transferred to local partners.

“In the Philippines, which has a rich history of civil society engagement and NGO work, I would say, empower them,” he said. “Let them make decisions from the onset about planning; give them real responsibility to determine spending and how to allocate budgets and let them determine the priorities. You’ll find projects will probably be more effective and more likely to last after the aid dries up.”

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