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Indonesia's tsunami reconstruction chief lauds progress

A reconstructed village in Indonesia.
by Staff Writers
Jakarta (AFP) Dec 23, 2007
When Kuntoro Mangkusubroto dashed in to lead reconstruction of Indonesia's Aceh in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, it was with little immediate help from his own government.

Despite leading an organisation set up by presidential decree in May 2005, Mangkusubroto was forced to go cap in hand to Australia's aid agency for the money to fly his team out to the flattened provincial capital of Banda Aceh.

"We were so grateful to the Australians, but at the same time it was very shameful," Mangkusubroto told AFP in an interview at the modern Jakarta office of the Aceh-Nias reconstruction agency, known as BRR.

A former academic and one-time energy minister, Mangkusubroto has never shied away from robust criticism of his government.

With 168,000 dead in Aceh, and the added disaster of a massive earthquake on desperately poor Nias island, the grinding pace of Indonesia's bureaucracy was always going to hinder the channelling of billions of dollars of foreign aid.

A generation-long separatist war and an entrenched culture of what he calls "pathological" corruption throughout the Indonesian state were not going to help either.

And so it was with an obvious sense of satisfaction that Mangkusubroto ticked off his organisation's list of successes recently, three years after the December 26 tragedy, one of the worst natural disasters in modern history.

Of the BRR's target to build 120,000 new houses, Mangkusubroto said more than 100,000 have been completed and the remaining homes will be finished by April 2008, three months ahead of schedule.

A project to train teachers to replace the 2,500 who died in 2004 has seen startling success, with more than 20,000 trained. However, less than half the 2,000 schools planned have been built so far.

As of October, the BRR has overseen the building of 216 bridges, more than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) of roads, 17 sea ports and 10 airports and air strips.

The key to BRR's success has been its full authority over reconstruction -- a fact bitterly resisted at the start by others in the Indonesian government, Mangkusubroto said.

"We didn't have that kind of organisation before in Indonesia," he said.

"We would have to explain this to Jakarta people, that this organisation has full authority, so don't try to block us."

This approach often irritated several ministers who could see their own power eroding, who would often shoot back with responses such as "Okay, Aceh is yours, Indonesia is mine," Mangkusubroto recounted.

While the government was reluctant to even pay for his flight to Aceh in 2005, these days the BRR's reputation for efficiency and lack of "systemic corruption" means it gets its way, he said.

Another key to rapid reconstruction, outside the BRR's control, was a peace deal that brought to an end fighting between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government, which had left almost 14,000 dead.

"I cannot imagine we could have achieved this (much) without peace on the ground," Mangkusubroto said.

Provincial elections in December last year saw ex-GAM rebels sweep to power. The popularly elected government is more decisive, Mangkusubroto said, although it lacks a depth of experience, particularly in the bureaucracy.

"Overall I can say we have achieved the mission, achieved the objectives (of reconstruction) but when it comes to long term objectives, in this case local government capacity building, that is something that is beyond our specific mission," he said.

Even under the most upbeat assessments of the BRR's achievements, Aceh still faces serious challenges.

The World Bank and others have warned the province is in danger of an economic slump after major reconstruction ends with the close of BRR's mandate in April 2009 and the handover of responsibility to the GAM-led government.

The risk is that as temporary construction jobs die off, so will go the economy -- and, possibly, peace.

A major challenge for the new government will be creating conditions that are attractive to investment, Mangkusubroto said. If domestic investors can be lured, then foreign money will follow.

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