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Six Month Anniversary of Haitian Earthquake

Aceh has much to teach the world – including those engaged in the reconstruction of Haiti.


It is now six months since Haiti was devastated by an earthquake and six years since the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 devastated Aceh.


Attention in Haiti has moved to the reconstruction accompanied by well publicized frustration at how slowly these efforts are going.


It is here the Acehnese experience can help.


Our research into the reconstruction of Aceh shows there are nine lessons that should be incorporated into the rebuilding of Haiti: 


  • Every reconstruction is multifaceted and unique to the country Understanding the local context is important. Not understanding this context is a reminder of the folly of analyzing post disaster reconstruction as an abstracted technical procedure.


  • The international community needs to do more on psychological reconstruction as reconstruction of the psyche is just as important as reconstruction of infrastructure.


  • International aid agencies often experience tension between competing priorities. They can choose between pleasing their donors in their home country by expedient actions, managerial control and forcing ‘Western’ ways of doing things on recipients, or undertaking a slower process of recovery involving participation of recipients and ‘local’ ways of doing things. It is important that all stakeholders understand this tension.


  • Gender analysis is important in the response. While disasters affect communities indiscriminately, the impact of death and injury can have a gender bias. Disasters can also provide women space to provide leadership and direction for their communities that was traditionally not possible.


  • Communities have strengths that must be recognized and utilized. In the initial stages after the disaster, it is local survivors who first respond to medical and emotional needs of other survivors. Later phases of reconstruction ought not to overlook the contribution the survivors made in the initial response.


  • The politics of needs assessment is very important in any reconstruction process.   It involves issues around who decides what the needs are and what needs should be prioritized.   Needs assessment must be approached carefully. If it takes too long people become disaffected and cynical. If it is too brief, then aid is often poorly directed and undermines faith in the whole reconstruction process


  • Religious and cultural beliefs of the affected community are important to any reconstruction effort. Religious beliefs can impact on the affected community’s understanding of why the disaster occurred and this therefore should inform how agencies should plan their response.


  • Communication is central to effective responses.  In large disasters it is very difficult, but important, to maintain some overall communication strategy as part of coordination efforts. This minimizes errors and the extent to which activities are replicated.  A continually updated databank of the progress of all reconstruction efforts is necessary to aid coordination. Strategic options need to be clear, as do criteria for choosing specific strategies. Exit strategies need to be developed and communicated amongst all stakeholders. 


  • Finally, it is important to remember that reconstruction cannot be a reinvention of the ‘past’. Reconstruction does not mean a return to the original ‘normal’. A ‘new normal’ is required. Building this new normal requires substantial funding and results to maintain donor support.



These lessons are drawn from the positive and negative experiences of Aceh’s reconstruction and will be relevant to the reconstruction of Haiti.


We must learn from past disasters and ensure that international aid is spent effectively and efficiently. It is the least that those affected by any disaster including those in Haiti deserve.



Associate Professor Matthew Clarke and Professor Sue Kenny both teach international and community development at Deakin University. They have just published a book (with Dr Ismet Fanany) on the reconstruction of Aceh.


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