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Humanitarian Aid on the move #8, special issue: Cities and crises

Humanitarian action in cities: new challenges, new roles ?
Simon Deprez and Eléonore Labattut

Humanitarian action is increasingly common in urban contexts: Indonesia, Chile, Haiti, Japan… These are complex new fields which have forced professional humanitarians to rethink their operational strategies. Taking the reconstruction in Aceh as a starting point, we will consider how to implement reconstruction projects which are legitimate, planned and coherent with the reality of the regions where they take place.

 1 | Aceh, Indonesia: a territorial strategy limited to building a lot of houses

In 2004, the devastating consequences of the tsunami in Aceh meant that a vast reconstruction programme was necessary which would bring profound change to this previously isolated region. Thirty years of civil war between the separatists of the GAM [1] and the national government had paralysed the economic development of the extreme north of Sumatra: a rough and ready road network, a curfew which was an obstacle to economic activity and the schooling of the young, violent reprisals by the army against the civilian population, the levying of regional riches (timber, oil, gas…) by the State without anything given in return and NGOs prevented from entering the region… Aceh was a poor, rural and isolated region when the tsunami struck.

One would be mistaken to consider that the national government was weak or did not have the competence to manage the region. On the contrary, the Indonesian state is known for having led vast programmes to develop its territory, such as the policy of Transmigration [2], which allowed the archipelago to be developed and particularly Southern Sumatra. In recent years, certain authors have claimed that Aceh was kept in a sort of sub-developed state due to the authorities’ desire to suppress the rebellion by wearing down the territory [3].

The sudden arrival of hundreds of NGOs and international organisations reversed the imbalance: having been this forgotten region on the edge of the archipelago, Aceh became the centre of media attention and a major economic issue for Indonesia due to the 7.8 billion dollars which were raised. However, though huge financial, technical and human means were made available, no regional development plan was drawn up. The reconstruction began quickly and, despite the injunction to “build back better”, most often it consisted of minimum standards.

Faced with the effects of the disaster, housing was quickly identified as a major necessity. There were many displaced people and life in the camps was insecure. As a consequence, the reconstruction focused primarily on houses, which came to symbolise the reconstruction: 140 000 houses had to be rebuilt as quickly as possible. Programmes were run on the basis of speed and quantity, to which was added the criteria of quality of construction, in order to counter the risk of earthquakes by adopting the appropriate construction rules. To manage and coordinate this enormous task, the Indonesian government created a governmental agency specifically to organize the reconstruction. The National Reconstruction Agency (BRR) thus established a minimal house model of 36 m² with two rooms and a bathroom and toilet. This model was taken up by a lot of NGOs, its ease of construction and its low cost making it easier to build a lot of houses, but to the detriment of the quality of the living space (for example, the size of the hall was rarely taken into account and the model of kitchen which was proposed did not correspond to local customs). The response was mostly unitary and uniform with little consideration for specific individual needs. However, a few NGOs [4] tried to develop a different architectural model, or to offer a range of models for different family situations. These experiences were very rare, but were essential in showing that it was possible to move away from minimum standards to offer responses which were better adapted to people’s way of living (with the construction of external kitchens, for example), which allowed housing to be adapted to the needs of families (taking into account the potential for building extensions), or to a rural or urban context (moved to the back of plots, lined up along streets, creating shops on the ground floor, etc.).

Apart from these few examples, the great majority of villages and neighbourhoods were rebuilt by multiplying the model of the minimal standard house: 10, 100, 1000 identical houses. There was little reflection about the morphology of neighbourhoods, urban planning or integrating the houses into the site. This produced housing estates which were indifferent to their context. The tendency to multiply the number of houses without planning was made worse by the difficulty of finding land for the construction and the need to relocate a large proportion of the victims. The scarcity of property available led to decisions which do not seem justified today: vast pieces of land on very steep slopes, isolated from village or urban centres, in forest areas (which had to be cleared) or in areas liable to flooding. Housing estates were built on these pieces of land on the basis of the efficiency of the construction and the profitability of the land: plots were marked out using the BRR standards (100 m² for tenants, 200 m² for landowners), with few community facilities (a mosque and a school) and very little public space.

In addition, crucial features were often lacking from these housing estates: no roads linking them to the neighbouring centre, no potable water network (like in Unjung Segundur on the island of Weh), isolation from employment centres (Leuhan 8 kilometers from Meulaboh, with no public transport and where private collective means of transportation are very expensive for households)… But, as for houses, there were also a few cases where urban issues were given proper consideration and which showed that it was also possible to take these issues into account in a reconstruction context.


[1] GAM: Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, the Free Aceh Movement. Created in 1976, this movement fought for the independence of the region until 2005.

[2] Transmigration: national programme which aimed to open up Java and begin intensive agricultural development of the islands of the Indonesian archipelago. Southern Sumatra, and particularly the region of Lampung, was transformed by the programme

[3] Georges Junus Aditjondro, Profiting from peace : The political economy of Aceh’s Post-Helsinki reconstruction, INFID, 2007.

[4] The Indonesian NGO, Up-Link, developed a series of housing types on stilts which can be easily adapted and tranformed by individual families.

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