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Tsunami aid or strategic relationship?

By Tim O'Connor - posted Friday, 8 April 2005

Zainal Abidin is the only person in his village of 1,000 to survive the tsunami. Zainal is a fishermen from the tiny village of Kampung Pande just 5 minutes from Banda Aceh in the sub-district of Kuta Raja. His family was killed. His parents were killed. All his friends were killed. He has one set of clothes. His house has been destroyed and he cannot read or write.

Zainal desperately wants to return to the life he knows. Before the tsunami he made his living tending fishing ponds by the coast. He desperately wants to begin to restore some sense of normality in a life that has been devastated. Almost three months after the tsunami, he has still received no help from his government or from international aid agencies.

Why is Zainal forced to endure this living hell when the world has been so generous?


The devil, as ever, is in the detail of this generosity. When John Howard announced on January 5 that Australia would pledge $1 billion to tsunami devastated Aceh there was loud support. People were proud to be Australian: citizens of such a generous country, when our neighbours were in such great need. Why then has Australia only committed “up to” $50 million of this $1 billion to Aceh?

The emergency response for most of the tsunami-affected areas was very efficient and plagued only by relatively minor incidents in relation to the scale of the operation. Australia spent $100 million in this humanitarian response phase between AusAID and the use of the Defence Force. The Australian Defence Force and Australian aid agencies were celebrated by the thankful Acehnese for establishing vital services such as water purification plants and sanitation stations. This was widely reported in the media in Australia.

The long term rebuilding though is appearing much more difficult as it becomes mired in political point scoring.

On March 7 a research note from the Federal Parliamentary Library questioned the method of accounting for Australia’s aid commitment. The questions posed by the paper were significant and diplomatic.

Why does Australia’s tsunami commitment directly reflect the objectives of Australia’s aid program to Indonesia outlined by the Foreign Minister in his statement of May 2004 - seven months before the tsunami struck?

Why is Australia giving half the $1 billion as loans? Australia traditionally gives aid as grants and Indonesia, one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world, is in urgent need of assistance not more foreign debt. Australia, pre-tsunami, gave $160 million to Indonesia. According to the Treasury, Australia received, and will continue to receive, “between $75 and $85 million annually” in debt repayments “over the next several years” from Indonesia. While this repayment has been shelved in the short term, it gives a clear indication of the complexity and differing interests of the aid giving process.


Why is the package that was widely credited as a “tsunami aid package” being dedicated to other regions of Indonesia? Careful attention to the Prime Minister’s statements indicates that this $1 billion is not about aid to tsunami affected Aceh, but to the Australia-Indonesia partnership.

Undoubtedly, there are many areas in Indonesia where the money could be well used, but why did the Government not correct the erroneous statements made in the media relating to the “tsunami aid package”. They usually are not backward when it comes to challenging what they deem as negative media responses (see both the Costello-Gittins affair in the SMH and also Alston and the ABC over the Iraq war reporting, as prime examples).

The recent joint-ministerial meeting between Australia and Indonesia pledged up to $50 million for Aceh. Most of this will go towards assisting in the building of a much-needed hospital in Banda Aceh. Certainly a hospital makes for better photo opportunities than a few fishponds on the outskirts of the capital.

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About the Author

Tim O’Connor works at AID/WATCH an independent watchdog monitoring the community impacts of Australia’s aid and trade polices.

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