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Two Years After Deadly Tsunami, Southeast Asia Still Recovering

December 26, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Around the region today, mourners marked the two-year anniversary of the disaster with ceremonies. Thailand honored its dead by releasing thousands of lanterns that drifted into the night sky along the southern coastal beaches.

In addition to the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, some 2 million people in the region were left homeless. To date, of the 400,000 homes destroyed, about 150,000 have been restored.

Donors have pledged $13 billion toward immediate and long-term recovery and reconstruction, but much of that money has still not been spent, and frustration over the pace of rebuilding continues in some areas.

For more, I’m joined by two people who work in the region. Eric Schwartz is the United Nations’ deputy special envoy for tsunami recovery. He’s traveled to the region multiple times since the tsunami, most recently with former President Bill Clinton.

And Sara Henderson is the president of Building Bridges to the Future, a foundation she created after the tsunami to help rebuild a small village of 170 people in Aceh, Indonesia.

And welcome to both of you.

Two years later

Eric Schwartz
United Nations
We can be generally encouraged about the progress that has taken place without losing sight of the fact that the challenges ahead are truly daunting.

Starting with you, Eric Schwartz, are you where you wanted to be two years after the tsunami?

ERIC SCHWARTZ, United Nations: I think we can be generally encouraged about the progress that has taken place without losing sight of the fact that the challenges ahead are truly daunting.

As you said in your piece, nearly 150,000 homes have been built throughout the region. Some 80,000 homes are under construction or repair. Economic development has taken off. In much of the region, economic growth rates are up. Tourism, in places like the Maldives and Thailand, has rebounded substantially.

All those are very good signs. Committed people, like my co-panelist, Sara, who are working day in and day out to try to promote the development process, have done tremendous work.

So I would say we can be encouraged, but the challenges ahead are daunting. As you also suggested, some 200,000 homes still need to be built. There have been challenges in terms of coordination, in terms of management of the aid effort, which is why donors and development agencies really have to stay the course.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Sara Henderson, you're dealing with a very small area and one that we don't hear too much about very often. What do you see, two years later?

SARA HENDERSON, Building Bridges to the Future Foundation: I don't see much. I see people who don't even have land, villages that are still landless. I see people who are faced with the cut-off of food aid from the World Food Program, who don't have fields that are arable yet.

And I see water being -- you know, that's going to be cut off, fresh water. I feel that, from where I am, things are very, very premature.

JEFFREY BROWN: You've had some success in building homes in this one, small village that you focused on. How have you been able to do that?

SARA HENDERSON: I guess the main reason is we're a very small NGO, and there isn't much bureaucracy. I started out using my own funds, so that made it a little easier.

The first 41 houses, the people -- they weren't totally finished, but they were finished enough so last year, December 2005, 41 houses were finished enough for the people on December 16th to be living in them.

A slow rate of spending

Sara Henderson
Building Bridges to the Future
One of the problems is the pressure that's being put on the government to spend this money, and the government doesn't really know how to spend it fast enough.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eric Schwartz, there was this unprecedented outpouring of generosity. Now we hear stories about all this money, much of it not having been spent. Now, why is that? Describe for us the process here.

ERIC SCHWARTZ: I think the critical statistic is that, of the $13 billion in donor pledges, $11 billion have resulted in firm commitments.

In a place like Aceh, they've spent about $2 billion and about, oh, close to $6 billion that has been committed by donors. That, on average, comes out to about $100 million per month. That rate of spending, of pushing resources into Aceh, has by itself caused inflation rate that has increased the cost of the recovery by $1 billion.

So it's not clear at all to me that you necessarily want money going in at a faster pace. The fact that spending has not yet met commitments should not be a cause for concern in a multi-year recovery process.

There are other causes for concern, about coordination and other issues, but the fact that disbursements have not yet, in a place like Aceh, even come to half of the commitments is not by itself a cause for concern, because three or four years from now, when there are still needs in that province, you don't want to turn around and find out that there are no resources for the task.

RAY SUAREZ: He just mentioned the coordination question. I've read about corruption problems. There was a quote today in the Times from top Indonesian officials saying, "Corruption is endemic. We cannot let down our guard for a moment." What worries you most in this process of trying to rebuild?

SARA HENDERSON: I think I agree with Eric that one of the problems is the pressure that's being put on the government to spend this money, and the government doesn't really know how to spend it fast enough.

So, instead, they're doing things like building homes where there's no need for homes and not buying the land for the landless, but doing other things, because they just are looking for quick ways.

The government's agency was originally designed to be a coordination agency, not building homes and the other things they're doing. Eric and I have discussed this earlier.

Challenges in coordination

Eric Schwartz
United Nations
Today 12,000 or 13,000 transitional shelters have been put up, and the population of tent-dwellers in Aceh has diminished, you know, very substantially. The huge majority of people are out of tents.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, the coordination was something -- you were with us a year ago talking to Gwen Ifill about this on the one year anniversary, and you said at the time coordination was the key challenge. I notice now that President Clinton has referred to that in his list of lessons learned out of all of this.

ERIC SCHWARTZ: I think that's absolutely right. As wonderful as the work that Sara's organization is doing, multiply Sara's organization by literally hundreds of organizations and think about the task facing the local authorities in Aceh, more than a thousand of whom were killed in the tsunami.

In terms of managing and coordinating that kind of an effort, it's overwhelming. I think there has been progress. One great example of progress has been the effort to construct durable transitional shelters.

When I appeared on this program a year ago, there were probably 50,000 to 70,000 people who were living in tents, still a year after the tsunami. At that point, we had geared up a major effort to build transitional shelters. The U.N. helped coordinate it with the Red Cross and 11 organizations.

And today, 12,000 or 13,000 transitional shelters have been put up, and the population of tent-dwellers in Aceh has diminished, you know, very substantially. The huge majority of people are out of tents.

So there have been challenges in coordination. There has been progress. More progress needs to be made.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is the mood of the people you're working with? I mean, for many, you've been able to provide houses. But what about for the majority?

SARA HENDERSON: For the majority, I think that, you know, we haven't been able to do enough. The area which I'm working in was a subsistence area to begin with, but it doesn't negate the fact that they need help probably more than other areas.

I think that the coordination hasn't gone down the coast that far. I think that there are parts of the west coast that are just being totally overlooked.

And, again, an agency like the BRR is now, you know, taking on a role that isn't coordination. And coordination -- there are 340 NGOs. I mean, somebody has got to coordinate this.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, after all, they all came in to do good. They have done much good.

ERIC SCHWARTZ: That's right. That's true. On the coordination issue, about a year ago, the U.N. did something very extraordinary: Put in place a special office of the recovery coordinator in Aceh, a very senior official. And that office has played a very important role in promoting a more coherent response.

BRR, that is the agency that's in charge of reconstruction in Aceh, has a very important coordination role. But they have also, as Sara alluded to, have begun attempting to implement projects because of the concern that things needed to move faster.

So these are very significant challenges. But I think it's important, given how much work people are doing out there, not to dismiss the progress that has been made.

They've built somewhere around 50,000 homes in a two-year period. And they've also -- they have a commitment to accountability, but it doesn't mean that we're not going to hear about corruption in the aid process. We are.

But in a place like Indonesia, where corruption has been endemic, this agency has committed itself to accountability. It has a special anti-corruption unit. So we do see progress in this recovery effort.

And I think the challenge is going to be to stay the course and focus on a few, a couple of key issues, I would say: the need to ensure that vulnerable communities are well-served and that the recovery process improves their status; the need to promote disaster prevention in this recovery effort, to make sure that buildings aren't rebuilt only to come down in the next natural hazard.

And these themes, I think, we are seeing more and more being promoted in the recovery process.