For those who have followed my occasional blogs or read my books, you will know I have spent a good deal of time working in, studying and writing about disaster recovery. I did so as the Indonesian Government’s senior advisor for the recovery of Aceh following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami before conducting further investigations to write Tsunami Chronicles: Adventures in Disaster Management. I am not alone in working in and writing about disaster recovery. My friend Owen Podger has done the same. We worked together on the Aceh program and have since collaborated to lobby anyone who would listen and travel widely in a forlorn but honourable attempt to promote greater professionalism in disaster recovery. To this end, Owen presented the following paper to the Australia New Zealand Disaster Management Conference on 7 May 2014. He titled his paper Little-Known Aussie and Kiwi Innovators in Aceh who Helped to Redefine Professionalism in Disaster Recovery. Owen included me in his observations and asked if I would publish the paper on my website. I have great pleasure in doing so. Here it is for your consideration.
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Little-Known Aussie and Kiwi Innovators in Aceh
An examination of the creativity of a number of Australians and New Zealanders who worked in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami sheds light onto the competencies and working styles of successful post disaster managers. They were inspired by the tsunami. In Keith Gardner terms, they allowed this real-world event be a lever of change in their lives. They grasped what had to be done, and could re-orient themselves quickly when they assessed the need.
Disconnecting from old ways was as important as creating and connecting to new ways. New competencies were learnt on the job. New systems were tailor-made on the job. Values, principles, integrity were as important as skills.
Australians and New Zealanders have a culture that is well suited to work under crisis conditions. Australia and New Zealand has the capacity to a reputation and market skills in business excellence after disasters. I recommend continued investigation of business excellence in disaster management, and capacity development programs for people managing recovery projects. I also recommend an Australasian Disaster Resource Partnership for the engineering and construction sector, and a Recovery Bank Partnership for our financial institutions. And finally I recommend we help commemorate the tenth anniversary of the tsunami, to provide the opportunity for Aceh, Indonesia and the world to let this amazing event continue to inspire and change how we approach disasters.
Australian and New Zealand Help to Aceh and Nias
Those we all know
Much of our effort in assisting Aceh and Nias is well, known. The Australian armed forces were exemplary, and the people of Nias still recall the lives that some gave to help. Many Australians and New Zealanders worked with the best of the Humanitarian Aid organisation. Surfaid with its leader David Jenkins stands out for approach, professionalism and excellence. Shortly after the tsunami with large donations from Quiksilver and Billabong and a matching grant from the New Zealand government, Surfaid sailed for Nias and Simeulue to help devastated coastal villagers.
AusAID was one of the best bilateral donors. Allison Sudradjat, who led AusAID’s efforts from March 2005 till her tragic death in a plane crash in Yogyakarta two years later, has her special place in Australian and Indonesian history. She was much appreciated by staffers, consultants, and all in the Aceh-Nias recovery program.
Robin Davies was head of AusAID in Jakarta when the tsunami struck. He hopped on the first Australian C130 to go to Aceh. He also gave a ride to the first senior UN official to go. There was so much for donors to do, but Robin saw what AusAID could do for the Acehnese to help themselves; he was the first to talk about government recovery, only days after the tsunami. He combined leadership and teamsmanship. Seeing the event would change history, he took lots of photos, many now in the National Library in Canberra. Within two weeks he had appointed the next three names on my list.
Professor Phil Passmore was assigned to help the Acehnese health agency manage pharmaceuticals. Despite all the medicines flown in, there was actually little short supply in Aceh. Phil put on his galoshes and waded into flooded warehouses with local managers and storemen to find what pharmaceuticals were there. He encouraged and guided, sometimes goaded, the local pharmaceutical system back on its feet. He said to me “so many outsiders wanted to exclude the survivors being involved in and owning their own recovery. Lots were yelling at the Acehnese, insinuating that they did not know what they were doing. Help survivors to restore services as quickly as possible was the best possible assistance we could give, always looking out for opportunities to influence better professional.”
Sisa de Jesus
Sisa de Yesus is a psychiatric nurse specialising in trauma. Many of those who have benefitted from her passion and competence regard her as an honorary Aussie though she is an American living in Bali. In 2002 immediately on hearing of the bomb blast in Kuta, she rushed to the scene to help. At her own expense, she set up and trained nurses in Bali in trauma counselling. Robin met her, saw her work, and arranged AusAID to cover her costs. The dust had not settled after the Jakarta Embassy bombing when he asked for her help again, and she responded again immediately. In January 2005 she came to Aceh, reviewed the situation, went back to Bali to recruit Balinese nurses to Acehnese nurses. Compassion, determination, sacrifice, competence.
Bill has just published Tsunami Chronicles, the most potent and thorough analysis of the good and bad of Aceh’s recovery, a text-book for recovery management you can buy on line. AusAID put him in to advise the Indonesian government on preparing a reconstruction strategy. Later the appointed minister for rehabilitation and reconstruction, Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, insisted that Bill become his personal adviser. Always strategic, always acutely aware of relationships in his environment, Bill gave up his personal business to help the one man who would make reconstruction succeed. He promised Kuntoro’s wife to stay beside him till the end, and he promised Kuntoro he would write a book. He kept both promises by dedicating eight years of his life, most of it without income. Kuntoro, the international community in Aceh and the people of Aceh are beneficiaries of his legacy, and so are we who read his book. He designed and managed key strategic elements of the recovery architecture, fought against corruption and incompetence, negotiated many international agreements that were central to recovery efforts, held donors to account, and brought a level of strategic discipline to the reconstruction program. Bill was not always appreciated by the Indonesian government or the international community. He was often maligned and undermined, because of his efforts and his integrity.
Kevin was an Australian diplomat with a great affection for Indonesia since high school. He was UNDP’s consultant advising on the running the 1999 and 2004 elections. Knowing his thorough understanding of how things work in Indonesia, UNDP asked him also to help the government develop their strategy for recovery. Bill introduced him to Kuntoro who saw his empathy, integrity and forensic nose, and appointed him as the head of the agency’s anti-corruption unit, a rare case of an Australian holding an official government position in Indonesia. Kevin gave comfort to the government and confidence to the donor community that the agency could perform better than anything the Indonesian government had done before. He is now a special adviser on building strong systems of integrity in institutions set up to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.
When the reconstruction agency wanted the best possible advisers in every sector, AusAID offered four people with good track-records in non-disaster situations. Two provided the agency with good value; one of them, David, had a previous record as a ministerial adviser to an Australian minster and had international experience in leading health and education program in the Middle East, China and Indonesia. He became adviser to a BRR deputy who required solid-rock assistance in managing the health and education portfolios in Aceh’s reconstruction program. David’s advice prevented bad services in health and education being rebuilt. He promoted critical improvements in Aceh’s Dickensian mental health system, building on the good work of Sisa de Jesus. He planned and worked with donors and government to reform the previous insular education system. By his strategic efforts schools and teachers were in place for children to receive appropriate education to help them face the challenges of the future.
Fadlullah leaves a strong impression wherever he goes. I met him in Aceh about two months after the tsunami, an Australian willing to discourse with Acehnese in Acehnese on strategies for recovery. Fadlullah is a Tasmanian who converted to Islam as a student. He joined Australian Volunteers Abroad and taught English in Aceh where he contributed to the English proficiency of many leaders of civil society, government and the rebel movement. He left Aceh in the mid-1970s and later joined the International Islamic University of Malaysia, where he organised scholarships for hundreds of young Acehnese. He returned to Aceh after the tsunami to help, created a team mainly of ex-students when many in the humanitarian community had completely underestimated the capacity of the Acehnese to contribute to the disaster response. He established the Muslim Aid operation in Aceh. His empathy, local knowledge, connectivity, openness, ability to face and overcome problems, and above all integrity won him high respect. He went on to lead relief and development programs in Cambodia, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, Vietnam, Pakistan Bangladesh and Afghanistan. He now lives in Brisbane leading Islamic Relief in Australia’s international programs.
Phil ran the IOM (International Organization for Migration) program in Nias. He built bridges and schools faster and better than anyone, often taking on other people’s failures and succeeding. He persisted. Obstacles were lessons to be learnt. Phil was both innovative and systematic, a rare combination normally, but common amongst the successful disaster professionals. He took care of details. He built a skilful, loyal and productive team of Indonesian operators, and continues to promote Indonesian skills, in his own words “helping, guiding and pushing, working with the Indonesian people, respecting their culture and living in their community, working to achieve production schedules with good success.”
New Zealander Bob McKerrow is the best known of my characters. After a long career in international humanitarian work operations, he headed the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) program for tsunami relief, firstly in Indonesia, and then in Sri Langka. His motto “do your best and then a little more” is lived out at somewhat a grand scale. And wherever he is, he considers himself lucky to be serving. He has an impelling passion for helping those in direst need. He badgers and cajoles to get resources. He is focussed on performance and showing it. He hates bureaucracy yet loves accountability. He started in humanitarian aid in Vietnam for the NZ Red Cross, where he was given a Super-8 movie camera. Instead of being ordered to write reports, he was ordered to send in a film each month of what he was doing. His accountability reports became winning fund raisers. He is still at it, working as Country Coordinator for the Swiss Red Cross in the Philippines.
George Kuru is the youngest on my list, a Kiwi forester who solved logistics problems for World Food Program (WFP) shipping operations. NGOs would promise communities to rebuild without knowing how to get materials in. George would resource them and land them. He was part of a team that planned and oversaw the massive logistics operation over vast areas with huge volumes of materials. He played a particularly important role with UNHCR in sourcing and delivering certified timber from outside of Aceh thereby helping to limit pressures to log the vast forests in the Leuser ecosystem, a hidden success of the reconstruction program which quietly but significantly reduced illegal logging in Aceh.
Greg Kemp had been project manager on many projects in Aceh over the years, include building of AusAID funded large steel truss bridges along the west coast of Aceh, most of which were destroyed by the tsunami and earthquake. After the tsunami, Greg Kemp upgraded critical parts of the road from Medan to Aceh to assure that supplies for reconstruction could be delivered. But he had a wider vision. He wanted to upgrade an old but still operational government-owned precast concrete factory belonging to the national public works department that had been funded by AusAID over twenty years before, to provide culvert pipes and concrete components for infrastructure and housing: pipes, box-culverts, power poles, piles, bridge components and so on. He also wanted to help revive the Acehnese construction industry. Local companies had lost people, assets and materials in the tsunami, and were losing out in reconstruction to competition from outsiders. He got funds from AusAID to prepare a plan but AusAID did not comprehend the opportunity to use the assets they had provided previously for speeding up construction and restoring local industry in a very significant way, and they did not proceed. Aceh, flooded with funds for recovery of housing and infrastructure, could not find another donor to support a plan for recovery of the local construction industry. Greg was before his time. Seven years later, many of Indonesia’s major contractors established an Indonesian Disaster Resources Partnership under the auspices of the World Economic Forum, and with AusAID support. If Australia had recognized its resources, we would not have wasted that time.
My last Aussie is the remarkable Paul Steinfort, surfer and top project manager. In Aceh, he departed from standard project management methods that were not working, led by a passion for victims and a drive to understand the real problems and get the right results. He returned to Melbourne to complete a PhD on post-disaster project management, establishing principles and tools for project managers under such circumstances. This formed the basis for training he has run in Pakistan, Japan and New Zealand after crises. He now manages a nationally recognised certified training program on competences of project management in disaster recovery that I recommend be adopted both nationally and internationally for on-the-job training to upgrade skills of those managing disaster recovery projects, especially those in the local construction industry.
Uncommon Personal Characteristics Held in Common
Normal Professional Practice
Bob McKerrow is the only one on my list who is a professional humanitarian. That is, he is a dedicated humanitarian, and he is professional at it. The others came to humanitarian aid from other walks of life.
A large proportion of the non-humanitarians coming into leadership situations in Aceh and Nias had been reputable professionals of various disciples beforehand. And yet, in this post disaster situation, an embarrassingly large proportion of them acted so amateurishly, inflexibly, blindly or insensitively – and incompetently – they could not claim to be professional in such an environment. If we define a crisis as an event in life we cannot handle ourselves, then these professionals coming to help others in their crisis failed to recognise their own crises. But my little known innovators were a different breed.
In the following paragraphs I summarise what I observed in these folk, and others who made the successful change from normal professionalism to disaster recovery professionalism. I note that they had in common uncommon values and principles and all spend considerable time influencing the environment in which they worked.
The values I find they had in common were:
- Strategic. They comprehended and continually assessed where they were and where they wanted to go. They determined how they would proceed and continually adjusted their plans in order to assure they got the results they intended.
- Amazed and Inspired. They were staggered by the force of nature and by the global response of which they were a part, and amazed by its impact on their thinking. In Keith Gardner terms they utilised this real-world event to be a lever of change in their lives and the lives of others
- Compassionate. They had compassion for the victims, and also for those in relief who struggled to make sense and make a contribution
- Respectful, first of all for local people and their culture, then for government and colleagues. Even those who might not deserve respect were treated respectfully
- Passionate. None of them just did their job, they did it with passion. It showed in their voices and the time they committed
- Adaptable. Not just adaptability, but a sense of when to be adaptive and the values and principles of adapting
- Determined. They did not give up easily. Some found no way forward, stopped bashing their heads against immovable objects, and moved on, their determination driving them to new things
- Gratitude. They all expressed gratitude for being able to be part of it all.
The principles I find they held in common were:
- Victims are our clients, directly or indirectly. Fadlullah built homes for families, not houses for anyone. George delivered materials to donors on request, but he saw that as his contribution to recovery. Bill’s and David’s clients were leaders of recovery, whom they advised to focus on the victims as their clients
- It is communities and economies that recover. They did not count success as houses and roads built but communities and economies restored
- We might be wrong, we must move forward. They were all willing to recognise wrong turns to quickly move to right ones
- Recognise when practices are inappropriate. They regarded all practices as being for appropriate for certain situations, and tested each situation before adopting a process. This meant that detaching themselves from standard practices was as important as creating new ones
- Lever change. They used all of Keith Howard’s levers of change. They would use Reason for persuasion, continual Research to assure that they knew the facts, Resonance with others of like mind, being active in joint efforts, Representational Redescription to repeat ideas in different ways for more persuasive communication, and Resources and rewards to enable and motivate, and they would convert Resistances into better knowledge and alternative solutions.
- An honest trail is better than a creative report. None of my sample liked writing reports. All kept records and loved to tell people what they had done.
- Z-learning curves. They assumed every event requires intensive learning to gain new understanding and new competencies as they went along.
I summarise these principles with one of my own and one from Bob McKerrow. Mine is adapted from Micah 6:8: “love justice, seek mercy, and walk humbly.” Bob’s, quoted above is “do your best and then a little more.”
Common Factors in the Environment they Created
All my selected sample put effort into shaping their work environment, and had similarities in the way went about it.
- Testing and challenging systems. All in my sample are highly independent. They follow rules and procedures when they know they are beneficial and necessary. Their attitude to systems is the same as to problems, they must be understood. Just like you cannot rely on solving problems if you do not understand them, you cannot rely on a system unless you understand how it won’t hinder.
- Tailoring systems. When standard operating procedures were not appropriate, these people created new ones. In the middle of chaos they were always trying to create certainty.
- Building informal networks including the local community, government and fellow recovery workers. In recovery, there are many network freaks, spending most of their time at meetings and groups and coffee-shops, some of them entering names in their hand-phones like collecting stamps, others meeting the same crowd each time. My sample continually built purposeful networks to assure their success and overall success.
- Expediting decision-making. My people were practical problem-solvers, They avoided delaying a decision, or making an instant decision, and were decisive in everything.
- Volunteering and claiming authority. My people all volunteered to take responsibility for results. But more than this, they volunteered to take authority, asking to be delegated the power to make decisions that affected other people, and in the absence of people in authority, just claiming it, with a clear sense of limiting how far to go in the common interest. When victims feel powerless, being asked to give authority gives them a sense of importance while lifting a burden. When decision-makers are overworked, delegating some decisions to real operators is a blessing. When there is no-one in charge, these are the people who take control, then hand it back to the appropriate people when they appear.
Where Are They Now?
Almost all my people were dispensed with at the end of their Aceh experience. Bob McKerrow was deployed to Sri Lanka, but on his retirement even he was essentially discarded, and his own government failed to recognise and use his talents to help where he could have. He alone of my list is helping in Philippines. Fadlullah moved on, but UNDP rejected his help to help his beloved Acehnese because he did not have a PhD. Bill, Paul and myself continue to contribute at our own expense. The others have found niches, but their excellence in disaster recovery is not appropriately recognised.
I have not included here heroes from other countries, nor the far greater list of stories of incompetence, inflexibility, and lack of sensitivity. What I have presented here represents a start in my own understanding of what constitutes professionalism and business excellence after a disaster.
Aussie and Kiwi Culture
I think it is not merely a matter of geography or donor generosity or chance that there were so many creative and productive Aussies and Kiwis in Aceh. Some people think it natural that there were so many as we are considered close neighbours, but 50% of the world population lives closer to Aceh than we are here on the Gold Coast. Our governments were most generous; Australians and New Zealanders are generous people. But I think Australians and New Zealanders have a culture that is well suited to work under crisis conditions. I think that we tend to be more creative, and our egalitarianism helps us to empathise more. At home, both Australia and New Zealand have developed the world’s best disaster response capabilities, and both have a world-wide reputation for it. Bill Nicol’s Tsunami Chronicles is a demonstration of this Australasian capability, a global benchmark in the analysis of political and managerial realities in disaster recovery. Paul Steinfort’s thesis and his training program for grass roots project management in disaster recovery are also demonstrations of it. We can hone our skills and market them. Australasia could lead in building international business excellence after disasters.
Continue our Search for Business Excellence in Disaster Management
This conference recognises the need for greater professionalism in disaster response. My personal concern is for professions and businesses that are professional without a disaster, but are unprofessional after one. I would appreciate networking with people who would like to see their professions and businesses develop concepts of professionalism and business excellence in disaster recovery or other circumstances of force majeure, be they project managers, quantity surveyors, town planners, accountants, construction companies, banks or whatever.
Review Paul Steinfort’s program
I believe on-the-job in-the-field training after a disaster is valuable. We have so many young and dedicated people coming to assist, and helping them cope and giving them skills would help them and recovery. I recommend humanitarian agencies to look at it, and engage Paul’s people after the next major disaster.
Australasian Disaster Resource Partnership
The World Economic Forum’s Disaster Resources Partnership concept is a major step in bringing business excellence to disaster reconstruction. Member companies commit themselves to offering expertise and resources to the recovery process, establishing coordinated entry points and procedures for engaging engineers and contractors to partner with humanitarian efforts, and it building sectoral capacity for handling disaster recovery works. I would be delighted to help Australian and New Zealand contractors form an Australasian partnership. Australia and New Zealand could market skills in construction throughout the world through such an organisation.
Recovery Bank Partnership
None of my champions comes from any part of finance. I find it extraordinary how accountants and financiers have failed to claim their appropriate place in assuring economic recovery and value for money. Banks in Australia are learning what business excellence should be after a disaster. Yet despite so much cash and capital coming into communities after disasters, the banks have yet to see that they should be taking a leading role next to government, humanitarian aid and construction. I would love to see us create a recovery partnership of banks like the Disaster Resource Partnership for construction. Where could we start?
The tsunami in Aceh, as with the tsunami in Japan, and the earthquake in Christchurch, had enormous impact on the lives of the people there, and beyond. My champions used disaster events to help change their own minds, and thus their approaches. But as a whole, leaders in Indonesia, Japan and New Zealand fail to see that disaster is an amazing lever of change. And the lever does not quickly go away. As long as the memory and trauma last, there is an opportunity for individuals, leaders and societies to harness the memory to promote healthy change. I would love to see such an approach at the end of this year to the tenth anniversary of the tsunami that struck Aceh.
The tsunami led to a peace agreement, and brought special autonomy and democracy to the Acehnese. But there are still threats to the peace and autonomy and democracy that came at such a great expense. Here is an opportunity for the international community with Australia and New Zealand in the lead, to remind all that, in the wake of the horrors that disasters cause, real and sustainable change and improvements can be started and can continue.
 Sisa is the only female in my sample, by chance rather than design. There were Australian and New Zealand ladies working in relief that may have been included had I known their work better. There were many ladies from other countries who I rank on a par with those on this list.
 I hope that Fadlullah will be able to attend ANZDMC 2014 where he is sure to endorse my findings and recommendations.
 See Lucy Pearson (2013). Private sector engagement and collaboration with civil-military actors in disaster management Indonesia: Learning and transforming the 2010 simultaneous hazards. The Humanitarian Futures Programme, King’s College, London, report prepared for the Australian Civil Military centre, downloaded on 22 April 2014 from http://acmc.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/INDONESIA-REPORT-FINAL.pdf
 In his book Changing Minds, how to change your own mind and the mind of others, Keith Gardner proposes seven levers of change, of which one is real world-events. Dramatic events raise up leaders who harness threats to lead change. He illustrates his point with stories about leaders like Margaret Thatcher who use financial crisis to promote unpopular reforms in UK.
 Several of my sample had a sense of compassion for those swamped by the task, distain for those who refused to adapt and contempt for those whose incompetence threatened performance.
 I am not proposing that we use certification to make working in recovery programs more bureaucratic. Certification in this case assures relevant competencies trained are recognised.
 Things that a Recovery Banking Partnership could do after a disaster:
- Provide cash to victims (in conjunction with Cash Learning Project): registered victims obtain an ATM card with an account related to their rights to get assistance. Donors put money into the funds and victims take funds out of ATMs that are located throughout the disaster area.
- Provide on-site accounts and banking services to donors. No more donors with over a million dollars in cash held at disaster centres. No more international transactions for small sums.
- Provide pay to workers. All workers can be provided with funds into their accounts rather than in cash. Special arrangements for remittances back to families of migrant workers would also be helpful.
- Help local businesses to use on-line banking.
- Provide credit to businesses that have lost stock and assets (deferring normal credit-worthiness assessments that disadvantage victims), most helpful to local businesses that provide services to relief workers: supplies, transportation, computer services, etc
- Providing credit to contractors and building suppliers (for heavy equipment, materials testing, precasting, and other upstream construction services that are not normally tendered by reconstruction
- Provide business risk assessments to recovery planners
- Provide data on progress of recovery