Following Tempo‘s review of Tsunami Chronicles this week, the emails started coming in. One in particular stood out from the bunch. It came from a young Indonesian woman who experienced the rough end of working with an NGO during the first year of post-tsunami operations. She did not say which one, so I don’t know if it was a local or one of the larger ones. I can only say the NGO must have been relatively well established because she had worked with it for more than five years elsewhere in Indonesia when the tsunami struck. Here is what she wrote:
Dear Bill, I read the review of Tsunami Chronicles in the Tempo magazine. I can’t agree more with what you wrote about the Aceh reconstruction program.
I worked in one of the NGOs that you criticised and was shocked in experiencing the very things you described. The NGO assigned me to work in Aceh in 2005 after being employed by it for more than five years before the tsunami. The internal competition and office politics were nasty. It was awful. Left in a kind of distorted limbo, I could not stand it for long and lasted only a short period.
It is also interesting to look deeply at the post-tsunami social, cultural, political and economic issues. Under military occupation, Aceh had been a “closed” community in the 80s and 90s. “White people” suddenly flooded in after the tsunami along with people from Jawa with “too much money” in their pockets. Job seekers also came, and adventourists who did nothing but hang around with the local girls. Some Acehnese also found it more “dignified” to only talk with the “white people” who they assumed held the money.
Despite the problems, however, I do appreciate the many good works that contributed to rebuilding Aceh. The fruit of these contributions is evident in the province today.
All in all, I think your book is worth reading. While I also appreciate what your critics have to say, I sincerely commend your description of the facts. They reflect a truth I had not understood or experienced so intensely before working in Aceh.
I can’t say I was surprised in reading this email. Internal politics can be enormously destructive. They can leave those on the receiving end seriously bruised, often deeply scared. The negative politics are a key indicator of a failure in leadership. Leaders inject keen spirit and disciplines into teams that provide no opportunity for the negative politics to intrude. If or when the negative politics do intrude, leaders quickly nip problems in the bud before the infection can spread. This is not easy. Neither is leadership. It is just essential. When leaders fail, they create a vacuum that draws in all the nasties. Once settled, these are hard to shift. Some require radical surgery, others just the firm had of some really strong and decent leadership.