Tsunami – 10 years later to the day

A non-expert stands alone outside the Indonesian Government's Aceh reconstruction agency, BRR, in a typical moment where everyone keeps their distance

A non-expert stands alone outside the Indonesian Government’s Aceh reconstruction agency, BRR, in a typical moment where everyone keeps their distance

It is ten years to the day since the 2004 tsunami struck just off the tip of north Sumatra to spread death and destruction across the Indian Ocean. It was a tragedy then. And it still is, only the tragedy now is that so few lessons have or ever will be learned from the experience.

I am reminded of this by a front-page article in today’s Melbourne Age and Canberra Times. I’ll leave you to read the original article. Click here for the link to The Age.

Before commenting on the article, allow me a few preparatory words.

One is that I am a former journalist myself, indeed still am, just not one who works for the daily mass media. I chose a different course many years ago by working writing long-form books that offer readers serious research, broad political and sociological context, serious analysis of the subject matter and deeply considered professional opinion. I left the more lucrative business of daily journalism because it denied the ability to do this in its rush to print or broadcast in the shortest time at the least cost.

Further to this, I am at heart both a management specialist and an investigative journalist. My investigations sometimes take years—four for my first book, six for my second and close on 30 for my last few. A thirty year investigation? Surely not. Mmmm. But, yes, surely yes. That is how long it has taken me to investigate every possible aspect of how we lead, manage and organise ourselves as a community to deliver the best possible results in whatever the circumstances.

These are enormously complex areas of human endeavour easily misunderstood, misrepresented and pilloried by critics who sit on the sidelines unable to do the work themselves but happy to take pot shots at those who roll up their sleeves to get stuck into the hard stuff required to deliver meaningful results.

And thus I come to today’s Age and Canberra Times’ articles. Good in some respects but frustratingly poor in others, they offer a classic example of why I left daily journalism.

Their author, Clare Colley, interviewed me for the story. Now, don’t get me wrong here. Clare is clearly a good reporter. She interviewed me with considered professional courtesy and quoted me accurately and adroitly. I am grateful for the opportunity she and her newspaper gave me to be included in its story of the tsunami; grateful too for the fact that Clare told one side of the tsunami story so often missing in daily reporting; and even more grateful for the opportunity to correct the regrettable contributions of the other person Clare interviewed, Dr John McCarthy, an academic with the Australian National University.

I’ve worked with John in the past. He’s a good, decent, well-meaning man. I have no quarrel with him personally. It’s the indulgent academic system and its symbiosis with the media that irritates. Indeed, John stands out as one of the more thoughtful academics in his area. And, in the case of how Indonesia responded to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that devastated Aceh, he speaks Indonesian, visits the province regularly and knows a lot more about Indonesia than I’m ever likely to know, in some respects at least. Oh, and John is also an expert. I know this for sure because The Age and Canberra Times’ articles tell me this in their opening paragraph. By default, I’m not an expert because they give me no such attribute.

My own knowledge and non-expertise thereby pale in comparison. Apart from spending the past three decades consulting to the highest levels of government and business in Australia, consulting for the United Nations and other international organisations, about all I’ve ever done is work on the inside of and at the highest levels of Indonesian government sitting beside a government minister while helping a shaky government system perform well beyond anything it had ever managed to do previously; and I did this in an out-of-the-way province devastated by the world’s then greatest natural disaster while my own government aid agency did its best to undermine me. While I could not speak the Indonesian language, certainly not with John’s proficiency, I did know the multiple languages of management along with its many conceptual constructs, the detailed mechanics of its business operations and the political fundamentals that either enable or destroy it. And I knew how to put it all together to get the best from whatever any system could deliver and in the shortest possible time for the most effective results no matter how restricted these may inevitably appear when looked at in retrospect. Oh, and I’ve also written a pile of books on man-made disasters, crisis leadership and tsunami recovery that offer the most accurate insights on disaster management you’re ever likely to find. One of these books, Tsunami Chronicles, just happens to be the definitive and most detailed analysis and assessment of Indonesia’s tsunami recovery program and includes a global analysis of disaster recovery. There’s certainly no similar academic contribution to rival Chronicles, anywhere. Indeed, the limp material on the subject to have come from tenured academics so far is, well, not to put too fine a point on it, shamefully pathetic; and a good deal of it is also wrong and misleading. But let’s not worry about such things. They are but chaff in the wind of daily journalism and academic inertia.

Which brings me back to today’s news item from which I seem to keep straying. To help with the story, I gave The Canberra Times a copy of Tsunami Chronicles. Did the newspaper even reference this? Not in the web articles I’ve read. Pity about that. Did anyone there even read the six books that make up Tsunami Chronicles or even just flick through a few pages? If they did, I see no evidence of this. And so they missed the many great stories on the reality of disaster recovery that rip and ripple through the pages to expose and upend the dirty politics and mismanagement that run through every thread and strand of the multi-billion-dollar world of global disaster reconstruction. Not a hint of this came through. Such a shame. Such a lost opportunity.

Instead, there was the formulaic approach to journalism. It went/goes like this:

(1) Establish a critical theme with an opening sentence sourced to some supposedly reputable person, as in: “Many Acehnese people talk of three tsunamis that hit the Indonesian province, aid and development expert Dr John McCarthy says.”

(2) Consolidate the criticism, as in: “a decade on, the $7.5 billion estimated spend had one crucial flaw, the ANU academic says, it failed to rebuild the livelihoods of people in Aceh especially in the area most affected by the tsunami along the west coast”.

(3) Roll in a he-said/she-said contrary point of view in response, as in: “But Bill Nicol, a fellow Canberran and former advisor to the leader of the Indonesian Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency ‘tsunami tsar’ Dr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, disagreed, saying the recovery efforts had many unseen positive social outcomes.”

There was more, of course. For instance, Clare went on to quote me as saying: “Besides rebuilding 140,000 houses, 4000 kilometres of roads, 2000 schools, 1100 health facilities, 1000 government buildings, 270 bridges, 23 seaports, 13 airports and runways, Mr Nicol said the ‘exemplary’ four-year reconstruction program consolidated the peace process between the Indonesian government and separatist group the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) after the ‘circuit breaker’ of the tsunami. We were given a mandate of four years to rebuild the fundamentals of the place and I think did so brilliantly with enormous difficulties. We were rebuilding in a war zone which very few people seem to think about these days.”

So, yes, there was some positive stuff too. But that’s not the point. The story line was as predictable as night following day the moment Clare phoned for the interview and said she had already spoken with Dr McCarthy. I rolled my eyes, sucked in my breath and went for broke in attempting to pitch the realities of Aceh’s tsunami recovery from a management perspective. And clearly I failed. Shame on me.

But, as I said, I am grateful for being given the chance to at least put in the reality check so often missing from so-called academic and official reconstructions of disaster reality, for which I thank Clare and her newspaper. I’ve seen the problems repeated so many times before while touring the world studying, writing on, speaking about and participating in disaster management. In the Philippines, where those at the top of government cared little to learn from past disaster experience. In China, where one academic criticised the Aceh tsunami program because we allowed people to return to where they had lived before the tsunami thus exposing them to further danger but ignoring the fact that civil war could once again have erupted if a Javanese minister had removed any Acehnese from their land. In Haiti, where the wrong lessons were transferred from Aceh to destroy earthquake recovery efforts from the start with a mashed up management model run by bureaucrats. But (the writing aside) not in Australia, where few beyond Clare and The Canberra Times have shown any previous interest in my experiences and contributions to Aceh’s recovery, so perhaps a small step forward here.

All of which brings me back to some of the fundamental points I made in writing Tsunami Chronicles and Crisis Leadership, to name just two of my books. That genuine knowledge in this area is scant. That real lessons are produced and scattered like confetti upon the wind where they are easily lost and rarely learned; and that what lessons are taken on board are usually the wrong ones. That the media helps little, all too often failing to investigate properly, interviewing the wrong people, repeating the same old dogma as if it’s fact and relying on cheap criticism in place of substance. And so the cycles of managerial ignorance continue. This is the real tragedy of the 2004 tsunami and no doubt every other disaster before and since.


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