Tsunami 10th Anniversary – Good, Bad & Ugly

Tsunami ChroniclesAs we proceed with the countdown to the 10th anniversary of the 2004 tsunami, expect some genuine tears and no little chest beating from some of the big global agencies who came to help.

Whatever they may say, you can read the real story, at least the part about Aceh’s recovery, in Tsunami Chronicles. It took four years to rebuild Aceh and then another four to fully research and write the book, five years if you include the time it took to edit and publish it as I honed and tightened the contents into six individual books within the single volume.

There are many positives about the Aceh story. The international community responded magnificently by sending an armada of naval ships and military personnel to help the Acehnese immediately after the tsunami. The medics and other humanitarians saved countless lives, a remarkable contribution in horrible circumstances.

After that came the rebuilding. It was a tremendous team effort. Thousands of people came from around the world to help. They brought with them money, technical expertise, humanitarianism and no little politics.

The World Bank started brilliantly as a great friend of the government reconstruction agency, BRR, but ended up compromised, sluggish and obdurate. The Europeans brought some big money but, sadly, equally big politics and then took its disastrous lessons from Aceh to Haiti to make a mess of things there.

While disasters are awful, the raw politics that come with them can be no less so. I copped my fair share, an easy target at the centre of the Aceh reconstruction program for anyone with an axe to grind.

The problems are always the same. It comes down to individuals. The smaller their minds, the more limited their perspectives and narrower the appreciation, the greater the problems. It doesn’t matter where they come from or what they represent. Journalists. Diplomats. Agency heads. Chief executives. Humanitarians. It applies to them all. The best come with humility and eyes wide open. The worst come with arrogance and minds shut tight.

I saw it all up close and felt it personally when denounced in the Australian media, undermined by my own government and personally attacked in private by one Australian ambassador who should have known better but could not stop his personal vitriol boiling over. The more powerful some people are, the dumber they often seem to become.

But the miasma of such mindless stupidity is par for the course anywhere and everywhere. It just happens to be thrown into sharpest relief in disasters. They bring out the best and worst in each of us, words I do not write to suggest I was in any way perfect. I made mistakes each and every day while working on the Aceh program. Perhaps the biggest was to stay there as long as I did, but then I gave my word that I would see it through to the end and write the book. So I did.

The great thing is I came away with some wonderful insights into human nature, a sharper understanding of global humanitarian politics, a profound appreciation of the role of quality leadership as the foundation element of human progress, some seriously warm friendships with people I greatly admire, and a deep feeling that I had made a positive difference to humanity in one small corner of the world. What more could one ask?

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