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International Groups Monitor Flow of Tsunami Aid to Aceh

  • Nancy-Amelia Collins

Three months after a powerful earthquake and tsunami devastated the Indonesian province of Aceh, relief agencies are putting into place measures to monitor the aid sent for reconstruction.

Last December's earthquake and tsunami that struck a dozen Indian Ocean countries prompted an unprecedented outpouring of international aid.

Nearly 300,000 people died in the disaster, two-thirds of them in one area, Indonesia's Aceh Province.

Five billion dollars has been pledged to help the damaged countries recover. However, as the recovery work shifts from providing emergency assistance to rebuilding whole communities, concerns have been raised over the possible misuse of donor funds.

The concern is particularly great in Aceh - Indonesia annually tops international surveys as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

To help keep corruption in check, the global accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers is donating 8,000 hours of accounting services to help the United Nations track how tsunami relief donations are spent.

Michael Elmquist, the head of the U.N. office coordinating aid in Indonesia, says the collaboration with the firm will help get aid money where it is needed.

"It's a very positive thing. We're absolutely delighted Price Waterhouse has donated and offered to assist us," he said. "We certainly don't want to have any risk of misuse of funds; this is probably the best possible way we can control that."

Aid workers say the good news is that during the emergency phase of the disaster, when the focus was on rushing food, medicine and water to victims, there were only limited signs that aid was being lost to corruption.

The big concern now for international donors is what happens in the next few months, when hundreds of millions of dollars of aid will flow to begin rebuilding Aceh.

The global corruption watchdog, Transparency International, says more aggressive anti-corruption measures may be needed in the coming months.

Leonard Simanjuntak, the deputy executive director of Transparency International in Indonesia, says he already has seen some evidence of misused aid in Aceh, particularly in building shelters for those left homeless by the disaster.

"What we see so far to our work in the field we already found some irregularities such as in the construction of barracks, some mark-ups on the prices and numbers … coming from some of the government institutions," he said.

Mr. Simanjuntak says because of the urgency of the disaster, some government agencies might have become careless about normal accounting procedures, making it easier for irregularities to occur.

"In most places we're facing difficulties because there is a general psychology that the government and other actors have been saying this is an emergency and the situation is not normal and some precautionary procedures … can be put aside," he said.

Transparency International is working with the government's National Planning Agency, which is in charge of drafting a blueprint for Aceh's reconstruction, and Mr. Simanjuntak says it is important for this cooperation to continue.

"We also try to influence them, so we're involved in the working groups on transparency and accountability and try to produce mechanisms and procedures for accountability and transparency, including auditing procedures, supervision procedures," he added.

The government is aware of international concerns and the risk of graft. Alwi Shihab, Indonesia's welfare minister, says President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is determined to ensure that aid to Aceh is free from corruption.

"We are trying to do our best according to our plan," said Mr. Shihab. "For us, the government, the administration considers this as a test case to demonstrate to the whole world, to the international community that what the president is stating repeatedly that he wants to see accountability in place in Aceh."

Mr. Alwi says the government's auditing body is working with international groups to supervise and monitor aid. His government wants the world to realize that Indonesia is taking rigorous measures to make sure aid goes where it is needed.

International donors privately say that despite the government's measures they will continue to closely monitor the flow of aid as the costly work of rebuilding homes and communities gets under way.

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