Six Months After

by William Jefferson Clinton

Of course, the reconstruction process will proceed more smoothly in Aceh and Sri Lanka if all parties to the longstanding conflicts there are involved.

IT has been nearly six months since the tsunami struck 11 nations surrounding the Indian Ocean, killing more than 200,000 people. The tragedy touched the chord of our common humanity. Forty countries committed military forces to provide food, water and shelter to the survivors. Millions of Americans contributed more than $1 billion to the relief effort. Millions of others across the world also sent contributions, and the United Nations and hundreds of charitable organizations rushed to the region.

This rapid response yielded substantial dividends. Widespread starvation was avoided. There were no epidemics.

Of course, the recovery effort has a long way to go. Hundreds of thousands of people remain homeless, and unable to work. Thousands of schools have to be built, and many of the region's children remain frightened and distressed. Fortunately, the United Nations, international financial institutions, governments, businesses and nongovernmental organizations have pledged billions of dollars to help the tsunami generation "build back better."

As the special envoy for tsunami relief for the United Nations, I am working to make good on that commitment. To achieve our goals, I have asked all those involved in tsunami relief to agree to the following agenda:

First, we are developing a joint action plan detailing precisely who will do what, where and when, to avoid duplication of effort, ensure efficient use of resources and leave no person or community behind. For example, we all agree on the need for an early warning system. The plan will identify who is responsible for financing and building the system, where it will be located, how the system will actually alert the public, and who will oversee its maintenance and reliability.

We are also devising a reporting system to ensure that donations are being used appropriately and a unified scorecard to show what we have achieved and what remains to be done.

Second, we will work to restore the livelihoods of the survivors; to finance new economic activities to raise family incomes above their pre-tsunami levels; and to increase the capacity of local governments, nongovernmental organizations and businesses to undertake the gargantuan reconstruction effort.

To diversify the affected economies, we need to make small loans - micro-credit - available for new ventures or for the expansion of existing ones. And we must help restore tourism in the entire region, especially in the Maldives, where destruction of tourism facilities, fishing operations and other enterprises and homes ran up losses in excess of 60 percent of the country's annual gross domestic product. Most tourist operations are open for business, but most potential visitors don't seem to know that.

Jobs for local people in the reconstruction will require large vocational training programs. Thousands of masons, woodworkers, supervisors and laborers are needed.

Third, we must move survivors from tents and barracks to decent transitional shelters as soon as possible. Although there are still some frustrating delays in getting government approval for contracts and for imports of machinery and materials, there are fewer bureaucratic obstacles every day. All of the affected countries have good plans, with able people in charge of executing them.

Still, the housing shortage presents a serious challenge. Last year, before the tsunami, 5,000 new homes were built in Sri Lanka. Now survivors in Sri Lanka alone need almost 100,000 homes. In Aceh Province in Indonesia, 2,000 schools and 200,000 homes must be constructed. Even the United States would have a difficult time getting a million people back into their houses in a year or two.

The construction effort also carries significant environmental risks. Wholesale, unrestricted logging can cause deforestation in some regions, particularly in Indonesia, doing great damage to rainforests and setting the stage for more natural disasters. Timber needs to be obtained legally, and conservation measures, like replanting mangrove trees rather than developing the land from which they were uprooted, should be part of the reconstruction.

The housing problem is further complicated because many ownership records were swept away by the waves. And in many small villages, such documents never existed. In some of the affected countries, up to 90 percent of displaced people have lost their identity documents. The World Bank is financing a "titling" project in Aceh to help Indonesians develop an effective property-rights system - it is an initiative that should be replicated across the region. (Sri Lanka must also resolve conflicts arising out of the government's policy largely prohibiting reconstruction within a "buffer zone" near the water. Many survivors who want to return to their old land oppose the restrictions and their concerns should be taken into account as they are in Indonesia.)

Finally, we must do all we can to assure that the voices of the most vulnerable are heard. Will women survivors be involved in the design and execution of the recovery process? Will their property rights be protected? Will the Dalits (also known as the "untouchables") of India be discriminated against? Will poor families get documentation for their assets and have access to lines of credit? Will national governments give localities greater flexibility to meet their particular needs? Will children who survived be able to get back to school? Will the disaster usher in a new chapter in the peace processes in Sri Lanka and Aceh, thereby making it easier for aid to be distributed and reconstruction to take place wherever it's needed?

Thanks to the generosity of millions of people, we will have the resources to meet these daunting challenges. The World Food Program of the United Nations is feeding more than 700,000 people daily. Unicef is making substantial commitments to meeting the area's large needs for water and sanitation. Other United Nations agencies are doing their part.

But most of the financing for reconstruction and recovery is in the hands of donor governments and charitable groups like the Red Cross, Catholic Relief Services, and hundreds of other nongovernmental organizations. In order for the recovery effort to succeed, these groups have to be treated as equal partners in the planning process.

Of course, the reconstruction process will proceed more smoothly in Aceh and Sri Lanka if all parties to the longstanding conflicts there are involved. Cooperation might even lead to greater prospects for peace in both places.

On my most recent trip to the region, I visited the Jantho camp for displaced people in Aceh, where I met a woman who had lost nine of her 10 children. As one of the camp leaders, she introduced me to the youngest camp member: a 2-day-old boy. She said the child's mother wanted me to give him a name. I asked if there was an appropriate Indonesian word for "new beginning" and was told that there was: "dawn," which in their language is a boy's name. I think a lot about that little boy, and our obligation to give him a new dawn. We can do it together.

William Jefferson Clinton was the 42nd president of the United States.

The New York Times

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Posted June 22, 2005