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Rebuilding Lives After the Tsunami: USAID Experience and Teamwork Pay Off

On December 26, 2004, a major earthquake followed by a tsunami hit Asia and Africa, devastating many coastal areas. Over 220,000 people in eight countries perished in a few hours, and many more had their homes and livelihoods swept away. The coastal areas of Indonesia and Sri Lanka and two Indian island chains bore the brunt of the calamity. They will require significant repair and reconstruction. President Bush has pledged long-term United States (US) support to help the tsunami victims rebuild their lives. 

This disaster was unprecedented in that it struck 12 countries so rapidly. After the 9.0 magnitude earthquake shook North Sulawesi on the island of Sumatra, waves moving at 500 miles an hour flattened entire villages from Indonesia and Sri Lanka all the way to Somalia. It is not just the massive loss of life. More were killed in the North Korea famine and the 1974 typhoon in Bangladesh. The number of countries devastated is what makes both the disaster and the response unusual. 

Within hours of the first reports, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) mobilized disaster response teams to attend to the humanitarian needs of the affected countries. USAID’s historic commitment to these countries, 40 years of expertise with disaster assistance and solid working relationships with the region’s governments meant we were able to respond immediately, providing life-saving food, water, medical care and shelter. 

In its disaster response, USAID uses the Incident Command System, developed by the US Forest Service to fight forest fires.  It is a command and control tool, which USAID has refined, that coordinates the efforts of individual agencies working together to save lives, property and the environment. This system, combined with experience, organiza­tional reforms at USAID, improved interagency coordination and flexibility have marked USAID’s response.

Successful Coordination between Civilian and US Military Response

In disasters of this magnitude, coordinating civilian and military response is essential. The US military moved quickly to assist USAID with logistical support, staff and equipment. Over those first weeks following the tsunami, it was obvious that progress toward almost seamless cooperation between both the military and USAID was substantial.

One of the more remarkable examples of cooperation involved Herbie Smith, a USAID staff person, and the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier. In Banda Aceh, Indonesia, sewage water and salt water were mixing with drinking water, causing serious sanitation problems and concerns about disease. The USS Abraham Lincoln could produce 90,000 tons of clean water but had no way to get it to the half million people in temporary housing in the city. Herbie bought 6,000 ten-liter collapsible plastic water containers.  In four hours, they were on a C-130 helicopter to the ship.  The military filled them, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) distributed them to families in shelters around the city over the next few weeks.

Survivors: Powerful Contributors to Reconstruction

It was surprising how quickly the countries themselves responded.  They are all democratically elected governments with competent ministries.  In three of the four Asian countries hit hardest by the tsunami and earthquake, they have their own disaster management agencies.  Sri Lanka, where the tsunami killed 30,000 people and displaced over 500,000, was the furthest along in clean up and rebuilding. 

More than two decades ago, the late and legendary disaster expert Fred Cuny published a groundbreaking book, Disasters and Development. His vision was simple yet revolutionary: the talent and resilience of people struck by disaster are the most powerful forces for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of societies. The people in their communities are the first responders, and they have strengths that must be harnessed to rebuild. They know their environment. They know their communities. They have likely coped with other tragedies. They are often the strongest voices for change when new opportunities emerge during reconstruction.

USAID’s job in the early days and weeks was to help the governments and citizens of the affected countries meet the needs of their communities, in cooperation with other international donors and NGOs.  Immediate physical needs had to be met, for clean water, sanitation, food and shelter.  Our help had to be part of a long-term solution defined by the communities and governments themselves. 

USAID’s Nine Principles of Development and Reconstruction Assistance

This community-based approach is the cornerstone of USAID’s strategy and is one of USAID’s “Nine Principles of Development and Reconstruction Assistance.” For example, the Principle of Ownership states that affected people own their relief and recovery process. The Principle of Capacity-Building requires that USAID’s work strengthen local institutions. The Principle of Sustainability says the program’s impact must endure after the assistance ends.

Once the immediate post-disaster needs were met, USAID moved quickly to begin rebuilding communities and lives. USAID’s cash-for-work programs in Aceh employ 15,000 people, giving them much needed income. The ripple effect of employing 15,000 people means thousands more benefit, as workers spend money locally on their daily needs, rejuventating markets for goods and services. 

At the same time, these programs clean up and repair communities. Children in Sri Lanka and Indonesia are back in school thanks to cash-for-work programs. They need the sense of stability returning to school provides, so it is important psychologically as well as educationally. The five hundred new spinning wheels and raw fiber USAID provided to coir spinners in Sri Lanka helped re-start that traditional cottage industry.[1] 

Reconstruction Has Been Launched

These are just a few examples of the immediate impact USAID has had in these communities. Now, USAID’s work has turned decisively to reconstruction. It is built around five themes:

  1. Using relief to foster reconstruction, self-sufficiency and build a foundation for future development. Cash-for-work, micro-finance and livelihood programs help get markets working and build individual and community self-sufficiency.


  1. Providing technical assistance to affected governments with immediate survey and planning work to help them make the best decisions about utilizing the considerable contributions from the world community. This will include assisting local authorities, communities and civil society organizations and ensuring their full participation in planning, prioritizing and undertaking reconstruction programs.  Proper emphasis is being placed on inclusion, transparency and accountability in all such efforts.


  1. Providing financial and technical support to rebuild and improve infrastructure, including important transportation and public utilities projects such as schools, roads, bridges and water treatment plants. A local community grants program will support small-scale infrastructure reconstruction, including clinics, schools, markets and other community-level projects identified by communities.


  1. Assisting individuals to rejoin the workforce and return to their communities by helping individuals rebuild their homes, replace lost assets and get back to work. Grants, small loans and cash-for-work programs will pump much needed money directly into the hardest hit communities. This will allow disaster victims to take control of their own lives and start rebuilding their businesses and communities. Being successful in these efforts requires building upon and expanding ongoing partnerships with US and local NGOs in creating jobs and income opportunities.


  1. Building the capacity within the affected governments to prepare for and respond to future disasters. This will include US support for a regional tsunami early warning system being designed collaboratively by other countries and donors. It also will support efforts in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India to strengthen the communications that alert communities to imminent threats, as well as a community-based outreach and training program so people know what to do when they hear an alarm. USAID also will help governments put in place measures to help national, provincial and local government guide reconstruction in a way that is environmentally-sound and more resilient to likely natural disasters.

Large projects to reconstruct critical infrastructure like roads, bridges and water systems will speed long-term development in the affected areas, giving people access to jobs, markets, schools and health clinics. They also will act as standing reminders of the generosity and commitment of the American people.

While reconstruction will not happen overnight, it is well underway and will leave behind more vibrant economies and societies. The success of USAID’s work over the past few months and those to come is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, learning from experience, and the power of partnerships between nations. 

[1] Coir is the fibrous husk of a coconut.  Coastal women have spun it into rope for generations, which weavers make into rugs and other products.  Recently it has become a popular export as an environmentally-friendly way to shore up embankments.

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Deputy Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Asia and the Near East, United States Agency for International Development