Written by FCF Director of Programs Grant Montgomery, after visiting tsunami rebuilding projects that Family Care Foundation (FCF) is involved with in Aceh, Indonesia:

Family Care Foundation’s local partner in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, wisely suggested, “Immediately after the tsunami emergency everyone gave from their hearts, which is what was needed at the time. But now is the time to give using our heads.”

On this subject of using our heads, allow us to repeat a comment that a local villager made while sharing his opinion on why and how various aid agencies and NGOs could achieve a greater measure of success.

This man, who had lost his wife and a number of his children to the tsunami (see photo, above right), commented, “Many people came here to offer us financial help, but that wasn’t the greatest need we had. Our whole lives were gone and there was a need for the aid, though appreciated, be offered on a heart to heart level, which wasn’t often the case. We felt the genuine concern about us was missing.

“We observed people from many NGOs come in talking hard facts, about business and money, and because they had money they came across like they also had ultimate power, and they didn’t need to learn what was the best way to go about things, let alone ask our opinion. So these attitudes caused much resentfulness amongst the local people. Although the material aid was helpful, these organizations haven’t been so successful just because they weren’t sensitive to people’s feelings. There also was no communications on the personal level, which caused them to alienate themselves from the people they were trying to help.

“Whereas with you from Family Care, you speak and act on a level that we relate to. Better said, you relate to us. It doesn’t matter if you are number 1 in the organization or just one of the workers, you treat us as friends and equals and show respect, which is why we respect you. With many of these other NGOs, usually when the no. 3 man visits, he never makes any attempt to talk to the local people. And all the more so when the big boss comes, he only talks to his no. 1 man, who in turn talks to the no. 2 man, who then talks to his no. 3 man and so on down the line--with hardly anyone talking to [the beneficiaries] themselves. But in our society we respect it when the big boss acts like everyone else. We feel it’s actually best if no one even knows who the big boss is, because that means he is relatable, and that’s what we like about you.” (End of comment from Achinese beneficiary)

To quote a study by The Asia Foundation, which offers related insights: “In some regions, housing construction projects were found that involved the community in choosing the models and materials to be used. Sometimes this also extended to choosing the workers to perform the work. These two aspects were very popular with victim communities. However, in most regions the community’s participation in determining these matters is very limited, and these decisions are dominated by the service providers.”

“Residents in all regions investigated felt that the basic impression was that once the aid has been distributed, the service providers duties are finished. This is because the level and form of direct monitoring assistance provided has not fully met the victims' needs. This phenomenon is exasperated when the aid provided does not accord with the community’s needs. In one example in Aceh Besar the aid provided…. was not what the community needed, but the aid agency carried on with the project nonetheless.”

A recommendation from this Aceh Rehabilitation and Reconstruction (locally known as the BRR) appraisal is that "Aid agencies and government institutions that plan to conduct economic recovery programs should prioritize planning the activities jointly with community groups to determine who will receive the assistance, the types of assistance needed, and the rotation patterns for the assistance.”

Another recommendation is, "Service providers, facilitated by BRR, should engage in coordination at multiple levels, from the village level to the provincial level.” (Excerpts from second Aceh Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Appraisal Report, The Asia Foundation)

A founding principle of Family Care Foundation is that we always work with and through the grassroots, just what is being recommended here. Simply put, we often find that our partners, the grassroots organizations themselves, often have the best perspective on the solutions needed, as well as the appropriate means of evaluation.

Family Care Foundation has found it most effective to leverage local expertise and work through people closest to the action. Such organizations can be especially effective where a well-organized local initiative, supported by appropriate funding and training, coupled with capable managers and willing volunteers can have a significant impact on the problem at hand. Furthermore, these organizations can help strengthen civil society in emerging democracies by engaging citizens in democratic processes that help protect public health and welfare at the local, regional and national level.

Other articles in this series:
Aceh Tsunami Insights, from Family Care Foundation
Waste involved with Tsunami Rebuilding
More on Waste involved with Tsunami Rebuilding
Family Care Foundation Tsunami Rebuilding in Aceh Province