It’s coming … Tsunami Central is on the way at last!
As we head into 2013, we also head passed the eighth anniversary of what was the world’s greatest natural disaster, the Boxing Day or Indian Ocean Tsunami of 26 December 2004.
I was engaged to help plan the recovery of what was Tsunami Central—Aceh, Indonesia’s the westernmost province.
What I thought would be my brief contribution turned into a major one that would last another four years working as senior advisor to the Indonesian Government overseeing the entire reconstruction program beside its leader, Dr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto.
Dr Kuntoro recognized the importance of what we were doing and asked me to write a book about it.
Little did I realize this would take me another four years after we finished in Aceh and would end up not as one book but as five.
Written under the working title “The Tsunami Chronicles”, as I approach publication I have chosen what I hope is he better titles—Tsunami Central.
This captures the fact that Aceh was indeed tsunami central, taking the most direct and greatest hit from the massive waves that smashed into it.
It also captures the central role I played in Aceh’s recovery, neither a role I sought nor particularly wanted but one I relished nonetheless as an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to humanity with a unique skill set garnered over forty years of professional practice.
Looking back, there is a certain retrospective logic the experience and skills I gained first as a journalist and then as management consultant.
While I did not recognize before, I had developed an accidental expertise in disaster response either by writing on various political and other calamities or, as a consultant, either preventing disasters or repairing organizations after they had experienced one.
So in some respects there was nothing extraordinary about my work on Indonesia’s tsunami response aside, that is, from its extraordinary scale.
The deaths and damage were massive. They demanded a herculean response from everyone involved, myself included.
The long hours and often grueling physical conditions were challenging as were the managerial and political difficulties.
I have tried to capture these in Tsunami Central.
Writing it was even more difficult than working on the tsunami response proper, a lonely intellectual vigil in which I had to relive and make sense of the enormous complexities of the reconstruction effort again and again until I had captured their essence on the computer screen in front of me.
I did not expect or relish spending another four years on this project. But that is what it took to do the job well. And it deserved to be done well.
From all I have read on the subject, the literature on disaster recovery is, while extensive, also vacuous.
The many narratives are for the most part full of empty rhetoric and the so-called lessons are rarely lesson at all.
More often than not what purports to be lessons are merely political cover for the many screw-ups that are the inevitable reality of disaster recovery.
I have tried to fill the giant gap with as thorough an appreciation I could write of the overall tsunami response from the point of an insider working at the centre of the action—yes, Tsunami Central.
I have not found a traditional publisher for the five books so will likely be self-publishing, hopefully in early 2013 if I can master all the technicalities.
I also hope to publish the five books in a single volume, although I’m not sure if this will be possible given there are quarter of a million words in total plus many of my own illustrations.
So, coming soon to an e-book store near your computer is the best I can say in terms of any publication date.
Some people already know the contents as I have shared some early drafts of the manuscript among a number of people seeking early comments, all of which have been helpful.
Along the way, however, someone took the liberty of distributing all or part of the manuscript with a few naughty institutions that fell under my watchful eye both in Aceh and in writing the manuscript.
I am told they do not think highly of what I have written and in one particular case have been soiling their pants at the thought of what might befall them once it is published.
For my part, I am not courting controversy although will understand if there is some.
After all, politics is all too often a nasty business and politics abound through the pages of Tsunami Central.
Indeed a core theme of the work is the politics of management. This is a key element often missing or glossed over in the literature.
It results in a lie being told that suggests management is merely a technical craft. It is not. It is all about power and, therefore, highly political.
It is what makes management both difficult and interesting.
I would like to think that Tsunami Central offers the world a great case study (or, indeed, many studies) of management.
Students of the discipline should find much to enlighten and entertain them on the subject.
With that in mind, a chapter outline of Tsunami Central as it presently stands in its pre-publication format follows below.
For those of the mistaken view that what we did in Aceh is merely a matter of past history, bare in mind that post-tsunami recovery work is still going on in some countries like Sri Lanka.
And, more to the point, some very private and very powerful political lessons drawn from their Aceh experience by government donors continue to infect and undermine disaster recovery in other contexts, particularly Haiti.
The real story of Haiti’s recovery woes is in the final book, chapter 29 to be precise.
So any who think there is no ongoing relevance from our work recovery in Aceh should think again.
That said, here is the chapter outline…
Foreword: A Left Little Toe—introduces the books and myself as a key contributor to Aceh’s recovery from the tsunami
Book 1: God’s Punishment—constructs the platform of recovery, introduces the recovery leader and outlines the transition from war to peace that underpinned recovery
1. Tsunami!—a short scene setter on the impact and challenges of the tsunami
2. Fightback—the Indonesian Government’s emergency response to the tsunami
3. Pitching for Peace—Aceh’s 30-year civil insurrection and the role of the Indonesian military in responding to the tsunami
4. The Siren’s Song—the transition to peace in Aceh
5. Mastering the Plan—the great effort by the Indonesian Government to plan Aceh’s reconstruction
6. The Tsunami Tango—the Aceh recovery leader’s grooming and my engagement as his senior advisor
7. The Battle Begins—how Jakarta politics almost scuttled the Aceh recovery program before it began
Book 2: Rise of the War Lords—explores the distortions of recovery from vicious internal politics to heavy donor drag
8. Happy Landings—the Aceh Reconstruction Agency, BRR, begins its honeymoon
9. Theatre of Hostility—the conflict environment in which the Reconstruction Agency operated and the challenges this gave rise to
10. The General—continuing the military metaphor with the philosophy and practices of program leader Kuntoro Mangkusubroto as a Recovery General
11. The Great Beast—the great operational struggles that beset the Recovery Agency
12. Warlords—the internal power plays ripping at the Recovery Agency
13. The Sharp End—the organizational and political challenges of the housing program, the lead performance measure for overall recovery
14. Consulting in Catastrophe—the role of technical advisors generally and my own in particular as the hidden glue of recovery
15. Walking the Technical Tightrope—insights into the immense drag imposed on an advisor like myself by bilateral donors and the media
Book 3: Cultures of Care and Contempt—tells of the bump and grind of working with the international community
16. A Tsunami of Money—how the huge gush of money distorted the roles and contributions of international NGOs
17. Purity and Practicality—how the internal battle between head office and field staff almost destroyed the Australian Red Cross recovery program
18. Highway from Hell—the grinding contribution of the United States through its signature project, Aceh’s west coast highway
19. Uniting the Nations—how we brought the great beast of recovery to heel through a new UN coordination mechanism
20. The Travelling Troubadour—the UN’s coordination challenges
21. Return of the Bureaucrats—how the World Bank turned from friend to foe with a little help from the European Commission
22. Pride, Prejudice and Power—the destabilizing games that followed the marriage of minds by the World Bank and European Commission
23. A Line in the Sand—rebalancing the animosity of the world community engaged in the Aceh recovery program
Book 4: End Games—explains the huge effort to wrap up the recovery program and whopping great fights at the end
24. Hell’s Kitchen—tying the loose ends together in delivering a successful international reconstruction program
25. Turning Inward—how the hyperbole of success led the recovery culture to turn inward on itself
26. Payback—how the World Bank paid the price for its own cultural failings
27. End of Days—closing out the recovery program to limp over the finishing line carrying the hubris of celebration
Book 5: The Residuals of Recovery—explores lessons from Aceh’s recovery and subsequent global developments including missteps in Haiti
28. Lessons Lost—how disaster recovery lessons are turned to mush and generally lost
29. Old Lessons, New Turf—comparing results and developments in other disaster contexts such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, China and Haiti
30. To Build or Not to Build?—the core question concerning housing, the recovery program’s single most important performance measure
31. The Coordination Conundrum—the critical but difficult role of coordination in delivering a successful disaster recovery program
32. Rhythmic Reflections—the rhythms of recovery explaining the natural dynamics of a post-disaster reconstruction program
33. Leadership: the Mangkusubroto Factor—reflections on program leadership through the role and style of Kuntoro Mangkusbroto
34. A Defining Moment—the legacy for Indonesia of its leadership of Aceh’s tsunami recovery program
35. Moving On—developments since Aceh that continue to shape Indonesia’s future
36. A Walk on the Moon—my personal summation of helping Aceh recovery from its tsunami calamity
Tsunami Central treads on many delicate toes. So I don’t expect it to be received well.
But will it be received at all? I wonder who will really read it.
It should be relevant to anyone working directly in disaster response—Government officials, UN and World Bank staff, the various participating societies of the international Red Cross movement, international NGOs and their many delivery partners from volunteers to engineers, logisticians and consultants.
It should also interest to anyone involved in management either at an academic level or as a practitioner. Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of bad management or poisonous politics will appreciate the many studies of organizational reality within Tsunami Central.
And, of course, there’s all the little people, ordinary citizens who donate their time and money to good causes like the tsunami response.
I am often asked if the money donated by individuals and government was well spent in Aceh. I am proud to say that most of it was. Those who donated got a good bang for their buck.
This did not happen by chance. It was a result of some seriously hard work by many dedicated people under Dr Kuntoro’s overall program leadership.
I was one of a number who fought corruption and promoted good practices from the outset. While we did not win ever battle, we won most. That is what matters.
As a result, Aceh’s recovery stands as a testament to what can be achieved when good people come together under good leadership.
We challenged the status quo of Indonesian corruption and incompetence and delivered some great results as a consequence.
So Tsunami Central is not just about mean politics. It is also about excellence in delivery despite the cultures of contempt and corruption that are so often the hallmark of international disaster recovery.
The real lessons I draw as a consequence offer a positive model for the future, albeit one that politics will no doubt see off to oblivion as quickly as it can.