"Help wanted" in reconstructed Aceh

If you landed here today and knew nothing about Aceh, you would never know that a devastating tsunami in 2004 had wiped out homes, buildings, roads and more than 167,000 lives in this province.


Thanks to more than US$7 billion in donations and government funds after the tsunami, Aceh Province – plagued by three decades of civil war before the tsunami struck – boasts a state-of-the-art, 350-bed hospital, modern schools and sleek new roads.


But if you need heart surgery, seek care abroad. And to learn how to use internet, ask the students, not the teachers.


More than five years after the Indian Ocean tsunami, Aceh has indeed built back better, but still lacks the skills – as well as the funds to train people – to take care of all it has been gifted.


“Everyone has raised the question of whether they’re capable of managing this, and just maintaining it. The infrastructure has had a lot of attention, but in order to make these things work, you need trained people, commitment and clarity about who’s managing it,” said John Penny, the European Union representative in Aceh.


“It’s the soft side that’s missing still… 30 years of conflict denied proper education to many, and the tsunami claimed the lives of large numbers of teachers and university personnel,” he added.


Furthermore, almost all tsunami projects came to a close at the five-year anniversary last December, and little money remains for training.


“A majority of these funds were for infrastructure. Very little was allocated for software – for training. Today there are very limited funds available for developing the skills of professional workers,” said Jean-Ludovic Metenier, head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Aceh.


Governor Irwandi Yusuf said the province lost 2,500 teachers and professors, as well as 100 doctors in the tsunami. Most staff vacancies have been filled, but the focus now is on better quality. “It is still insufficient, based on my expectations,” Yusuf said.


Lacking skills


The Banda Aceh General Hospital, funded by Germany, has a sparkling interior and state of the art equipment, but still has to refer people to Jakarta or neighbouring Malaysia for specialized care, says the director, Taufik Mahdi.


He said many medical students from Aceh were on scholarships in Jakarta and would join his staff, but the cardiac surgeon will only finish studying in three years, and the two oncologists in two years.


“Quality of care does not depend on the guards. It does not depend on the building. It depends on human resources,” Mahdi said. “This building and this equipment, without an increase in public service is nothing, not useful.”


There are similar shortfalls in education. Aceh has about one teacher for every nine students, says the governor, but they are not sufficiently trained to teach effectively.


Photo: Alisa Tang/IRIN
UNICEF and the government have trained 8,000 teachers in participatory learning methods, but that is only a fraction of teachers in the province

“A lot of teachers are being sent to Malaysia for training,” Yusuf said. “We need several more years to cope with this.”


UNICEF has partnered with the Department of Education to train 8,000 teachers in new didactic methodology, but the majority of teachers in the province have yet to take this course, Metenier said.


“The governor said he would have to use all his budget [to train all the teachers], so we really need other sources of funding,” Metenier said.


At the newly rebuilt Public Elementary School 34 – a complex that once comprised three different elementary schools, two of which were destroyed by the tsunami – students skipped rope, flicked marbles and stirred a playground hum.


In a nearby quieter room for adults, teachers bemoaned their own shortcomings. “We can’t even use the internet as well as our students,” said Naima, a sixth-grade teacher.


“We don’t care about the building. You can only see the outside of a building, but we only care about what’s inside. It’s useless to provide the children with a good building, but without a good education,” she said. “There are so many beautiful things that have been built, but we lack the capacity to keep them well-maintained.”

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) is supporting the provincial government’s training efforts – which would require millions of dollars and a minimum of five years, through 2015, said Simon Field, head of UNDP in Aceh.

“Based on our experience in supporting the provincial government and the magnitude of this issue at the district level, we have estimated the support is about $20 million but have received no support from donors to address this request on behalf of the government,” Field said. “The assistance must be provided over a number of years, as capacity building takes time.”