The silver lining of the tsunami?: disaster management in Indonesia
by Barnaby Willitts-King, independent consultant July 2009

The tsunami that struck Aceh, at the western tip of the Indonesian archipelago, in 2004 killed an estimated 167,700 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. The human tragedy of this and other disasters in Indonesia was also a test of the Indonesian state’s ability to respond. Compared to many countries affected by humanitarian crisis, Indonesia has significant state capacity for response and coordination, through civilian and military means. The impact of the Indian Ocean tsunami initially overwhelmed state capacity, while the 2006 earthquake in Yogyakarta showed how a well-organised local government could mount an effective response. Both experiences gave momentum to changes intended to strengthen disaster management in the country. Specifically, they helped to galvanise support for new disaster management legislation, seen as progressive for the region in its focus on risk reduction and community involvement. These disasters also exposed the Indonesian state to the international humanitarian ‘machinery’ to an unprecedented degree – as well as vice-versa, in terms of aid agencies operating in an environment where a strong state is present.

A new disaster management approach

Indonesia is prone to natural disasters of just about every description, from floods to drought. A lower-middle-income country, Indonesia has a strong government and bureaucracy, as well as the financial resources to implement successful disaster management. Although disaster management structures have been in place for over 30 years, in 2007 a new disaster management law (known as Law 24/2007) was passed. The law has three important aspects. First, instead of focusing just on emergency response, disaster management now represents all aspects of risk management, particularly prevention. Second, the government must provide protection against disaster threats as a basic human right. Third, responsibility for disaster management no longer lies just with the government, but is shared by all elements of society. The new law has overhauled disaster management structures, restructuring BAKORNAS, the poorly performing government body responsible for disaster management, and giving it a stronger and more operational role in directing disaster response. The law also envisages the creation of provincial and district disaster management agencies with similar levels of authority.

If successfully implemented, the new law will make a real difference to disaster management in Indonesia. The challenges involved, however, cannot be underestimated. The government agency set up to oversee recovery and rehabilitation after the tsunami has been effective, and the response to the Yogyakarta earthquake was well organised. But government capacity in other provinces may not be as strong, and factors such as the size and diversity of the country (with 200 million people spread across 17,000 islands spanning 5,000km) and the complex nature of the bureaucracy all make for an uncertain future. Civil society was crucial in keeping up the momentum on Law 24/2007, and will continue to play an important role in influencing the government.

An ongoing process of decentralisation may also hamper implementation. In recent years, a set of key reforms has devolved government authority and finances to as local a level as possible. In principle, decentralisation offers an effective way to support community-based disaster risk reduction. Once again, though, the devil is in the detail of implementation. Until legislative inconsistencies are resolved between Law 24/2007 and the decentralisation law, regulations are set out saying how local bodies should function and financial management allows for the efficient flow of funds to where they are needed at local level, locally managed, responsive disaster management structures could remain elusive.

The role of the Indonesian armed forces (the TNI) is also evolving, including adapting from the context of autocratic rule to one of democratic civilian leadership. The TNI has the geographical reach and command structures to respond anywhere in the archipelago – its role in Aceh following the tsunami was crucial. However, there are potential conflicts of interest between its role in combating domestic insurgencies and assisting civilians affected by crises. For example, in Aceh there was an uncomfortable transition from the TNI intimidating local populations during emergency rule/martial law to providing them with assistance after the tsunami.

National sovereignty and the independence of humanitarian action

While Indonesia regularly mounts responses to the myriad of smaller disasters it faces, for larger emergencies the international community has had a useful role to play. That said, there is a need to recognise that, in terms of state capacity, Indonesia is no Somalia. The government is becoming more sophisticated in its dealings with aid donors and agencies, building on its experience in recent years, and the field of disaster management is no exception. In 2007, the government disbanded the Consultative Group with international donors, reflecting its low dependence on aid flows. It nevertheless retains important relationships with aid donors and agencies, and these actors add value in a number of areas of disaster management, in particular by bringing in additional external capacity and funding, building local capacity and by linking different actors, national and international. There are also a number of areas where the international community has been seen as a negative force, notably in the provision of assistance that is inappropriate (such as pork products or bibles to the Muslim province of Aceh) or where aid is delivered without cultural sensitivity (such as immodestly dressed aid workers).

Indonesia has increasingly asserted its sovereignty over humanitarian activities carried out on its territory. In particular, the Indonesian government wishes to see aid align with government priorities – as encouraged by the Paris principles on aid effectiveness. There is capacity in Indonesia for government authorities to play a coordination and operational role at national and local level. However, their contribution is neither consistent nor reliable. This argues for ‘smart alignment’, whereby agencies assess government capacity in advance of crises and develop strategies to build government capacity to coordinate and respond; work in line with government priorities; and substitute for or complement government capacity where required.

The other side of the coin of alignment is accepting that humanitarian action cannot operate independently of the context in which it takes place. Although in some situations the authorities present an obstacle to delivering assistance, the general assumption in Indonesia is that they are in charge and have the right intentions. There are, however, unresolved tensions between the principles of humanitarian action, specifically neutrality and independence, and the Paris principles of harmonisation and alignment. In particular, where the government is prosecuting military campaigns, as it is currently doing in West Papua, it cannot be neutral.

The other difficult issue is how to avoid substituting for state capacity, most damagingly by developing a parallel administrative structure based on international expertise. Substitution may be easier than developing relationships with the authorities, but it risks sacrificing important local knowledge and undermining efforts to strengthen government capacity in the longer term. In rapid-onset situations where capacity has been wiped out, or where it never existed in the first place, international expertise may be the only option – although in Indonesia the substantial national capacity that can be redeployed elsewhere in the country should not be underestimated.


Progress has been made in disaster management with the passage of the new disaster-management law, and attitudes to disasters are beginning to shift, from fatalistic acceptance to a proactive management approach. However, it is not certain that the momentum and energy currently evident in Indonesia will be sustained if other threats emerge, for example from a faltering economy, religious extremism or regional instability.

Particularly in such a large country, the opportunity for international agencies to have a useful impact comes through harnessing government systems and making them work better. No international agency has the scale to work in all of the country’s 33 provinces. The analogy of helping the government to point the fire hose in the right direction is a valid one here. Questions remain over whether Indonesia or similar emerging middle-income countries are able to back up their assertions of sovereignty and leadership with the capacity to be effective.

Barnaby Willitts-King is a freelance consultant based in Kathmandu, working on humanitarian and conflict policy issues. His email address is

This article summarises the findings of researchundertaken for a Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) project exploring the role of the affected state in disaster response. The findings of the research will be published by HPG later this year.