Issue 32 - Article 5

'People to People': an alternative way of delivering humanitarian aid

December 9, 2005
Azwar Hasan, Forum Bangun Aceh

The tsunami of 2004 struck Aceh in Indonesia with particular force. Some 130,000 people were reported dead and 37,000 missing, and over half a million lost their homes. Economic losses across Indonesia have been put at nearly $5 billion. In response, the Indonesian government estimates that some $7 billion in international aid was committed to Aceh and the island of Nias, off Sumatra’s eastern coast. If this sum were divided by the number of victims who lost their homes and property, each affected person in Aceh would get about $14,000. With this money, you can build a very good family house. Almost a year after the tsunami, however, it is difficult to see where the billions of dollars have gone. With so much money pouring into Aceh, why are people still living in tents? Where is the shelter, clean water and schools that were promised? Is the money stuck in some bureaucratic bottleneck somewhere? One programme officer working for a UN agency complained to me that they were ‘exhausted’ having arranged more than 200 visits for potential donors following the tsunami, and had little time to design and implement programmes. Is this an aid organisation, I wonder, or a travel agent?

The delivery of aid and the rebuilding process in Aceh have been uncoordinated, inefficient and slow. As a result, the Acehnese people are becoming impatient with the promises of international donors. They also wonder why the local social and cultural context and capacity of the Acehnese themselves are being ignored. Is there any way to directly deliver aid to the affected population, rather than funnelling funds through numerous international aid organisations and governments?

‘People to People’

I was born in Pidie, a small town 120km from Banda Aceh. Although I moved to Jakarta when I was 18 to attend the University of Indonesia, my family remained in Pidie. A day after the tsunami struck, desperate and in shock, I returned to Aceh to search for my family. I arrived at midnight and found the entire city blacked out. There was no electricity, no clean water and no transport, just dead bodies and debris spread along the roads, and scattered across rooftops. What I witnessed was horrific. It looked like something unimaginable, perhaps the end of the world.

After finding my immediate family alive I spent the next few days assessing the situation. I thought about ways to help the survivors. I knew I couldn’t help everyone, but I was sure I could do something to make someone’s life better. I remembered one of my life principles – to do what I can and never give up. I noticed that many of the survivors chose not to take shelter in temporary barracks and tents, but instead found food and shelter from their surviving friends and relatives. I met one family housing over 30 people. I decided to live with this family of survivors and help them. I began by carefully assessing and writing down their needs. Many people had been given rice but no pots to cook it with, others lacked proper underclothes and many needed mats to sleep on. I bought these items and gave them to the family.

After this family, I moved to another. I found that, by directly providing aid, I was effectively serving the needs of these people. I decided to ask ten of my friends from Jakarta to come and help the survivors. Later, more and more friends and volunteers joined me. By living with affected families and evaluating their needs, we could provide them with what they needed to survive.

Learning from this experience, I began thinking of ways to help more survivors directly. My idea was to have a small but significant impact on survivors so that they could restart their lives. I knew there were generous people around the globe, concerned people who wanted to help. The only way most people know how to help is to donate to well-established aid organisations, and hope that they deliver the aid in good time. My thinking was that, if one of these generous people could help one survivor directly, perhaps the recovery process would be much faster. Even though so much money has poured into Aceh since the tsunami, it takes a long time to reach the survivors. I felt that there must be another way to deliver aid – a way that links generous people directly with those in need, with fewer transaction and administrative costs.

With this in mind, I started the ‘People to People’ approach. A colleague of mine from Ireland gave me €1,000, which bought a motorcycle pedicab for a man called Syarwan. Syarwan, like many of the affected people in Aceh, had to wade through muddy and polluted water to his house (which he had rebuilt himself out of debris). As a result of this small donation, Syarwan now has an income and he can support his family. It did not take long for Syarwan to earn enough money to repay part of the money he had been given for the pedicab. He thanked me, and asked me if I could help other pedicab drivers. I took his advice and began linking individual donors directly with affected people. As a result, we were able to provide another 20 pedicab drivers with motorcycles. By channelling funds quickly and efficiently directly to where they were needed, these small actions proved very effective, both physically and psychologically.

The people of Aceh need practical help to pick themselves back up. They want to return to their villages and start working again. In emergency situations, survivors need real action. Even if the donation or the act of assistance is small, as long as it gets delivered quickly, it helps. Sue Kenny, from the Centre for Citizenship and Human Rights at Deakin University in Australia, makes a similar point:

The lack of small practical forms of help was brought home vividly at our next stop, an Islamic School in the foothills of Banda Aceh, the capital city of the Aceh Province. The school was operating out of five large tents. Over three quarters of the students and nearly all the teachers had been killed. The new teachers were volunteers. We had come there to deliver books. The books were provided, not by international governments, the Indonesian Government, or international aid, but by local Acehnese NGOs that scrambled together small amounts of money from various individuals who brought the books from Jakarta.

Syarwan’s experience, and the experience of the Islamic school that Kenny describes, inspired me and my colleagues to set up a local non-profit organisation, Forum Bangun Aceh (FBA). The Forum’s employees and volunteers are themselves survivors. The concept is currently expanding into ‘Communities to Communities’ and ‘Organisation to Organisation’. The one-to-one approach has become our focus in delivering aid.

By providing interest-free loans from a revolving fund, FBA has helped to restart over 200 businesses, helping about 800 people. All of the families that FBA has supported now earn a daily income and can support themselves and their dependants as they did before the tsunami. Many of them have begun to help others to rebuild their lives. With a donation of between $150 and $1,200, a man or woman can be back in business as a chip farmer, fishermen, street vendor, kiosk owner, salt maker, car mechanic or pedicab driver. When they repay their loan, the money goes straight to helping the next person. Our list is long and there is never enough money, but FBA seeks to help one person at a time. Every donation goes directly from the donor to the person in need, bypassing ‘strategic integrated participative planning processes’, redundant and inaccurate assessments and unnecessary administrative and bureaucratic bottlenecks.


The reconstruction and rehabilitation of a society should come from within. The people of that society should be empowered and supported to rebuild their own lives and communities. Therefore, Aceh must be rebuilt by Acehnese. Any intervention from the international community should seek only to facilitate and to assist the Acehnese people in reconstructing Aceh. The strength and resilience of the survivors themselves is the most valuable asset for recovery. One should never underestimate the durability of the social fabric of a community. Aid delivery, particularly in an emergency situation, is most effective when local stakeholders are involved as much as possible. Importing unqualified expatriates into Aceh is a waste of money. Instead of the Acehnese people becoming objects and victims, they should be utilised as active and capable members of the aid delivery industry.

References and further reading:

Sue Kenny, ‘Reconstruction in Aceh: Building Whose Capacity?’, Community Development Journal, 2005. Email:

Bill Canny, A Review of NGO Coordination and Aceh Post-Earthquake/Tsunami, 8 April 2005,

Lesley McCulloch, ‘Aceh: Then and Now’, Aceh Report, Minority Rights Group International, UK, 2005, http://


Azwar Hasanis the founder of Forum Bangun Aceh (FBA). His email address is: The FBA’s website is at


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