Banda Aceh, Indonesia – Girls in exquisite golden headdresses and traditional costumes of green and black brocade tossed pink flower blossoms as they danced to welcome visitors to the closing ceremony of Education International’s post-tsunami project in Aceh, the region of northern Sumatra most devastated by the cataclysmic tsunami of 26 December 2004.
These children are among thousands who are benefiting from the most complex and ambitious development cooperation project ever undertaken by EI. General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen and Aloysius Mathews, Chief Regional Coordinator for Asia Pacific, travelled to Aceh just 10 days after the tsunami in response to an urgent plea from the local branch of EI’s affiliate, the Persatuan Guru Republik Indonesia (PGRI). The scenes of death and destruction they witnessed will remain seared in their minds forever: entire swathes of the city wrecked; thousands of corpses floating among debris in the toxic waters, including inside the flooded ruins of PGRI’s union hall; the anguished faces of survivors desperately searching for loved ones. “It is something I’ll take to my grave,” Aloysius said. “For me, it became immediately clear we needed to provide more humanitarian assistance than we usually do,” said Fred. “The scale of this disaster was so immense that Education for All would never be achieved without significant help from outside.” The global death toll from the tsunami was estimated at more than 225,000 people in 11 countries, with Indonesia and Sri Lanka hardest hit. The devastation was so overwhelming that millions of people around the world opened their hearts and wallets in an enormous wave of solidarity. EI worked in close partnership with Oxfam Novib from the Netherlands, which provided all of funding for the school reconstruction and community rehabilitation work. In total, the EI-Oxfam Novib programme invested almost 7 million Euros in Aceh and more than 4 million Euros in Sri Lanka. Additional support came from the ILO, the ITUC and the BWI. Initially some member organisations were highly sceptical because it is the responsibility of governments, not unions, to build public schools. However, EI and Oxfam Novib planned not merely to build buildings, but to implement a holistic response to the physical, psychological and professional needs of teachers, students and communities. “It’s true we were stepping outside traditional union work,” says Nicolás Richards, EI’s Senior Coordinator for Development Cooperation. “But how can you provide support for teachers if their schools have been washed away? If they have no jobs? So we were setting the foundation for union work in the future … and we were setting a new benchmark for quality education.” Jerome Fernandez, a Malaysian teacher trade unionist, was appointed to coordinate the project. He freely admits that when he moved to Aceh in May 2005 he didn’t know anything about construction. “I can’t even hit a nail straight.” But he did know that EI wanted good workmanship and an ethical process. It wasn’t easy given the chaotic situation, the massive influx of money from abroad and the pervasive corruption. According to Transparency International’s 2009 Global Corruption Barometer, Indonesia is the seventh most corrupt of 69 countries surveyed. TI has noted that reconstruction after major disasters is prone to corruption due to a tendency to bypass standard procedures to ensure rapid rebuilding. Jerome had to turn away dozens of “fly-by-night” contractors, turn down bribes and even confront threats. But EI built in an effective system of checks and balances, so that “not a single rupiah has gone astray,” he said. EI-Novib’s plan included building quality earthquake-proof schools equipped with child-friendly furnishings, well-stocked libraries, adequate learning resources including computers, offices and housing for head teachers, and scholarships for needy and orphaned students. Beyond that, it provided for professional development, including training in the new curriculum to help overcome the shortage of teachers in certain subject areas, capacity-building for union leaders and counselling courses to enable teachers to cope with their own psychological trauma and that of their students. Certainly the physical and psychological evidence of the tragedy was never far from the surface. Jerome recalls: “I’ve picked up human bones in my own hands from the side of land where we were building.” EI drew upon expertise within its affiliates. For example, members of the Australian Education Union came to offer training for head teachers in school leadership and administration, while members of the Japan Teachers Union who had previous experience of earthquakes came to share their skills and knowledge in trauma counselling. This proved to be an essential element of the project, since in both Aceh and Sri Lanka civil conflict compounded the impact of the natural disaster. About 15,000 people were killed in three decades of war between Acehnese separatists and the Indonesian army. But as a result of the tsunami, both sides agreed to pull together for the good of the country and signed a peace agreement in 2005. By contrast, in Sri Lanka the conflict between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils continued until 2009, preventing EI from being able to build all of the schools planned. Still, with 35 new schools in Aceh and eight in Sri Lanka, there can be no doubt that EI has made a lasting difference in the lives of thousands of children, opening doors of learning in places where access had been denied. Project staff members agree that the key challenges for the future are sustainability and maintenance of the schools despite underfunding of public education, and continuing to build the unions’ capacity to advocate for decent wages and working conditions for teachers and quality education for students. Sofyan Suleiman, who heads the Education Department in Banda Aceh, expressed warm thanks to EI for its contribution to rebuilding education in the devastated region. “The approach of EI was totally different from the other organisations which were operating in the post-tsunami education sector,” he said. “I can assure you that we will continuously monitor the situation and maintain the standard of the schools. If anything we will try to make them even better.” Reflecting back on the unprecedented programme of work accomplished by EI, Fred van Leeuwen said: “I’m proud of the post-tsunami project for a number of reasons. We have shown that the teaching profession is capable, if necessary, of building schools, training teachers and assisting children. Teachers not only care – we can also make a difference!” By Nancy Knickerbocker.