Being accountable to Aceh: gender-related lessons learned by New Zealand NGOs from the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004
The Indian Ocean Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 prompted a level of international disaster response that was unprecedented. In Aceh, Indonesia, the worst hit region, thousands of international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), including some New Zealand based NGOs, arrived in the area to carry out relief and reconstruction work. A common criticism of the international response is that it has resulted in the marginalisation of Acehnese women. The criticism comes despite at least fifteen years of gender mainstreaming into the policies and practices of development organisations and the widespread acceptance that attention to gender issues is essential for sustainable and equitable development. It also comes at a time when there is ever-increasing demand for NGO accountability to donors and beneficiaries and a recognition that NGOs should continuously be learning to improve future practice and ensure they are meeting their stated goals. Post-tsunami Aceh posed a number of context-specific challenges to the implementation of gender policies, including the enormous extent of the devastation, the history of violent conflict and the rule of Sharia law. This research investigates the particular challenges and experiences workers of NZ-based NGOs faced in implementing their gender policies in the aftermath of the tsunami in Aceh, and how those NGOs responded to the challenges and experiences to ensure lessons have been learned. It also investigates whether any obstacles to learning lessons exist within those organisations. Qualitative research is used including gathering primary data from semi-structured interviews with individuals from five NZ NGOs that worked in Aceh and with representatives of NGOs willing to comment on their organisational responses. Additional comments on the issues are also obtained from two NZAID (New Zealand Agency for International Development) staff. The findings show that while participants faced numerous gender-related challenges in their work in Aceh, approximately three years after the tsunami none were able to point to any specific gender-related lessons learned. The findings also reveal that participating NGOs tend to draw learning from their international affiliates and from the NZ NGO community rather than having structured learning systems within their own organisations. A number of barriers to learning within organisations are also identified. These results, while not necessarily representative of the wider NZ NGO community, reveal the difficulties of trying to implement gender policies in a particular emergency context and contribute to an understanding of how NZ NGOs are involved in a process of continuous learning to incorporate their own experiences to ensure lessons are learned and improve their accountability.