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Civil Society’s Role in Post-Disaster Rebuilding

Hafiz AMIRROL and Norazam Abu SAMAH

MERCY Malaysia


The tsunami of 26 December 2004 that has devastated many coastal regions of the Indian Ocean
had prompted many Government and Non-Government Agencies to look into alternative ways to
respond to emergency relief efforts. One way is to adopt the role of civil society in disaster to
create awareness, knowledge and thus lead to direct involvement in disaster risk management
efforts. This paper focuses on three main issues that MERCY Malaysia took into consideration in
formulating a workable praxis to have civil society involvement in disaster awareness in all
phases with a common goal to reduce risk. The first was by critically examining the roles of the
community that were directly or indirectly connected before any interventions were done. The
second was to establish the most appropriate systems and solutions to build a prepared
community, and finally to educate the public on the above-mentioned issues into a holistic
concept of Total Disaster Risk Management in order to create a responsive community. By
conducting a post-occupancy evaluation of the completed batch of MERCY Malaysia’s effort in
disaster relief in Aceh, would enable us to rectify ways of incorporating and improving relief
efforts succinctly to a particular locality in the context of preparedness for disaster in Malaysia.


MERCY Malaysia is committed to analyze, research and propose effective means of disaster
management enabling people of local communities to protect themselves against disaster and its
destruction caused. The objective of this paper is to achieve an understanding for the public in
becoming a prepared and responsive community through a comparative study of the effectiveness
of grass – roots projects and programs and at the same time, suggest policies, guidelines and
training inputs for each community to secure its role in the preparedness of disaster. The tragic
events of December 26 2004 had caused MERCY Malaysia to answer the call to help rebuild
Aceh, and at the same time educate the public in disaster preparedness. MERCY Malaysia is
promoting a series of disaster preparedness safety initiatives such as the Total Disaster Risk
Management (TDRM) concept as well as a derivative of such applied in Aceh cities and
communities with the cooperation of various project partners. TDRM focused on disaster risk as a
global education, promoting link partners and activities in all phases with a common goal to
reduce risk in disaster cases. This paper hopes to examine what has been achieved so far and what
needs to be improved within contextual references made from the efforts of MERCY Malaysia’s
relief works in Aceh and Nias for a better understanding in promoting civil society role in disaster
in Malaysia.

Even before the tsunami struck, millions of people in the affected areas were living in conditions
of poverty unimaginable to most people in Malaysia. In Aceh province of Indonesia, the security
of lives, possessions, and infrastructure had been threatened by several years of armed conflict.
According to the government’s own statistics1, in 2002, nearly 48.5 percent of the population had

no access to clean water, 36.2 percent children under the age of five were undernourished, and 38
percent of the population had no access to health facilities. And things were getting worse: the
poverty rate doubled from 14.7 percent in 1999 to 29.8 percent in 2002. These problems created
inferiority among societies, with lack of educational values and knowledge being spread to them,
there is no feel of urgency in anticipating disaster and being prepared for it. The main problem
with providing this disaster related information and understandings is due to the massive
destruction and, to a lesser extent, in the establishment of networks and ways of spreading
information. Disaster related information would be rapidly disseminated worldwide by
establishment of networks, and accordingly, communications among information users as well as
their efforts and activities to promote disaster related information is becoming increasingly
important in this age of international cooperation.

We believe that the most effective tool for spreading this information is that of defining the role
of the communities involved. The emphasis is not the search outside the legitimate of the
networks but with the notion that within our cultural practices and lifestyles itself resides a unique
and particular mode of participation and actions. The idea focuses on the basic concept of
community roles, which are prevention, preparedness, response and recover. Furthermore, when
the effort of promoting the importance of public roles is seen in a cultural context, it provides a
new sense of direction to educate them in the development of the above-mentioned values.

Roles of Communities

Whenever discourses and relief efforts were done on the impacts of disaster on a community,
stakeholders and all role players are also experiencing an awareness to find suitable solutions and
approaches to enable the communities to participate at all stages by redirecting and reorganizing
their life towards the norm of humanity. Community roles can be worked out with establishing
rights to prevent, to prepare, to response and to recover, even in the most settled of societies. In
the marginal communities of the tsunami victims in Aceh province, the quest for these rights are
not being well handed over, experientially or educationally. In Aceh, MERCY Malaysia has been:

1. Lobbying the incorporation of information on disaster preparedness by distributing ‘Anda dan

Tsunami’ leaflets, promoting the story of ‘Inamura No Hi’ through a seminar directed to
teachers and educators, and by organizing cultural events such as theatre and dance to
incorporate knowledge sharing that is culturally related to the community and society.
2. Working on public information of Disaster Preparedness and promoting the importance of
civil society role in disaster by conducting workshops and seminars. These include a
workshop in promoting the concept of ‘Risk Reduction from Earthquakes by Having Safe
Buildings’. The workshop focused on the usage of adequate technology and implementation
of anti-seismic building construction technology by sharing knowledge on safe buildings and
houses, as well as incorporating the expertise of locals in all projects and programs
(engineers, architects, builders, students, and others).
3. Actively managing the IDP Camp Site of Desa Weu Raya in Lhoknga, Aceh Besar. The IDP
Camp Site has been home for more than 200 families affected by the tsunami until September
2006. Community meetings were held to have active involvement from the villagers in
resolving resettlement issues, site land surveying, camp and shelter setting up, house concepts
and designs, spatial planning of the newly planned village including evacuation routes and
educating them in promoting safe and sound building standards.
4. Promoting programs to enhance human safety and security by incorporating safer
construction practices into the reconstruction process, through training sessions and

workshops. By conducting training courses on disaster mitigation, spreading information and
recognizing civil societies’ role in the process of reconstructing their nation, can be done
efficiently and will become more sustainable.

A major purpose was to encourage the experts and the public to work together throughout
projects and programs, and to work in detail and at depth in their field of responsibilities. It is
clear that the role of community is very important, and being the end-user who will live with and
experiencing real situations, their ideas and thoughts, as well experience is very much needed to
enable the technical implementer (i.e. MERCY Malaysia) to understand their needs.
Unquestionably, there is a strong and growing interest worldwide amongst the educational and
formal circles through the use of multi- or inter-disciplinary approaches in solving problems of
broad and important scope. The recent emphasis on earthquake and tsunami related problems
have raised the vital necessity of integrated approaches from various disciplines and most
importantly involvement from the public.

With these efforts done, a two-fold objective was successfully achieved. First is the mass
spreading of knowledge and information to the society on the importance of disaster preparedness
through field experience’, and second is the direct participation from the society involved with all
programs and intervention done. A well prepared community is born, and a community who fully
understands the typology of hazards and its prevention, preparedness, response and recovery
networks neutralizes the past and is hereby free from being conditioned by specific methods and
models and concentrate instead on the inventive transformation of new models and approaches of
society role in disaster management which respond to a new and the particular demand of existing

Prepared Community

During the two workshops on safe building practice that were organized both in Aceh and
Malaysia, it was observed that a certain group of the society is already well informed and alert on
the importance of disaster preparedness. But it was also observed that this practice has only a
small, and surely insufficient or even negligible input, guidance, and analysis by the non-
technological fields. The result is that disaster preparedness programs and actions are being
organized, planned, supervised and carried out, in most cases by a certain level of society
(architects, engineers, planners, and other technical field related personals) without proper
consideration of related social and ‘human’ aspects, and that serious errors, deficiencies, and
failures leads to a non-prepared community.

It is assumed that clear communication, spreading of information through media, and directions
of research in education and knowledge sharing will influence strongly what will actually happen
in the future on field. MERCY Malaysia, through its experience in disaster management and
reconstruction programs in Aceh and Nias tried to identify what is needed in preparing a prepared
community. Some innovations are needed in field, research, administrational and management
works to provide backgrounds for team of specialists to work together effectively with the
community, in a coordinated manner on the complex problems of disaster. The approach must be
inter-disciplinary; to blend and integrate all related fields. It must involve plans and program
courses applied to real problems, such as what we have been practicing in Aceh since 2004.

Research, well knowledge spreading programs, as well as education, must be multi-disciplinary

and related closely with the communities’ culture, social, politic and economy background.

Specialists must be able to understand each other, each other’s literature and most importantly,
the communities they are working with. Finally, we must develop new leaders who are specialists
in a specific field and at the same time sufficiently knowledgeable about the approaches and
problems of other pertinent disciplines to be able to work effectively with the society at large.

There are unique strains on working with the community in several parts of the tsunami-hit areas.
In some places where the number of affected people that we encountered are still holding to
strong principles in very traditional ways of lifestyles, MERCY Malaysia and its partners have to
find roles in advising and educating them on the best practices of disaster preparedness and safe
construction. From previous experiences, we try to ensure that the voices of tsunami-affected
people are heard by having:

1. Bi-weekly meetings with villagers, community leaders, religious leaders, authorities and
other NGOs, discussing issues of spatial ordering, various post-disaster management
initiatives, and various issues related to reconstruction and rehabilitation.
2. On site discussions with each beneficiary (house owner) in determining their own plot of
land, house positioning, boundaries, nearest escape routes, and to make sure all beneficiaries
are well informed on the designated mitigation plans, safe areas, escape routes, disaster
management zones and ways of informing each other for alertness.
3. Promoting effective disaster mitigation, focusing on key elements of self-help, cooperation
and education through activities such as: (a) research projects; (b) training and capacity
building; (c) a series of international workshops; and (d) advisory services.
4. Discussion that leads to a development of prevention and mitigation plans. From the plans,
we have produced a comprehensive escape routes plans for the village of Desa Weu Raya,
designed clear signage and iconographic symbols to lead the escape routes, and have made
clear guidelines on what should be done whenever a disaster alert information is being spread
and known before, during, and after a disaster.
5. Other emergency management activities, which are to be discussed in detail in the following

Among other activities conducted have been the implementations of field project in the affected
disaster areas of Aceh and Nias. For the reconstruction of Desa Weu Raya in Lhoknga, Aceh
Besar, demographic surveys were planned and conducted. The totally devastated village is to be
relocated to make way for the reconstruction of their houses at their original lands. The survey
makes available some alternative approaches for the relocation. The fairly extensive early works
in identifying and collecting data from the community called to explain and discuss the survey,
which covers among many other things such items as skills available for self-help, preferences of
the future occupants for designs and plans, problems they foresee, and their own suggestions for
solving problems. Relocation works were done after agreements were achieved between MERCY
Malaysia and the beneficiaries. Community leaders were elected to facilitate programs and to
participate the community while works are being done. Self-help concept was widely applied,
right from the beginning works of site clearance, identifying temporary Internally Displaced
Person (IDP) tents location, and construction of basic public facilities, which include community
center, health center, kindergarten, work space for community administration, praying areas, and
water and sanitation facilities. Tents were specially designed to response to the local context of
weather, social lifestyles, cultural practice and other humanity implications. The tents were also
designed to be easily transported and assembled by the community. Basic trainings on self-help
were given by specialists in the fields of mental and physical health, nutrition, psychology,
education, and capacity building. All thoughts that were offered involved public opinion and
speculation. As a first step, it would seem appropriate for us to plan programs to bring experts
and the public closer together, so we can better understand each other’s concepts, approaches,

needs, and problems, and so we can work together cooperatively – instead of separately – with
effectiveness for the benefit of the end users, which is the community.

Every layer of the society should understand support roles and responsibilities. Decision makers
and practitioners from non-governmental organizations including women’s and children
organizations, community-based organizations, and all level of government; inter-governmental
and multilateral organizations, professionals, academician, students, local authorities,
parliamentarians, and community representatives should attend the understanding in being
prepared and being able in managing disaster related plans, problems, and solutions. By having
networking events and programs, an intimate venue for practical interaction and exchange may be
worked out. The aims are to build knowledge, strengthen partnerships, creating new ones, and
providing platforms for sharing novel ideas and practices. Support roles and responsibilities can
be divided into two: (a) direct support; and (b) non-direct support. In Aceh, as elsewhere,
MERCY Malaysia and the local communities have worked together to produce the best approach
in problem solving. Most agencies working within the shelter working group are not complacent
about the progress of the shelter operation in Aceh by the end of 20052. But, by having good
support roles from communities, we successfully completed our batch of houses by September
2005, and were the first to relocate a whole village from their temporary shelter (IDP camp) to
their new houses. This effort would not have been achieved without support from the villagers
themselves, directly or indirectly. In the case of Desa Weu Raya, construction started of with the
appointment of few villagers as community coordinator. Their main role is to ensure good
coordination between MERCY Malaysia and the community. These community coordinators will
become the focal point for other villagers to get information, and to have their voices heard. On
the part of civil administrations, there were still gaps in their understanding of their duties and
responsibilities. Better leadership and coordination is still needed from civil bureaucracies, NGO
and other agencies, as well from the public.

Emergency recovery plan and the continuation of the plan is also another important process in
disaster management in preparing a community that is living in risk. The forcible removal of
IDPs into barracks and relocation houses inevitably generates social tension. In isolated instances,
NGOs and authorities have been compelled to recognize the tenancy rights of IDPs after nearly
all means to avoid confrontation, jealousy, and social illness have been exhausted. Relief works
and interventions should seek for a recovery plan that secure universal human rights and provide
shelter, water, food, health, education, hope and freedom for all. It has been MERCY Malaysia’s
intention and belief that a sustainable recovery plan could provide the framework for the
fulfillment of these basic human rights. The belief underpins our approach in providing relief
works for the disaster victims: by preparing a clear guideline dedicated to the community in terms
of emergency recovery plan and the continuation of the plan. After three months of preparatory
works, MERCY Malaysia proposed its housing and resettlement schemes for the conurbation in
March 2005, as well as a clear guideline for us in being prepared for other disaster and emergency
cases. The plan is an important document both because of its approach to the critical shelter needs
and, in a wider context, because it marks a radical departure from the static regulations and blue
prints prepared previously, which were produced without deep understanding on local context,
disaster typologies, and lack of flexibilities, and were so frequently produced, and as almost
regularly shelved. The plan scheme as a whole is an indicative, practical-oriented proposal rather
than a definitive emergency plan based on statutory map governing land control, space
requirements and other essentially concerned with political decision-making, with planning and
implementation, seen as a single, continuous process which ideally integrated the flexibility of
respecting and suiting contextual elements of a place and disaster. The effectiveness of the
emergency recovery plan that was developed from the Aceh experience was put into test when
the Pakistan earthquake happened. The first team that was sent to Pakistan applied guidelines

from the plan, and it was proven to be easier and more efficient to be well prepared and fully
understand each roles, responsibilities and strength.

Responsive Community

One way to establish a responsive community is to have a community that fully understands their
role and is well prepared. After the two elements can be fully applied and implemented, it is
suggested that these two approaches are to be practiced in developing a responsive community.

1. Interactive Community Process Plan

The key objective of this process plan is to formulate what have been discussed and applied in the
usage of the prevention, preparedness, responsive and recovery concept. Within this process plan,
which will improve public awareness on the importance of preparedness and participation, as well
as education strategies, it is hoped that the strengthening of emergency networks can be
successfully achieved. This process plan is a blueprint on what have been formulated before, and
is an improvisation from previous experience. The process plan will act as a manual that is more
flexible in its approach and public-friendly. This is due to its formulating process that includes
direct public participation, ideas, suggestions, and involvement. This community plan must be
developed from the understanding of other communities’ and agencies’ roles and responsibilities,
and in return will improve the understanding.

A sufficient and effective process plan is a comprehensive plan that includes:

a) Emergency communication
b) Public warning and alert guidelines
c) Planning guidelines (spatial planning, disaster management planning, operational
arrangement planning)

2. Risk Mitigation Plan

This plan works with the inherent dynamism of the people involved in the community process
plan. Risk mitigation plan helps in:
a) Determining authorities’ plans and statutory
b) Establishing planning committee
c) Developing a comprehensive emergency management systems and flows

Determination of authorities’ plans will reduce problems in any intervention planned by agencies.
Problems that will occur later on can be minimized by fully understanding what are the ruling and
standard requirements of the local authority. In Aceh and Nias, the government has set up the
Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Body (BRR) to help, facilitate, manage and control all works
and intervention planned and done in reconstructing Aceh after the tsunami. This body also
monitors all agencies activities, disbursement of fund, work progress, and project status. This is to
coordinate all projects and programs and to ensure no overlapping will happen, and is also part of
the government effort to eliminate bureaucracy and corruption. However, no early preparation
and anticipation before the disaster had caused the body to fail in performing well in achieving its
objectives. BRR was formed three months after the disaster, and everything need to be learned,
improvised, and put into test while the real working situation requires a well-prepared plan and
systems. MERCY Malaysia would like to strongly suggest to all Malaysian, private agencies and

the government to develop a comprehensive plan of its own and must be put on test to be well
prepared in any disaster condition.

Establishment of planning committee needs to be formed and well analyzed. Anticipation and
analysis of any hazards and disaster that might occur, resources availability, and determination
responsibilities must be prepared early to overcome any complications in the future. Japan is a
good example in providing and preparing a well prepared, knowledgeable and responsive
community. The setting up of disaster preparedness bodies such as the Asian Disaster Reduction
Center (ADRC) in Kobe and the United Nations Centre for Regional Planning (UNCRD) in
Hyogo are proof of the Japanese readiness and preparedness in disaster condition. The promotion
of earthquake safety initiatives such as the Global Earthquake Safety Initiative (GESI) and the
implementation of a concept called Sustainability in Community-Based Disaster Management
(CBDM) help in reducing complications in disaster and hazard situations. MERCY Malaysia
have worked with agencies such as the Asian Disaster Reduction and Response Network
(ADRRN), National Society for Earthquake Technology, Nepal (NSET) and ADRC in promoting
the importance of disaster preparedness and disaster management. The concept of Total Disaster
Risk Management (TDRM) and Community Base Disaster Management (CBDM) are widely
applied in all MERCY Malaysia’s activities. However, these efforts are not enough if
participation from others, importantly, the civil societies are not available.

In developing efficient emergency management systems, all plans that have been developed need
to be properly documented for future review and reference. All plans applied must be analyzed
again to ensure its effectiveness and workability in responding to a wider global context. Tests
have to be done in a practical manner by organizing workshops, forums, simulations, trainings
and networking with other inter-related agencies. Public participation is a must to fully
understand needs and in responding to it. An overall review on the systems and plans will
produce new improvised results, which will help in producing a well-prepared society in disaster
and other acute cases.


‘Indonesian Human Development Report 2004. The Economics of Democracy: Financing Human
Development in Indonesia’, BPS-Statistics Indonesia, BAPPENAS and UNDP
Morris, Eric (2005) UN Recovery coordinator for Aceh. ‘A Place to Stay, A Place to Live’, Challenges in
Providing Shelter in India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka after the Tsunami, Oxfam International