KAMPUNG JAWA, Indonesia | The tsunami of 2004 triggered the biggest humanitarian response in history, feeding the hungry, heading off epidemics and engendering the hope that out of a calamity that took 216,000 lives, a better Indian Ocean rim would emerge.
But 18 months later recriminations are rife, with aid agencies standing accused of planning poorly, raising unrealistic expectations and simply being incompetent.
Brand-new homes infested with termites are being torn down in Indonesia while families in India were put into shelters deemed of "poor quality" and "uninhabitable" because of the heat. Thousands of boats donated to fishermen in Indonesia and Sri Lanka sit idle because they are unseaworthy or too small. Only 23 percent of the $10.4 billion in disaster aid to the worst hit countries, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, has been spent, according to the United Nations, because so much of it is earmarked for long-term construction projects.
"I think mistakes occur in every disaster, but for the first time we are seeing it on a large scale," Anisya Thomas, managing director of the California-based Fritz Institute, an NGO, or nongovernmental organization, that specializes in delivering aid and has surveyed survivors in India and Sri Lanka.
"Many large NGOs are involved in rehabilitation and reconstruction activities beyond their capacity," Thomas said. "The large NGOs had trouble finding local resources and, when they did, they often had trouble holding them accountable."
Days after the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami, NGOs rushed in alongside the U.S. military and other government agencies, and their quick response was credited with preventing the disaster from getting worse.
But as the NGOs shifted to reconstruction, excessive amounts of money meant that spending decisions were often driven by "politics and funds, not assessment and needs," according to the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition or TEC, an independent body that includes over 40 humanitarian agencies and donors.
In a July report, TEC called the aid effort "a missed opportunity." It said there were too many inexperienced NGOs working in disaster zones, while seasoned agencies jumped into areas they knew nothing about -- Medecins Sans Frontieres Belgium built boats while Save the Children constructed houses.
The report also accused NGOs of leaving many survivors ignorant about their plans or failing to deliver promised aid. "A combination of arrogance and ignorance characterized how much of the aid community misled people," it said.
The agencies are studying the report, and many are overhauling their training and staffing.