In times of disaster, foreign aid should be welcomed
Following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that claimed so many lives in Indonesia, Jakarta was slow to embrace international help
Should the lives of people go before politics? It is a question foreign governments and international aid agencies were asking in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that struck the central Indonesian island of Sulawesi on September 28. The scale of devastation and a high death toll were quickly evident, prompting a flurry of offers of help from overseas, yet officials held out for days, contending the nation could readily cope. Authorities only relented when they found they had insufficient equipment and survivors were in urgent need of food, water, medicine and shelter.
Indonesia is hit by dozens of natural disasters each year and the government is experienced in handling emergencies. Authorities are reluctant to accept foreign help, being mindful of sovereignty and that is especially so for President Joko Widodo, who faces voters next April. Not since the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, in which 170,000 Indonesians perished, has the door to overseas aid been opened. Even after a series of quakes on the tourist island of Lombok in August that killed more than 550, offers of foreign help were declined.
But the scale and complexity of last month’s 7.5-magnitude quake and waves of up to six metres overwhelmed the military and police, who are the backbone of the country’s response systems. More than 66,000 homes were destroyed or damaged along with roads and bridges, and communications were cut. Widodo, making his second visit to the disaster area last Wednesday, cited a lack of logistics support and fuel as contributing to a slow response. Five days after the crisis began, with survivors battling hunger and thirst and hospitals struggling to treat the injured, he gave the go-ahead for foreign aid.
Indonesia’s inexperience with accepting overseas help means it has no mechanism to deal with such operations. As a developing nation, it lacks finances and equipment, including heavy machinery and aircraft. As proud as Indonesians may be, there are times when they need outside help. Elections and sovereignty concerns or not, leaders owe it to citizens and tourists alike to get aid to victims in a timely manner, no matter from where it originates.