The Gift of Home

“The Gift of Home: The key role of housing reconstruction in the Acehnese peace process following the 2004 tsunami,” unpublished abstract (2011)

Contemporary aid and development policy has consciously distanced itself from the idea of assistance as ‘gift’ both overtly within academic literature (Kapoor; Kothari) and implicitly through policy positions which emphasize the need for local communities to be active participants in their own relief and development trajectories (DFID, OCHA). But particularly in the area of post-disaster assistance, the paradigm of apparently selfless giving is still a fundamental part of the humanitarian imaginary and business model where both private and public donors are implored through media messages and charity advertisements to do the right thing: give.  Based on the case of the reconstruction effort in Aceh following the 2004 tsunami, this article argues that instead of hampering the relief effort, it was the overt espousal of the idea of the ‘gift’ that enabled the reconstruction to become a success – although not in the way it was originally envisaged.

Drawing on fieldwork carried out between 2006 and 2008 and over a hundred interviews with donors, contractors, beneficiaries and local officials, this paper argues that initially, from within the humanitarian imaginary, the house was viewed as the Maussian ideal of the gift while from the perspective of other parties concerned (Government of Indonesia (GoI), the Aceh and Nias Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Board (BRR), the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM), the Aceh Transitional Committee (Komite Peralihan Aceh or KPA), contractors, and the beneficiaries themselves) it was viewed as a commodity.  While initially, this epistemological disjuncture contributed to problems – most notably in the reconstruction of 120 000 houses for tsunami affected families – it also enabled a practical re-negotiation of the housing projects. The result was that the ‘success’ of the reconstruction process in Aceh came not from the ‘gift’ of the house but instead from the resultant ‘commodity’ of peace which the practices surrounding the houses enabled.