Sunday, March 4, 2007

It's All About the Benjamins

If you've ever traveled overseas to an out-of-the-way place, you will know that converting US dollars into local currency is not easy. The age, condition, and serial numbers of US bills, things we don't think twice about in the States, are of the utmost importance overseas. Bills that don't meet the "required" specifications command less on the exchange market or are outright worthless.

Local banks and businesses say American dollars are always welcome in Banda Aceh. But I quickly learned this week that only a small percentage of what is in circulation is acceptable. No one will accept a US bill of any denomination printed in 1996. The reputable bank in a busy shopping district also won't accept bills with the slightest crease or tear. Even worse the same bank will not accept any of the new color US currency. Never mind that that colorful stack of Indonesian Rupiah the bank teller handed me is full of less-than-perfect bills.

Keith Porter and I have run into similar problems in Africa and the Middle East, so I wasn't surprised when the bank teller rejected the first few bills I handed her. I wasn't prepared for her to reject nearly all I had intended to change. It turns out, nearly 75% of the currency I have is not acceptable or commands a rate so far below the exchange value that it isn't worth my time to trade it.

As my friends and family will tell you, I always have at least one or two backup plans. So I will be able to eat and pay my bills here this week. But my personal experience at the bank illustrates just how difficult it can be to adapt to a different set of norms.

In the 26 months since the tsunami, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is learning that cultural differences can get in the way of good intentions. USAID's flagship reconstruction project here is a planned 150 mile road connecting two important cities in Aceh province. The road system here was less-than-ideal before the tsunami. A solid transportation system is critical now to help rebuild the region.

A large sign just outside of Banda Aceh marks the beginning of the planned road. USAID is financing the actual road construction while a complex Indonesian system is responsible for acquiring the land necessary to complete the new road.

But there is little evidence the "new" road will be completed anytime soon. Cost overruns, land acquisition problems, government red-tape, and local complaints about a temporary road adjacent to the showcase road have brought the planned project to a near standstill.

A new report issued by the US Government Accountability Office heavily criticizes USAID for its management of the road project. The latest plan trims 60 miles from the original proposed length. The shorter "new road" will then be linked to a section constructed by the Japanese.

So far, USAID officials in Indonesia won't talk on the record to Jocelyn and I about the road project. But in the March 2nd edition of The Jakarta Post, USAID's deputy director for Indonesia cited unforeseen issues brought about by an "exceptional" disaster.

The spokesperson for GAM, the Free Aceh Movement, acknowledges there have been problems but he believes the issues have been ironed out. He also says the problems with the road project should not overshadow the good work USAID and others are doing to help rebuild Aceh.

Perhaps the best people to judge the road project are affected landowners. This man and his family in the tiny village of Meudheun, more than two hours outside of Banda Aceh, will lose their current home when the section of pavement in front of his house is widened. He supports the road project, but he has yet to sell his land. He says the money offered is less than the land's value, and he's holding out for more.

Much closer to Banda Aceh a 23-year old affected landowner exclaimed, "USA good," when we asked him whether or not he is happy about the project. He told us he plans to use the money he earns from the sale of his land to rebuild and fulfill his dream of becoming a teacher.

In the end it seems whether it is a road project or currency exchange, it all boils down to the value of the Benjamins (Franklin, that is... the face on $100.00 US bills).

--Kristin McHugh

1 comment:

Christine said...

I have been working for the USAID road project in Aceh for the last year, and I would just like to clarify that people who are selling their land for the road project are getting far more than market value for their land! There were also cases of intimidation of entire villages by local speculators who wanted the road to go by their land. In other villages, folks banded together to get higher prices, but these prices were 20 - 30 x higher than pre-tsunami values, higher than market values, and much higher than NJOP (nilai jual obyek pajak or tax value). And what's more, many people who had received compensation for their houses via the land acquisition process then turned around and asked BRR to build them a house. That's wrong, pure and simple, espcially considering how many people still don't have housing or the money to build it!
I would be the first to agree that the US often has hidden agendas, but please don't believe everything you hear, even if it is from someone who is being "forced" to sell their land.