INDONESIA: Research boosted in tsunami-hit Aceh

A consortium of eight Australian and four Indonesian universities is helping rebuild research capacity in the tsunami-devastated Indonesian province of Aceh through the establishment of a research training institute.

The province, hit by an Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, had previously suffered decades of armed conflict between Aceh independence fighters and the Indonesian military. The rectors of the Islamic and secular universities were both assassinated in 2000 while calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Many other academics were later among the 200,000 Aceh people killed by the tsunami, although the secular Universitas Syiah Kuala was largely unaffected and the wave only rose to a metre inside its buildings.

Australian director of the research training institute programme, Professor Michael Leigh, said the enlistment of many remaining academics by non-government organisations and the government to rebuild the province had resulted in a drastic shortage of talent in the province’s tertiary institutions.

“It was therefore decided to help retain and develop skills on the ground in Aceh, through the re-invigoration and expansion of an Aceh research training facility that was first established with international linkages during the mid-1970s,” Leigh said.

Leigh is also director of the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute. He said that following the tsunami he had been overwhelmed by inquiries from academics with connections to the region wanting to know how they could help in practical terms.

Working with colleague Dr Darni Daud, rector of the Universitas Syiah Kuala which houses the new institute, Leigh conducted a 'rapid-needs-analysis' in February 2005.

He said it was clear that while many aid efforts were rightly directed to restoring physical damage and relieving human suffering, there was a very significant gap in educational resources and research capacity.

“Although this project was established in response to the tsunami, it is also an acknowledgement that many years of conflict have drained the region of leadership in education and research, and of basic educational resources,” Leigh said.

The institute is now based at the Syiah Kuala university and is being assisted by academics and postgraduate students from the consortium, with financial underwriting from a private Melbourne foundation and the Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Reconstruction and Development.

In its first six months, the institute has provided research training programmes for 245 Acehnese academics, community, government and NGO workers. So far, 12 introductory courses in research methods have been delivered out of 24 expected to run over the three years of the project with nearly 200 local and outside university staff involved.

Leigh said a major part of the training programme was to teach students how to provide evidence-based policy making, something that was not often followed even in developed countries.

“We’re training people to find out the most satisfactory solutions to the most basic problems, giving them the skills to analyse and test proposals so they can devise better policies right from the beginning,” he said.

The programmes begin with an introduction to research methods and move on to intensive discipline-based research training in health, law, gender in society, education, social analysis, and other areas in response to local needs and priorities.

A group of researchers selected from the introductory courses will receive scholarships and intensive research mentoring to conduct field-based research in Aceh.