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Understanding Policy: Collective Action in Aceh's 2004 Tsunami

By Darang S. Candra

Editor's Note: This brief series on Collective Action demonstrates how public policy can be analyzed through the lens of Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action. Each piece looks at a specific humanitarian crisis and how the logic applies for that case. For a brief summary on the theory, see Understanding Policy: Collective Action

A Mosque standing alone after the destructive 2004 Tsunami in Aceh. ​AFP/Getty Images/Joel Sagget

Mancur Olson in his magnum opus The Logic of Collective Action, Public Goods and the Theory of Groups presents the analysis on the collective action problem and how to overcome it. Contrary to popular beliefs in his time that common interest by itself will lead to collective action, he argues that common interest leads to collective inaction (Olson 1965: 2). To manage the problem, individuals form interest groups to provide goods and/or services that arise from the members’ common interest. A form of specific interest group is lobby group, which aims to influence public policies to further their interests. Olson focused his analysis on the provision of public or collective goods, a type of goods with non-excludable and non-rivalrous characteristics.

Several factors influence whether collective action will take place within groups. One of the most important issue according to Olson (1965: 35, 48) is group size, as the larger the group is, the harder it will be to provide ‘even a minimal amount’ of the good due to differing incentive and cost. Conversely, there is the problem of tyranny of the small as larger members will provide larger amount of good, leaving the small members to enjoy with lower cost. This brings free-rider problem, in which actors within a group benefit from the goods and/or services while paying very little (or not paying at all), and resulting in under-provision of the goods. To tackle this problem, the goods should be provided only to active participants, a condition known as ‘selective incentives’ (which could be either negative e.g. sanctions or positive e.g. rewards). In the absence of selective incentives, the ‘push’ for group action diminishes as group size increases, so that large groups are less able to act in their common interest than small ones.

Another important factor in collective action problem is the type of groups. There are at least three kinds of groups: privileged groups, latent groups, and intermediate groups. Members of privileged group gain more from a public good rather than providing it unilaterally; members of latent group could withhold their contribution to the public good without causing a reduction in provision of the goods. Thus, collective action is more imminent in privileged groups rather than latent groups. Intermediate group falls somewhere between the two.

The case of humanitarian intervention following 2004’s Boxing Day Tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia, could be seen through Olson’s theory on collective action problem. Prior to the Tsunami, Aceh was off-limit to any foreigners due to four-decades of conflict between the secessionist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI). When the tsunami struck on 26 December 2004, both the government of Indonesia and the GAM structures in the province were devastated, and Indonesia itself as a country lacked an appropriate disaster response mechanism (Wiharta 2008: 89). With more than 150,000 people killed and millions of citizens injured as well as displaced, the Indonesian Government and GAM both realize that it is in their common interest to cooperate to provide public goods in the form of urgent aid and reconstruction to Aceh.

A day after the disaster, the Indonesian Government requested the UN to coordinate incoming international relief assistance, the GAM leadership declared an immediate cessation of hostilities, and the TNI forces in Aceh were instructed to adopt a more defensive posture (Wiharta, et. al.: 90). Those policies enacted by these groups commendably removed several of the largest potential obstacles for effective humanitarian intervention to conduct quick response for disaster relief. Before the tsunami, the Indonesian government and GAM acted as market groups, competing to monopolize the control of Aceh. The tsunami changed their behavior, and they have to cooperate as inclusive groups, inviting more actors to come and help in disaster relief.

In Aceh, the emergency relief and humanitarian programs were conducted by various groups ranging from UN agencies, foreign military forces, and both foreign and domestic non-governmental humanitarian organizations (Wiharta, et. al.: 90). Although Indonesia’s existing legislation at the time did not allow for the inclusion of any NGOs in the institutional disaster response mechanisms, their helping effort in Aceh made the Indonesian Government, who then issued an ad hoc administrative instructions so the humanitarian intervention could continue. Such measures included ‘open skies’ policy, the waiving of visa requirements for all foreign military and aid workers, as well as exemption from customs duties for relief commodities (Wiharta, et. al.: 90).

After the humanitarian intervention of Aceh’s Tsunami, Indonesian Government and GAM resumed their long-stalled peace process. Under the auspice of former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, both parties signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), also known as Helsinki Agreement, on August 15, 2005. GAM understood the selective incentive in this matter, as based on the agreement they could reintegrate and participate within the Indonesian government in rebuilding post-tsunami Aceh. The agreement allowed ex-GAM members to actively participate in official provincial political system, which resulted in the movement’s transformation into a political party. The GAM’s shift from a separatist interest group who did not provide public goods into privileged group who now controls the politics and security in the province as part of Indonesian Government is the result of the group’s response toward incentives in the Helsinki Agreement. They would be better off as a political party with power over a province rather than ragtag rebel forces in the jungles looking for independence. To supervise the agreement, EU, ASEAN, Norway, and Switzerland formed the Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM), and later the International NGO Inter-Peace (also chaired by Ahtisaari) also helped in liaising between the government, ex-GAM members, and civil societies (Feith 2007: 6).

In conclusion, Olson’s theory on collective action is helpful in explaining how humanitarian intervention could be managed successfully in the case of 2004 Aceh Tsunami. Although the relevant actors in the humanitarian intervention (government of Indonesia, GAM, militaries from various countries, UN bodies, and international NGOs) varied in size, with the core actors being bigger in size, collective action could be enacted successfully as the devastating impact of tsunami acted as “coercive” forces to make sure all actors contributed together to provide public goods, which are reconstruction and peace in Aceh.


Darang S. Candra is the current Content Director at JIPS. A Fulbright Scholar from Indonesia, his research focus is about Southeast Asian politics, especially on both intrastate and interstate conflicts.. He previously worked as a research assistant in the University of Indonesia's ASEAN Study Center and APEC Study Center. He has published several journal articles and op-ed on Southeast Asian affairs.

Works Cited

Feith, Pieter. (2007). ‘The Aceh Peace Process: Nothing Less than Success’, Special Report for United States Institute of Peace, No. 184, pp. 1-8.

Olson, Mancur. (1971). The Logic of Collective Action, Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wiharta, Sharon, Hassan Ahmad, Jean-Yves Haine, Josefina Löfgren and Tim Randall. (2008). The Effectiveness of Foreign Military Assets in Natural Disaster Response. Solna: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)


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