Most research to date on Islamic charities has given special attention to political aspects, which inevitably come to the fore in conflict zones and in areas of mixed religious affiliations (Benthall and Bellion-Jourdan 2003, Ghandour 2002, Soares and Otayek 2007). But whereas we should not exclude the political dimension from analysis of any humanitarian aid, of whatever ideological provenance, it would be unjustified to lay so much stress on it in the Muslim case that the question of efficacity was sidelined. There is an increasing recognition of the importance of Faith Based Organizations and their role in the international aid system (Duriez et al. 2007, Clarke and Jennings 2008, Rakodi 2007). Few would question that Christian NGOs such as CAFOD and Christian Aid are often able to make advantageous use of their confessional networks in majority Christian areas such as southern Africa and Latin America.

Islamic charities in general – apart from a few UK-based ones – have experienced considerable difficulties since 9/11 owing to suspicions on the part of some Western governments that they have been used as fronts for terrorist activities. Steps are being taken, for instance by the Swiss Government, to try to have obstacles from bona fide Islamic charities removed. No research as far as I am aware has been undertaken to evaluate, let alone quantify, the damage that this campaign against Islamic charities has done to the interests of their beneficiaries – such as the many thousands of orphans that they have sponsored – and potential beneficiaries. It must also remain a matter for speculation how powerful a force in the humanitarian movement the Islamic charities might become if they were encouraged to develop their potential as a vehicle for redistribution of resources and disaster response and preparedness in the Muslim world. However, I have undertaken a modest research project myself to see whether it can be shown that an Islamic charity has special advantages or legitimacy when operating in a Muslim society.

The reason for choosing two virtually all-Muslim societies was in order to exclude the complicating factor that arises when an Islamic charity engages in – or is thought to engage in – a programme of proselytism or ‘reislamization’ as an adjunct to its humanitarian goals.  The two societies I chose were ones in which Islam is so strongly entrenched that the issue arises only marginally, if at all. The first of two case-studies was in Mali, where I found two British-based Islamic charities, Islamic Relief Worldwide and Al-Muntada Al-Islami, both functioning impressively – though in very different ways – as development agencies in a country poor in economic resources but rich in associative networks, with a moderate form of Islam deeply embedded in the national cultural landscape (Benthall 2006, 2007b).

The second case-study was of reconstruction in Aceh, the westernmost province of Indonesia, after the 2004 tsunami. I visited two of the most hard-hit coastal towns, Banda Aceh and Meulaboh, in April 2007, and conducted numerous interviews.  Acehnese Muslims have in common with the Malians that most people in both countries have no interest in religious militancy. However, the situation of NGOs and their relationship to the people they set out to help is much more complicated than in Mali. This article resulting from my visit cannot be other than a provisional exercise. For my field experience is in the Middle East, and while I have a general knowledge of aid organizations I have no technical knowledge of rehousing programmes, which turned out to be a key issue in Aceh. My comments on the relative successes of various agencies’ rehousing programmes are entirely second-hand, though cross-checked from a number of different sources. My visit lasted for just under two weeks only, and I was able neither to randomize my interviewees nor to have any but the most superficial contacts with aid beneficiaries.

About 170,000 people in Aceh lost their lives as result of the tsunami on 26 December 2004, 500,000 were made homeless, and 800,000 lost their source of livelihood. Banda Aceh lost about one third of is population and Meulaboh about half, and large areas of both towns were completely destroyed by waves up to 20 metres high which came in up to five or more kilometres from the shore. The highly publicized tragedy of the tsunami had the indirect effect of encouraging reconciliation between the Indonesian government and the Aceh independence movement – brokered by Finnish mediators and overseen by European Commission monitors – after a long-running civil conflict. Aceh now has democratic elections, a provincial Governor who was formerly a member of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and greater autonomy than before. The recent introduction of shari’ah is extremely controversial and does not seem to enjoy majority support. It has been aptly described by an observer as ‘tropical shari’ah’, in that unlike its counterparts in hard-line Islamic states it does not, for example, discourage people from talking to strangers, or a man and a woman who are not married from riding on the same motorcycle. But religion is most important for the Acehnese, witness the impressive, gleaming mosques in all but the smallest villages.

The devastation caused by the tsunami was comprehensively covered by the world’s media, both because so much television footage was available and because many international tourists were victims – though in Aceh there were no tourists, for foreigners were banned from visiting the province at the time. Whereas normally relief agencies have to use sophisticated marketing tactics to wrench funds from donors after a disaster (Benthall 1993), the tsunami provoked a vast outpouring of compassionate charity from all over the world. The consequences of this in Sri Lanka have been well documented: competition among the NGOs to spend funds quickly, and acute difficulties in local coordination (Stirrat 2006). But the scale of the disaster in Aceh was even larger, as it was nearer the epicentre. Some 8 billion US dollars were pledged by governments and NGOs to rebuild Aceh, and an estimated 4 billion had been spent already by April 2007: a huge injection of funds into a previously isolated province. The number of registered international NGOs in Banda Aceh rose to about 180 in June 2005, with some 430 local NGOs also registered (Telford and Cosgrave 2007, fig. 7). The result has been a bubble economy with high local inflation, substantial levels of fraud and corruption, and a high turnover of staff in NGOs.  Programmes such as ‘cash for work’ – continued by certain NGOs too long after the initial crisis – have encouraged some degree of dependency, and the departure of most of the NGOs in 2008 will probably be a factor putting Aceh’s new political stability under strain. (1)

My study has focused on the role of international NGOs, including Muslim ones, and on the medium-term reconstruction effort. A study by John Ratcliffe complements this by paying attention to the more immediate response by Indonesian Muslim organizations, which was extensive but relatively spontaneous and fluid. As has happened time and again in disaster zones, the contribution of local relief workers was seriously underrated by the international aid agencies. This neglect was unintentionally symbolized by their often conducting coordination meetings in English without interpreters, and is further reproduced in the copious published evaluations of post-tsunami aid which pay little attention to this aspect. A particular feature of the relief effort in Aceh was the role played by the Muhammadiyah, a reformist Muslim social organization with 30 million members all over Indonesia. It acted as an ad hoc national network for communication, despite having no normal connection with the disaster response system.

…As international groups became more active, they tended to displace local actors. Muhammadiyah, for example, drew up elaborate reconstruction plans but faced extreme difficulty in obtaining funding to implement them. This represents a failure to engage moderate groups, illustrated by the fact that no Muslim organization was awarded a prime USAID contract for post-tsunami relief work in Indonesia, despite recent U.S. government efforts to reach out to religious actors. (Ratcliffe 2007: 53-4)).

For fifteen years or so, critics of NGOs have been calling for more accountability to beneficiaries. Perhaps it was the scale of the humanitarian response in Aceh, as well as the disappointing performance of some international NGOs and the government agency BRR  (Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi [for Aceh and Nias]) that has stimulated a high degree of local criticism. Some of the best-known names in humanitarianism did not deliver to the standard that might be expected, partly because of the large scale of their commitment: one of them was managing a thousand staff for a short time, including some 300 expatriates. Lack of ‘surge capacity’ in the international aid system has been identified as a general problem (Telford and Cosgrave 2007: 22). But an experienced aid worker in Aceh told me (on condition of anonymity) that he had never experienced in other places such high levels of aggression and threats among the communities he was working with. This may be partly due to tensions arising from unsatisfactory post-conflict integration. ‘The Acehnese have been betrayed and lied to for centuries, and they have lost faith in the value of dialogue’, generalized this aid worker.

But also the Acehnese are no doubt aware of the huge aid budget available and the patchy performance. Some Banda Aceh journalists have been particularly assiduous in exposing poor service delivery. Defenders of the NGOs point out that the scale of the disaster and in particular acute difficulties of transport made their work unusually difficult in the early stages. To some extent they may have been scapegoated: for instance, the blame tends to fall on them exclusively for being defrauded by dishonest building contractors, rather than on the building industry itself as well. However, some of the messages coming through to the head offices of international NGOs must have been disturbing. There is no shortage of evaluation reports, but the bland idiom chosen in what is released for publication seldom applies a comparative method, which would be the only means of achieving a truly convincing level of accountability. We do not read of the X National Red Cross Society having been obliged to leave Aceh because it was seen as failing to deliver promised houses after 18 months. Nor, by contrast, do we read much about the work done by military forces during the early stages after the tsunami, though one NGO manager told me, ‘The German army did really well and were escorted all the way to their ships when they left: they did the dirty job of clearing up, day and night, and they left their bulldozers’. In general, military humanitarian aid after natural disasters – as opposed to its controversial role in conflict zones – seems to be neglected in the otherwise burgeoning field of research on humanitarianism.

I have set out to ask a specific question about what has been called ‘cultural proximity’. Islamic Relief has major commitments to livelihood programmes, education, health care, and water and sanitation, Muslim Aid to skills enhancement and a long-term flood mitigation programme funded by the European Commission. But I focus on the issue of rehousing, which was soon identified by the Indonesian authorities as a priority, though there have been many delays and, according to the BRR, there was still a target of some 42,000 new houses to be built in 2007, in addition to 57,000 built and 22,000 under way at the end of 2006. (2)  In addition to material, transport and organizational difficulties, one of the reasons for delay has been legal problems over the ownership of land when land registries were destroyed by the tsunami.

Any hankering for reconstruction efforts to be less politically motivated, or at least to disguise their political motivation, is dealt a blow by the operations of the Turkish Red Crescent Society (TRCS) in and around Banda Aceh. Aceh prides itself as the ‘verandah of Mecca’ (Serambi Mekkah), a channel to the heartland of Islam, and its sultanate, in its increasingly desperate efforts to find allies against the Dutch, engaged up to the nineteenth century in a ‘long love affair with the Ottoman Turks’ (Reid 2006: 14). The Acehnese separatist flag is the same as the Turkish flag, white crescent and star on a red ground, except that it is sandwiched between horizontal black and white lines. The country director of the TRCS told me that they did not come to Aceh for political reasons but only because of the disaster, and that they also built 400 houses in Sri Lanka, where Muslims are in the minority, and rebuilt a Buddhist temple. He also explained that very few people in Turkey apart from a few scholars had been aware of the historical links between the Ottoman Empire and Aceh. Despite what he says about TRCS’s original motivation, the reputation of Turkey now rides high in Banda Aceh after the construction of a splendid community centre in a prime site – specializing in psycho-social trauma counselling, sport and vocational activities – , four schools and over a thousand houses. I visited two housing estates built by the TRCS in suburbs of Banda Aceh: one in Bitai, where Ottoman soldiers who settled there are said to be buried in a graveyard, and one in Lampuuk, where the TRCS has also restored a large mosque. The Turkish houses, each marked with the red crescent and star, are more attractive than those most of those built by other agencies, and about twice as expensive: Islamic Relief’s houses cost 50 million rupiah each, or about £3,000, while the TRCS’s cost about 100 million rupiah and are now being sold on by some of their owners for 150 million – one of the unintended consequences of the Turkish people’s generosity. The TRCS drew on its long experience on reconstruction after earthquakes in Turkey, and also decided to work with local construction firms and architects.

The TRCS, while asserting that it values its membership of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, raised its own funds from Turkish donors with a big appeal and declined to join in the Federation’s coordination plans, as it also did in Sri Lanka (Stirrat 2006). It also refrained from attending coordination meetings of the NGOs in Aceh. The quality of these coordination meetings has been criticized in the international evaluation report on coordination as ‘“rudderless” and ultimately unproductive’ (Bennett 2006: 18). (3)

Although Turkey is a secular state and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is strictly non-confessional, it seems likely that a common religious, or religio-political, heritage did make access easier for the TRCS with its focussed, high-profile intervention. However, competing with the Turks for the most desirable houses are those built by a French agency, Atlas Logistique, which is strictly secular and practical. They adapted a local technique for minimizing earthquake damage in small houses, the ‘chicken-leg’, a reinforced concrete footing that will shake under stress – but enlarging the size of the bar. Atlas Logistique, funded by ECHO and some other donors, completed 240 houses as well as providing other kinds of practical support, and then withdrew from the scene. Thus to make any claim for the merits of ‘cultural proximity’ as overriding those of technical proficiency would clearly be a mistake.

In my interviews with authority figures – the Mayor of Banda Aceh, the leader of the local Muhammadiyah branch and chief of the Shari`ah Law Enforcement Department, (4) and the President of the Ulema Council – I was repeatedly told that help in the reconstruction effort was welcomed from all sources, including Christian NGOs. However, there has been keen sensitivity in Aceh with regard to any perceived threat by outsiders to change Acehnese culture, especially its religious traditions. Soon after the disaster, a scandal erupted because WorldHelp, an evangelical charity from Virginia, USA, was rumoured to have taken possession of 300 Acehnese orphans for placing in a Christian orphanage. It turned out that this was untrue, though the management had indeed toyed with the idea of educating the children as a foothold for conversion of the Acehnese. (5) Some Catholic as well as Protestant NGOs have been criticized, rightly or wrongly, on similar grounds.

However, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the United States arm of Caritas Internationalis, has a good record in rebuilding houses and town markets. At one time, too, its local director reportedly offered to rebuild a mosque, but the community objected that for a mosque to be funded by Christians was haram (forbidden). A solution was found: a local personality lent the money, and was later reimbursed by CRS. Meanwhile, the British counterpart to CRS, CAFOD, has subcontracted to Islamic Relief Worldwide the building of schools and houses for which it received a share of funding from the Disasters Emergency Committee (the British coordinating body that pools the fund-raising campaigns of leading aid agencies after a major disaster). Perhaps more surprisingly, the Mormon humanitarian agency, Latter Day Saints Humanitarian Services, in its first major disaster relief programme, has sub-contracted to Islamic Relief Worldwide the building of ten schools and three health clinics in Aceh. Its spokesman is reported as saying that in Indonesia, ‘the predominately Muslim community members receiving assistance understand the law of the fast. …It resonates with these people when we explain the principles behind the contributions that allow us to be in their village doing this good. I am very grateful for this and other principles that Islam and the restored gospel share in common, allowing us to bless one another’s lives.’ (6) The fact that such cooperation is now being practised routinely between Muslim and non-Muslim NGOs is surely an example of practical integration which ought to be given more consideration by those who emphasize the recalcitrance of some other elements in the Muslim world.

It remains to look briefly at how the two British-based Islamic NGOs that I focussed on made their initial entry to Aceh and how they fared. (7) Islamic Relief Worldwide, founded in 1984, and Muslim Aid, founded in 1985, are fully integrated with the international development community. Both for instance are signatories to the Red Cross/ Red Crescent code of conduct for NGOs, which bans both proselytism and discrimination in favour of co-religionists. It is ironic that the secular Turkish Red Crescent Society allows itself to build mosques, whereas Islamic Relief’s policy is not to do so, though it is explicitly a confessional NGO, in order to avoid any infiltration of religion into its relief and development goals.  Both Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid are regulated by the UK Charity Commission and essentially directed from Britain. Islamic Relief is considerably larger – indeed, now the world’s largest Islamic NGO – with fund-raising branches in a dozen countries. Muslim Aid has one fund-raising branch, in Australia. (The Gulf States, whose charities have been very prominent in other disaster zones, made some contribution to rehousing in Aceh but seem to have concentrated largely on rebuilding or repairing mosques; cf. Ratcliffe 2007.)

Islamic Relief had conducted a needs assessment in Indonesia in 1999, concluding that economic growth had not greatly benefited rural populations, and it had opened an office in Jakarta in 2003. Its consistent policy is to work with the poorest. At the time of the tsunami, it was attempting with the encouragement of some UN organizations to get access to Aceh, which was closed to NGOs on account of the long-running civil conflict. Helped by some political connections, it embarked on a joint assessment with the Muhammadiyah, and the government was giving out positive signals before the tsunami. It had been agreed that Islamic Relief could work through partners, but not send in expatriates. This enabled it to send national staff in very early, so that its first response was within two to three days. Connections with the Nahdatul Ulama (NU), a more conservative counterpart to the reformist Muhammadiyah, were also useful. Islamic Relief’s logo – uniting the motifs of a mosque with twin minarets and the globe – is especially popular.

At the time, Islamic Relief Worldwide was not yet a member of the Disasters Emergency Committee, but it was given £6 million by CAFOD (to whom it reciprocally channels some funds for work in Latin America). It set up an office in Banda Aceh reporting directly to the headquarters in Birmingham, with a sub-office in Meulaboh.

In many ways Islamic Relief is similar to a score of international agencies working in Aceh: with its fleet of 4 by 4s, its reporting officer, accounts department, gender officer and so forth. Praying is not compulsory: some of the staff are indeed non-Muslims. But a space is set aside in the foyer of the office for prayer; and on Friday afternoon, loudly amplified recitations from the Qur’an make the building feel an integral part of the wider society’s piety.

Though directed from Britain, Islamic Relief’s expatriate staff are remarkably varied in their ethnic backgrounds. Of the twelve, I met only one ethnic European (a Macedonian Christian) and only one British citizen (a British Pakistani); among the rest were two Bangladeshis, a Sudanese, a Kenyan (Christian), a Lebanese and an Egyptian. In addition there are some 150 national staff. Like other international NGOs in Aceh, Islamic Relief has had some management difficulties in scaling up and ensuring continuity. It would be naïve to assume that because a Bangladeshi and an Acehnese are both Muslim, the cultural differences between them will somehow dissolve. The religious aspect to its work is rather subtler, and I record the testimony of two Islamic Relief expatriate staff.

One of them, an experienced manager, has to confront the serious problem of dishonest contractors. A Christian himself, he says that it is his practice everywhere to look for entry points into the local culture. In Aceh, he does not accuse contractors of corruption, but asks them what their religion tells them to do. So for a health care project, he says: ‘anyone who takes money from the fund is causing someone to be killed and is worse than the tsunami, as someone’s blood is on your hands. The same is true of finishing late’. Another informant told me that the egalitarian values of Islam made a specially good impression. ‘It is good to see Islamic Relief’s expats praying and fasting with the people – and the brotherhood spirit during Ramadan. People stand shoulder to shoulder to pray, and the driver may be the prayer leader, with the head of mission behind him.’

It is clear in any case that Islamic Relief’s record of construction is good. At the time of my visit, it had completed about 560 houses and was to build 300 more, as well as thirteen new health clinics and seventeen new schools, all in close consultation with local committees and learning from the example of the most technically successful agencies such as Atlas Logistique. While I was in Banda Aceh, a newspaper article appeared in an influential newspaper Surambi alleging that the standard of houses built by BRR was a national scandal, already requiring extra funds for them to be put in order, and comparing them unfavourably as regards both cost and quality with Islamic Relief’s.

The Muslim Aid operation in Banda Aceh has a very different style. Its country director, Fadlullah Wilmot, is probably, of all international NGO managers in Aceh, the most experienced and the best informed about the culture. British by origin, he migrated to Australia as a child and converted to Islam as a student. Trained as a psychologist, he taught English in Aceh in the 1970s and kept in close touch with the province ever since. Muslim Aid was able to get access a few days after the tsunami, working with Global Peace Malaysia, a Muslim agency. At one time they had a thousand volunteers, some Malaysian but mostly locals. After deciding that housing was the priority, they embarked on a successful construction programme and will shortly have completed 1,450 houses. Banda Aceh is now to become the Southeast Asian headquarters of Muslim Aid, and there are plans to launch new programmes in the Philippines and Cambodia as well as in other parts of Indonesia. It seems clear that Wilmot is given considerable autonomy by the Muslim Aid head office, providing an unusual personal link between the international aid system and Aceh. He is also raising funds from sympathetic Muslim foundations in the Gulf area.

While there are some local advantages, according to Wilmot, to be derived from the Islamic label, both among elites and among the population at large, it can actually be a disadvantage in relations with international aid organizations, and ‘you have to work doubly hard…. What is important is whether you can deliver what you promise, and the quality of the delivery’. Public opinion would be no less severe on a Muslim than on a non-Muslim NGO if it failed to deliver.

My conclusion therefore, based on admittedly incomplete data, is that the ‘cultural proximity’ between Muslim aid agencies and the people of Aceh has been a factor in making access possible and, to some extent, in smoothing the way for good working relationships. There is undoubtedly considerable potential for such agencies to make specially valuable contributions in future when Muslim countries are afflicted with disasters of any kind; and also for non-Muslim agencies to form productive partnerships with Islamic agencies that can show a good track record. (8) But if any Muslim agency were tempted to rely on its cultural proximity to such populations as an excuse for neglecting all the other factors that make for successful aid delivery, that would be a mistake. The cultural differences that divide Muslims from one another also work against the theoretical solidarity of the Muslim umma.

In conclusion, the evidence suggests that Islamic agencies are capable of doing at least as well as secular or Christian agencies. Their actual and potential efficacity needs to be set in the balance against suspicions, almost certainly much exaggerated, that the privileges of some Islamic charities are being abused for nefarious purposes (Benthall 2007a, 2007c). It should not be necessary to demonstrate that they do better than secular or Christian agencies. It is surely enough that they can do as well.

The issue of ‘cultural proximity’ or ‘communitarian aid’ is clearly sensitive: especially in conflict zones, it can call in question the Dunantian principles of humanitarian action: neutrality, impartiality and universality. Significantly, some secular agencies such as Médecins Sans Frontières and CARE are now making tentative moves towards collaboration with Islamic NGOs in Muslim regions where they have serious difficulty in working. Some academic attention is now being given to the issue of cultural proximity (de Cordier 2007, 2008),  but there is a lack so far of sustained field research which would provide a solid evidential base for debate in the humanitarian community.


I am grateful to the Nuffield Foundation for a travel grant, and to the Royal Anthropological Institute for facilitating it; also to Islamic Relief for logistic support and hospitality. Thanks are also due to many people in Aceh associated with governmental and non-governmental organizations for giving time to me, and to C.W. Watson and Jonathan Zilberg for background information.

Ethical guidelines agreed with the Royal Anthropological Institute have been observed in reporting the views of informants.


1. The impact of this change will be softened by the implementation by aid agencies of medium-term infrastructure, economic recovery and sustainable livelihoods programmes, and by the inflow of increased funds to Aceh from the central government budget as a result of the new political settlement.

2. ‘BRR: criticized, praised for its Aceh work’, Jakarta Post, 11 April 2007.

3. However, the authors of international evaluation reports have themselves been locally criticized for making judgments based on short visits. I noticed an ‘evaluation fatigue’ which made my own research project harder to carry out in Aceh than in Mali.

4. Colloquially known as the shari’ah police, though they do not in fact have police powers.

5. ‘Christian Group Never Had Custody of Orphans: WorldHelp Partner in Indonesia Says No Steps Were Taken to Obtain 300 Children’ by Alan Sipress Washington Post Foreign Service Saturday, January 15, 2005; Page A16

6. ‘Work continues in Southeast Asia:  Church partners with major organizations to serve victims’, Sarah Jane Weaver, LDS Church News, 27 May 2006.

7. My singling out of these two UK based NGOs was due to contacts I had with them already in Britain, where I am based, and to that extent reflects an observer bias. However, it is also true that Islamic NGOs are particularly well established and active in Britain, partly owing to the sympathetic policies of the UK Charity Commission. A third, smaller UK based agency, Muslim Hands, has also undertaken field operations in Aceh.

8. In June 2007, the US-based United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) signed a partnership agreement in London with Muslim Aid, intended to result in a flow of about $15 million to relief in disaster and conflict zones, including Indonesia. The question of collaboration between Muslim and Christian NGOs is raised by Benedetti (2006).


Benedetti, C. (2006) ‘Islamic and Christian inspired relief NGOs: Between tactical collaboration and practical diffidence’, Journal of International Development 18:6, 849-59.
Bennett, J. et al. (2006) ‘Coordination of international humanitarian assistance in tsunami-affected countries: evaluation findings: Indonesia’,
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Benthall, J. (1993) Disasters, Relief and the Media, London: I.B. Tauris.
——(2006) ‘Islamic aid in a north Malian enclave’, Anthropology Today 22:4, August. 19-21
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One Response to Have Islamic aid agencies a privileged relationship in majority Muslim areas? The case of post-tsunami reconstruction in Aceh

  1. mehmet ozay says:

    The researcher is true in mentioning based on his interview with a staff of the TRCS that there were only few people had been aware of the Aceh-Turk relations historcially. Hence, as soon as the tsunami occurred some distinguished and renowed journalists wrote down and reminded to large circles of Turkish society the aforementioned relations. And it was not a surprise after this soft ‘announcement’ from “experts” the Turkish nation increased the flow of aid into Aceh not only as material but also immaterial.

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