June 20, 2008
The international community has poured $85 million dollars into Myanmar, but rights groups claim the junta is already misusing and manipulating aid, preventing it from reaching cyclone survivors who need it most urgently.
"The misuse of aid remains a concern," Amnesty International's Southeast Asia researcher, Benjamin Zawacki told me. "Indeed, the problem with much aid distribution to date is not so much that it has fallen into the 'wrong hands', but that it has not reached the right ones. There are still people who have not received aid, and much of it remains simply unaccounted for."
Amnesty has reported several cases where aid delivered by the junta was conditioned on cyclone victims' willingness to work, or to vote in the May constitutional referendum, or join the military. It has confirmed over 40 reports of soldiers or local government officials confiscating, diverting, or misusing aid intended for cyclone survivors.
The group has reported that the military junta is forcibly displacing survivors from official and non-official settlements, leaving them with no alternative shelter.
Zawacki stressed that Amnesty is concerned about further manipulation of aid as the rehabilitation, reconstruction, and resettlement phases of the operation get underway. "The reconstruction of rural infrastructure projects is a particular worry," he said. "Work-for-food schemes are acceptable and even advantageous, but they must be designed and administered on a fair and voluntary basis."
Debbie Stothard from the advocacy group Alternative Asean Network on Burma said there wasn't any doubt Burma's government had already misused aid.
"They have been warehousing the aid and refusing offers of helicopters and other transportation of equipment from ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and other countries that could be used to deliver aid quickly and efficiently," Stothard said. "Generals have been photographed handing out boxes plastered with their names, aid that was clearly donated by neighbouring countries and international agencies."
Rights watchdogs, U.N. agencies, and NGOs have unanimously expressed concern about the potential misuse or corruption of aid since Burma announced the rescue phase of the cyclone response had ended, and that $11 billion was needed for reconstruction.
Stothard's organisation said there were reports that the junta has discriminated against minority Karen in their aid delivery, after displacing 76,000 Karen civilians in a military offensive in the east of the country that is still ongoing.
The Karen make up half the population in the delta, and have been fighting the Burmese regime for decades for their own homeland.
"We have been demanding for access by independent assessment teams to all affected areas so that ethnic Karen complaints of discrimination by the junta can be properly investigated," she said.
Stothard said Karen affected by the cyclone were already making their way to the Thai-Burmese border. "They are desperate for help... Help that had been denied them in the delta area for over a month since Cyclone Nargis."
The Irrawaddy, a magazine run by exiled journalists from Burma in Chiang Mai, Thailand, reported that aid workers in Laputta township told them the Ayear Shwe Wah company was pressuring cyclone survivors to work on reconstruction projects for $0.70 a day.
The magazine said that Burma's generals had allegedly given lucrative reconstruction contracts to companies run by their cronies, many with spotty track records of corruption and illegal activity.
According to the Irrawaddy, one of the companies is Asia World, the country's biggest construction firm. It's run by Tun Myint Naing, also known as Steven Law, a Burmese businessman on a U.N. sanctions list because of his suspected links with drug trafficking.
International NGO Transparency International ranked Burma as the most corrupt among 179 countries surveyed in its 2007 Corruption Perception Index. Burma was matched only by Somalia, and followed closely by Iraq. Many aid groups insist their long histories in the country give them leverage to get around corruption entirely. Before the cyclone, some 50 aid organisations were working in Burma.
Sarah Saxton, press officer for Britain's Department for International Development (DfID), said: "Our aid is going only to the U.N., Red Cross and NGOs, not directly to the government." She told me: "We are funding these organisations, as they have a good track record of delivery in Myanmar."
Yet given the nature of Burma's regime and the country's political situation, DfID and others are taking extra steps to ensure aid isn't misused or corrupted "The system will bring together local and expatriate staff of DfID's partner organisations, and involve coordination meetings with DfID in country," Saxton said.
But without full access to affected areas, especially the delta, the risks of aid going array dramatically rise. BYPASSING PROBLEMS
The charge d'affaires at the U.S. embassy in Rangoon, Shari Villarosa, told me: "For that reason, donors from around the world have repeatedly emphasised the need for unhindered international access into the cyclone-affected areas." She said: "In that way, we will be able to closely monitor the distribution of relief supplies to ensure that they get to those most in need."
Yet even if full access is granted, aid groups may not be able to entirely prevent the misuse or corruption of funds.
Marie-Luise Ahlendorf, programme coordinator of the Humanitarian Assistance Project at Transparency International, said: "Their relatively small presence prior to the cyclone in Myanmar puts them at a disadvantage in understanding the social context and local power structures, and thus preventing corrupt abuse of international aid."
A report by the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) on the lessons aid agencies should learn from Cyclone Nargis said the unique challenges in Burma - restricted access in particular - made it necessary for relief organisations to be flexible. "It is important for donors to accept the dynamic and highly unpredictable context, and create forms of accountability which are tailored to the specific situations, enabling agents to operate in an adaptive fashion to changing circumstances," the report says.
It all brings to mind the problems for aid agencies in North Korea, which the regime reluctantly opened to international aid groups in the mid-1990s after a series of natural disasters created food shortages that threatened millions of lives.
But most international aid groups - with the exception of the World Food Programme and a few others - have pulled out of North Korea because the government prevented them from accessing affected people.
When it comes to Burma, international agency CARE insists its 14-year track record allows it to keep a close watch on where supplies wind up.
"Our operations are carried out by long-time CARE staff and local partners, and we are able to track our supplies and equipment from the point of purchase or delivery through to the distribution to the survivors themselves," CARE media officer Melanie Brooks told me.
Action Against Hunger also says it hasn't allowed country's political situation to stop it from launching relief programmes in Burma.
"If you follow the agreement that you have with the authorities, you find a way to do the job," Jean-Michel Grand, director of Action Against Hunger UK, told Reuters after the cyclone.
"As long as we're working on humanitarian activities, we find a modus operandi with the authorities and that's been for the last 15 years," he said.