Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Burmese deserve better

(Independent) - An admission by the UN this week that it had "lost" some $10m in aid to cyclone-stricken Burma must come as a shock to the many donors who forked out substantial sums to help the people of that poor, benighted country. It's arisen, according to the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Sir John Holmes, because of an arcane system by which the UN calculates the exchange rate. But the bottom line is that money that should be going to the purchase of goods and services for the suffering is instead going into the pockets of the Burmese military administration.

That would be bad enough in itself. The UN, which earlier this month issued an urgent appeal for an additional $300m in aid for the victims of Cyclone Nargis which hit the Irrawaddy Delta in May, has so far raised about $200m of its intended $482m total. So a loss of $10m is far from insignificant. It is especially galling, however, because it comes on top of increasing reports from the aid agencies of the misappropriation and abuse of such aid as is getting through. Right from the beginning of this natural disaster, the military junta that runs the country has consistently refused either to admit the true level of suffering or to give outside agencies the freedom to tackle it. Even on the government figures, the number of dead and missing has risen to some 138,000. Unofficial estimates put it much higher.

Access by agencies has continued to be restricted by a government that remains deeply suspicious of foreigners. The help from the UN and the World Food Programme, as from neighbouring countries, is all too often diverted into the coffers and the warehouses of the junta and their friends. Some of this may be unavoidable given the nature of the Burmese regime. Some may also be due as much to incompetence as corruption. But there are also worrying signs that the junta is using the disbursement of aid for political reasons, to enforce political compliance. It is not a satisfactory situation, especially for ordinary donors who have stumped up their own money to help a people in distress. Being told that the UN itself has lost $10m on the exchange is hardly reassuring.

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