Friday, 11 July 2008

Burmese Needs Divide the Aid Industry - Commentary

The Irrawaddy News

If the deadly Cylone Nargis helped create a greater humanitarian space inside Burma, it would be welcome news indeed. More aid and more relief workers should be able to enter Burma and assist the Burmese.

John Holmes, UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, has told a press conference: “The relief operation is proceeding. The access for international humanitarian relief workers has improved markedly over the last six weeks; though we are still working on that. But, I think, we have made distinct progress.”

Questioned about access to the Irrawaddy delta, Holmes said conditions had changed a lot and relief workers were being allowed to go there—“Not unlimited as we would like, but it is improving all the time. Access is improving and is being made easier.”

Cyclone Nargis and its aftermath are doubtless a mega challenge for every humanitarian group. UN agencies and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), who have previously played only a limited role in helping the needy, can now sense that their post-cyclone efforts could be expanded beyond the delta.

If the generals are smart enough to relate to UN and international agencies and open more doors to them, more aid will flood into Burma.

Many INGOs are waiting for the opportunity to work inside the country and to have more access to the local population. INGOs engaged in a wide range of work have their own agenda in advancing their operations inside the country.

Perhaps the opportunity now arises for the international community to create a space inside Burma to open up local communities and work with them.

Despite a measure of optimism, shared by John Holmes, much skepticism remains about the regime’s policy toward the UN and INGOs.

Wider implications also come into play. Because of the attention claimed by Cyclone Nargis, it is feared that there will be less money available to help more than 100,000 Burmese refugees living in camps along the Thai-Burmese border. Some observers express concern that border-based projects and cross-border operations will be jeopardized.

In recent years there has been a shift in the attention given to the plight of the refugees and in the flow of aid.

Burma watchers say that after the Global Fund stopped funding the fight inside Burma against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in 2005, bitter competition over funding developed between INGOS working inside and outside the country.

The Global Fund, which had pledged US $100 million over five years, said it halted its Burma program because of increased travel restrictions inside the country made it difficult for aid workers to function properly, although political reasons were also reported to be behind the decision.

The Three Diseases (3-D) Fund took over the fight to control Burma’s three main killer diseases, but competition between the INGOs over territory and funding continues. Concern deepens that long-established humanitarian projects will be neglected and refugees and migrants will be left alone and unprotected.

There has never been much love lost between groups working inside Burma and those outside the country. Border-based INGOs accuse those working within the country of allowing themselves to be compromised by the regime and even kowtowing to the junta, mixing politics and humanitarian concerns.

There are even reports of rowdy INGO parties in Rangoon’s luxury hotels. “My downtown hotel was packed with INGO workers and the bar was doing great business,” one US philanthropist told The Irrawaddy. “There were young aid workers there who had never stayed in such a hotel and who seemed to forget why they were there at all.”

A similar scene has been reported by some visitors to the Thai-Burmese border town of Mae Sot, which also has a lively night-life.

The foreign aid workers and policy makers advocating Burma-based projects often accuse border-based NGOs of being narrow-minded, political, divisive and of exploiting local communities for religious and political purposes.

They claim that those with vested interests want to keep refugees in the camps—security officials, rebel and political groups are anxious to maintain the status quo and even rice traders with lucrative deals to supply the camps.

It is indeed ironic that while more than 2 million Burmese are living and working in Thailand, 100,000 refugees continue to live in the camps.

Relief missions working within Burma insist that more assistance is needed there given the degree of poverty and the large population. Refugees in the border camps, they claim, are better off than people in the rural areas of Burma. Cross-border aid is just throwing water into the sand, they maintain.

Although the division between the two groups doubtless has an impact on local communities who really are in need of assistance, there’s no sign of a reconciliation of views.

At the same time, cooperation and communication between Burmese living on the border and those inside the country have increased and intensified.

Burmese have been traveling in and out of Burma, establishing contacts and building networks and making friends. Exiled Burmese have organized fund-raising ceremonies and contributed donations to causes inside Burma.

Several influential Buddhist monks inside and outside Burma have cooperated in raising money to help people in the affected areas.

Cyclone Nargis swept away the old divisions. There is no more “inside” and “outside.”

After all, Burma is a poor and crisis-torn country and a perfect place for “emergency cowboys”, consultants, international foundations and the UN to work.

For the past 20 years, relief workers of all kinds have been coming and going, but at the end of the day it is the Burmese who have to work to rebuild the country.

The relief workers thrive on crisis. Cyclone Nargis and its aftermath will soon be no longer an emergency that warranted huge international aid. The aid machine will move on, propelled by many who are building careers on crisis management.

They will leave behind the true crisis managers—the Burmese themselves, on whose shoulders falls the greatest weight of reconstructing their shattered country.

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