Friday, 18 July 2008

Delivering Aid While Countering Corruption

By Yeni
The Irrawaddy News

The United Nations’ top humanitarian relief official, John Holmes, will visit Burma soon to assess the progress of humanitarian relief work in cyclone-affected areas of the country.

Holmes will also attend a meeting in Singapore on Monday to take part in the release of the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA) Report by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the Burmese regime and the United Nations, with technical support from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

It is widely believed the PONJA report will prompt an outpouring of donations for the UN's revised fundraising appeal for US $480 million over the next year for emergency relief and reconstruction following the Cyclone Nargis disaster.

Meanwhile, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo, asked to evaluate Asean's achievement in supporting the relief effort, gave a C grade to the groupings’ role.

"We feared the worst initially, but it turned out not to be an F grading," The Straits Times quoted Yeo as saying. "Certainly not an A or B, but I would say on the whole, with Asean's assistance and Asean taking the lead in bringing humanitarian assistance into Burma, we could give ourselves a C grade."

Burma’s xenophobic government initially blocked the free-flow of international aid and aid workers to devastated areas. Later, the Burmese generals turned the natural disaster into a diplomatic playground, allowing representatives of the tri-partite core group limited access to the hardest-hit areas, even as Burma's infamous bureaucratic red tape slowed everything down.

One outcome has been that the growing gap between the value of the US dollar and Burmese foreign exchange certificates (FECs) has turned the relief effort into a major cash cow for the junta. Usually, US dollars are technically equal in value to a FEC. But business sources in Burma say the price of FECs started to fall in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, as the junta decided to allow major international aid donations and Burmese living overseas to transfer large amounts of cash into Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank (MFTB) accounts to support the relief effort.

Holmes, who is in contact with junta leaders, said: “My impression from what I heard is that there is not a significant problem. There may be moments when the difference between the dollar and FEC is significant, but by and large it is not.”

Many critics of the relief effort believe the UN and Asean should be more pro-active in addressing the risks of corruption. Corruption controls should not be seen as a factor that could slow down aid delivery or, in some cases, stop projects. Some people fear the UN and regional groups are strengthening the junta by taking an overly cautious, speak-softly approach.

Meanwhile, more than one million people, nearly half the cyclone survivors, have still not received any aid services, and the refugees at government-run temporary refugee camps will be forced to return to their flattened villages at the end of this month.

Many refugees are pawns in the hands of the junta. Too many refugees, including children, in the hard-hit townships of Laputta, Bogalay, Pyapon and Dedaye have endured inhumane conscription by Ward Peace and Development Councils and military troops to provide forced labor.

Burma's ruling generals must be smiling, pleased at how they have successfully handled the international community. It’s no surprise that the junta has invited Ibrahim Gambari, the special UN envoy on Burma, to visit the country in mid-August. The generals remain on top of their game, firmly entrenched as they move toward a national election in 2010 that’s designed to give them political control.

Meanwhile, the country’s leading pro-democracy figure, Aung San Suu Kyi, remains under house arrest and opposition groups suffer intimidation and the threat of arrests.

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