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Three months after Cyclone Nargis, the world has an outdated image of the situation inside Burma. Although aid agencies delivered assistance within days after the storm and continue to do so, the story of a recalcitrant government that rejects aid from the generous nations of the world has not been updated.
Aid agencies today report an unprecedented level of access and mobility in the Ayeyarwady Delta, which is a tribute to the successful fight by the United Nations, the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) and the United States for humanitarian access. But the gains in delivering relief supplies, gathering information about needs and supporting local communities are at risk without continued commitment to food security, livelihood and early recovery activities.
The Ground Truth
For two weeks, Refugees International interviewed the staff of over forty humanitarian organizations inside Burma. All report access to any requested part of the delta, including ethnic minority areas, and the ability to send international staff to train, implement and monitor programs without obstruction. Since June, over 1,000 visas have been granted to international aid workers. Similarly, agencies report the ability to resolve problems with the government, and praise the Tripartite Core Group (TCG) – the cyclone response structure comprised of working levels of the Burmese government, ASEAN and the United Nations – as an effective mechanism for resolving disputes. The TCG has ably removed obstacles related to visas, Foreign Exchange Certificates and the importation of food, among others.
Agencies also praised the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA), the first comprehensive, independent assessment of humanitarian need. For a country that has not conducted a national census in over 20 years, the information that it contains represents a major leap forward. PONJA is to be updated regularly to report on aid operations and their effectiveness, and ASEAN will establish six offices in the delta to better monitor and evaluate aid activities.
Burmese community based organizations were first responders that are now working to increase their capacity to provide effective aid. Local organizations with international support are providing training and funding to ensure that Burmese humanitarian groups can better assess and organize community assistance, improve their organizational structures and coordinate activities with each other and with international agencies. The work of local organizations is vital for the success of humanitarian operations in Burma as these groups promote self-reliance and reduce vulnerabilities. Support for groups that provide capacity building and training services to these organizations is as important as the provision of direct relief.
Improved information sharing and coordination between the UN and international and local NGOs, coupled with easier international access to the delta and donor support, have reduced suffering, saved lives and improved the overall humanitarian response to the affected population. While a large majority of cyclone victims have received some sort of assistance, and most are receiving regular food aid, the process of transitioning from relief to self-sufficiency will require international help well through 2009 and perhaps beyond. The international community must continue funding humanitarian assistance and begin livelihood and other early recovery activities that will allow the gradual phasing-out of emergency aid. (See Key Facts on Post-Cyclone Nargis Humanitarian Needs.)
The Political Struggle over International Aid
The demands of the relief effort have emboldened some Ministers within the Government of Burma to facilitate international cooperation, a story ignored by international reports that focus on the government’s obstructionism. Their success has created a new set of operational rules that are unique to the delta, including increased mobility for international staff; operations approved quickly through “letters of agreement;” the use of community organizing strategies; and improved communication between the international community and the government through the TCG. This new standard for humanitarian operations inside the cyclone affected areas should be commended by international organizations and donor governments and its application to the rest of the country should be advocated for by all actors.
Nonetheless, hardline isolationists are still determined to prevent further international involvement in Burmese affairs. This obstructionism has raised hurdles for relief operations, such as the failed attempt to impose strict guidelines on international agencies in June. More seriously, this conservative faction is attempting to exert its influence over on-going operations outside the delta, and is meddling with the annual memoranda of understanding (MOUs) of a number of long-standing operational agencies. With little clear direction being given from the senior leadership, multiple government officials appear to be implementing competing pro- and anti-engagement policies simultaneously in hopes that their actions will curry favor with top officials.
The sooner that the U.S. and other donor countries reaffirm their commitment to early recovery operations at least through 2009, the better the chance that the new openness in the delta will take hold. Ministers who have risked their political capital to support international involvement must be encouraged by donor commitments to more than a short-term infusion of humanitarian assistance. Without these commitments, isolationists may argue that humanitarian operations were more about scoring political points against the regime rather than aiding Burma.
Funding is Key
Gaps and delays in funding will hamper relief activities and could cause ruptures in the supply of essential goods. The U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) has led an exemplary operation to provide cyclone relief, granting almost $50 million to international NGOs and UN agencies. OFDA programs are scheduled to transition to the U.S. Agency for International Development in January 2009. Refugees International is concerned that to date no funding has been requested or identified by the Bush Administration or authorized by Congress to continue the needed relief programs in FY 2009.
Similarly in April 2009, the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) will hand over responsibility for future aid to the European Commission (EC). Currently the EC plans €6 million for cyclone operations, substantially below current ECHO funding levels. The British government has provided £45 million through March 2009, but has not determined funding past that date. Australia has announced $55 million for its 2008/2009 cyclone programs.
Humanitarian agencies have largely maintained their operations throughout the country while responding to the cyclone. Though many agencies temporarily pulled staff from regional offices throughout the country to work in the delta, few programs halted their nationwide operations to respond to Nargis.
Many humanitarian activists in Burma hope that the assessment, monitoring and access breakthroughs that characterize the delta operations will eventually lead to a revision of overall Burmese policy on humanitarian activities. Currently, the restrictions placed on agencies in other parts of the country remain unchanged (see “Key Facts on the Operating Environment for International Agencies,” March 2008). Many actors also hope for benefits from increased contact with Burmese officials, and one agency has indeed reported expanded access in another part of the country as a direct result of relationships built during cyclone operations.
It is too soon to tell if there will be a national transformation on humanitarian access. To encourage this transition, international agencies and donor governments must continue to demonstrate their willingness to engage in the delta and lend support to those Burmese officials who are pushing for a greater international role. Without this vital support – both financial and political – the international community may risk squandering the largest humanitarian opening inside Burma in the past twenty years.
Dawn Calabia and Megan Fowler assessed the cyclone response effort in Burma in August 2008.