Thursday, December 20, 2007

Burma: Aid in a tight space

Burmese women working in the fields in Shan State, Myanmar

Myanmar (formerly Burma), with a population of some 52 million, is one of the poorest countries in Asia, yet international aid had been negligible until recently.

Aid flows are rising, despite the isolation of the regime, a tense political environment and limited humanitarian space, according to the former top UN official in the country.

In September 2007, peaceful anti-government protests led by Buddhist monks were followed by a government crackdown attracting major international attention and diplomatic condemnation.

The former UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, Charles Petrie, was obliged to leave his post in early December at the request of the Myanmar government.

In a show of support for UN efforts in Myanmar, Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, met the Myanmar UN country team on 10 December during a visit to neighbouring Thailand. He warned that the international community was “running out of patience” with Myanmar’s government.

“The people of Myanmar have suffered from isolation for such a long time and it is high time now for the Myanmar authorities and people to be able to enjoy genuine democracy and genuine integration in the international community,” he said.


Since September, day-to-day operations of most aid projects have not become much more difficult than they already were, Petrie said. However, he said levels of mistrust had increased, and engaging with the regime remained difficult.

“We are in a period of trying to protect the gains we have made,” said Petrie. “We have a regime that is now starting to look at us - focusing on us - and we are trying to push back their attempts to confine us.”

Those gains include an increase in international aid to the country, despite qualms among donors and multilateral organisations about the government’s human rights and governance record. In mid-2003 international aid was less than US$70 million, or less than $1.50 per capita - far less per capita than the assistance pouring into nearby Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam, according to Petrie.

However, over the last three years, international aid has nearly tripled to around US$200 million, Petrie told IRIN.

Petrie was forced to leave Myanmar after his release of a 24 October statement publicly linking the September 2007 protests to widespread frustration at the hardships of day-to-day living and a “deteriorating humanitarian situation.”

Petrie insists the UN had a “moral obligation” to state what it saw as an inescapable truth about the country’s worsening socio-economic situation.

Myanmar is not yet in the throws of a classic humanitarian crisis, Petrie says. But malnutrition and poverty are pervasive and conditions are worsening, with growing displacement from land seizures and conflict. “The crisis of Myanmar is not a humanitarian emergency,” he says. “It’s a poverty emergency that is leading towards a humanitarian crisis.”

Aid through non-state structures

Reluctant to channel aid through state structures, aid agencies and donors have struggled to deliver assistance in ways that are consistent with humanitarian principles. They mainly work through non-state structures, such as religious groups, and national staff. The UN’s national staff number around 3,000 people.

Nearly $100 million has been pledged to a special fund to fight HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria in Burma; the World Food Programme (WFP) is scaling up; and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) is running micro-credit and community empowerment projects.

“The challenge of Myanmar is that it is a situation that is getting worse . . . defined by a regime that is basically embargoed,” said Petrie. “It’s a deteriorating situation from which the aid community is not allowed to work with the existing administrative structures to address the situation,” he added, saying: “The challenge on the assistance front is how to respond outside existing structures and how do you do it in an effective manner?”

Government guidelines

Efforts to regulate foreign aid workers have intensified since early 2006, when a range of new controls were declared by the government. “They decided we were too intrusive,” Petrie said. “There was a faction within the regime that saw aid as a political tool to support the opposition, support dissention, and empower groups against the regime.”

“They tried to co-opt our operations,” said Petrie, “but when they saw it wasn’t possible they just tried to marginalise us and constrain our activities.”

The government requires foreign aid workers to notify the authorities at least two weeks in advance of any plans to travel outside Yangon (formerly Rangoon).

The 2006 guidelines, strongly opposed by the aid community, imposed requirements that the authorities vet all Burmese staff hired by international organisations, that foreign aid workers be escorted by government officials on any trips outside Yangon, and that aid agencies work with the government-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Association on projects.

While the travel controls are generally enforced, said Petrie, the UN insisted on its independence in hiring staff, and also made it clear that it could not work in the manner indicated with the USDA. Subsequently, humanitarian sources say, international agencies faced greater administrative harassment, such as delays or denials of passport renewals for Burmese UN staff, and denials or revocation of permission to hold meetings.

The Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA)

Headed by a general who is a member of the ruling junta, the USDA is a mass organisation that many in Myanmar are required to join in order to obtain services or retain government jobs. It carries out some government projects including, for example, the building of schools. It also organises pro-regime rallies. The USDA is expected to be converted into a pro-junta political party that will contest future elections, after the regime adopts a new constitution.

ICRC restricted

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) too faces restrictions. The ICRC, which until late 2005 had been visiting prison inmates, was forced to suspend such visits, due to the government’s insistence that ICRC staff be accompanied by USDA members in prison interviews - a violation of the ICRC’s principles of confidentiality.

"From 1999 until the end of 2005, ICRC delegates carried out regular visits to detainees in prisons and labour camps but since 2006 the authorities have not permitted the organization to continue this activity according to its standard procedures applied worldwide," according to the ICRC website.

Aid controversy

Aid to Myanmar remains controversial and is scrutinised among others by vocal, exiled Burmese dissidents, who have tended to see foreign aid as a prop for the regime; they question whether help can be delivered effectively without benefiting the government. Charles Petrie insists that it can.

“What we are doing in-country is using humanitarian principles of independence, neutrality, and impartiality to provide the space necessary to bring assistance,” he said.

Regardless of the pressure from both the regime and its critics, the former UN resident/humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar said the international community must not be deterred by his expulsion from pushing for greater space and freedom to help Myanmar’s needy.

“We need to maintain traction and momentum,” he said, to ensure the growing humanitarian needs of the Myanmar people are met.

Published with the permission of IRIN
Disclaimer: This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or Mike Hitchen Consulting