Thursday, June 4, 2009

ASEAN-led humanitarian aid effort needed in Burma

by Larry Jagan

Bangkok (Mizzima) - Many international and regional aid officials are now suggesting using an ASEAN-led model for all future humanitarian assistance to Burma.

Last weekend was the anniversary of the establishment of the Tripartite Core Group (TCG) – the international communities’ response to the Burmese government’s reluctance to accept international relief aid and assistance in the first few weeks after Cyclone Nargis devastated most the Irrawady Delta and parts of the former capital Rangoon.

The success of the TCG, which primarily helped coordinate the international community’s response to the devastating affect of Cyclone Nargis in May last year, has led many ASEAN officials, international aid workers and UN representatives to urge the Burmese government to consider extending the process to cover all humanitarian and development projects throughout the country..

Aid workers believe it would be particularly useful as a model to improve international support provided to the west of the country, the home of nearly a million Burmese Muslims – known as Rohinygas – who are causing international concern because of their mass exodus to escape poverty and repression there.

The ASEAN-led mechanism, which brought together the south-east Asian regional body, UN agencies and the Burmese government, was invaluable in ensuring a rapid and effective relief effort in the weeks immediately after the cyclone hit Burma. “The dialogue and good cooperation between its members contributed to facilitate the efficient, transparent and accountable provision of relief and recovery efforts,” the UN’s resident humanitarian coordinator, Bishow Parajuli told Mizzima.

It was critical in getting speedy access to the Delta for relief workers and providing visas for international staff from NGOs and the UN that were needed to support the relief effort in the first few months after the cyclone. The Burmese government was initially reluctant to accept relief materials and allow large numbers of aid workers into the country.

“Without the TCG the humanitarian impasse may have dragged on,” Andrew Kirkwood, head of the UK-based aid agency, Save the Children in Burma told Mizzima. “The TCG helped to build trust, coordinated the aid effort, and overcame obstacles like visa handling for humanitarian workers,” said Matt MacGuire, Cyclone Recovery Co-ordinator in Rangoon for the British government’s Department for International Development (DIFD).

Many aid workers believe it could now be used now to respond to the problems in Northern Arakan state. More than a thousand Rohinygas made international headlines earlier this year when they were allegedly pushed out to sea by the Thai authorities after braving the turbulent waters from Bangladesh to Thailand and Malaysia in search of a better life. Hundreds ended up in Indonesia and India, as well as Thailand.

These refugees and their future became a major regional issue. ASEAN at their summit in Thailand in February decided that the Bali Process, established in 2002 to deal with human trafficking and other crimes in the region should deal with it. At the same time the countries of the region proposed that ASEAN coordinate a census of those Rohingyas languishing in south-east Asian countries.

This raised the prospect of a TCG-type mechanism to deal with the issue, particularly as the south-east Asian nations endorsed the idea that the Rohingya issue had also to be dealt with at source – the causes for the mass exodus – as well as their repatriation.

“The TCG could have an enormous benefit if it could be extended to the rest of the country or to specific areas like Northern Rakhine state (NRS),” Luke Arend, Medecines Sans Frontiere’s Deputy Head of Mission in Burma told Mizzima.

But other senior humanitarian officials in Burma believe it is the co-operation and coordination that the TCG established between the three sides involved that should be replicated.

“The cooperation between the TCG partners -- Government, ASEAN and the UN representing the international humanitarian community -- has worked well, and the UN hopes that the parties can have an open dialogue and joint efforts in facilitating the delivery of humanitarian and development assistance to other parts of the country,” Mr. Parajuli told Mizzima.

That is also the view of the ASEAN Secretary General, Surin Pitsuwan whose single-handed efforts gave birth to the TCG a year ago. “An ASEAN-kind of initiative, whether it’s the same as the humanitarian task force, or the TCG, at this point doesn’t matter,” the ASEAN chief told Mizzima.

“Neither Myanmar nor ASEAN have the resources necessary to help the humanitarian needs of the people in Northern Rakhine State. So an ASEAN-led mechanism of some sort could be helpful. But we have to wait for the evolution of the environment -- political or otherwise -- to see if there is an opening in which we can make an offer.”

So far the Burmese government has not responded to such suggestions. It has not even been discussed, according to the regional head of United Nations Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok, Raymond Hall, which is the lead agency in that area.

“It would, of course, be technically feasible to use the TCG model for assistance in NRS,” Mr. Hall told Mizzima “The discussions that have taken place between UNHCR and the Myanmar Government have focussed on a strengthening of our own programme in NRS and increasing the UN country team’s involvement.”

“Although the TCG came about in the very particular circumstances of the cyclone, a case could be made for ASEAN, the UN and the Burmese regime to develop a means of working together in other areas like NRS,” said Matt MacGuire. “But we see the rather different coordination structure of the 3 Diseases Fund as the preferred model for the new livelihoods fund that’s being set up at the moment.”

The 3-D Fund was set up primarily by the EU, several key European countries and Australia to replace the Global Fund when it pulled out of the country several years ago. Now the EU is putting the finishing touches to a project to provide financial and technical assistance to poor farmers, not just in the Delta but throughout the country.

The EU’s Livelihood and Food Security Trust Fund or LIFT aims to assist small farmers get access to credit, through the establishment of village revolving funds; provide technical and skills training, including fish rearing and small scale marketing; and help improve rural households’ incomes. The scheme also wants to set up small local factories producing items needed to improve farming yields, including producing axes, hoes, rakes, spades, shovels, picks and sickles. Through these projects, LIFT is expected to put a $ 100 million into the rural economy over the next five years.

The important lesson of Nargis and the TCG, according to many aid officials, was that it provided a forum for discussion and helped build trust and understanding on all sides. “The TCG was extremely important because it helped generate confidence on all sides,” said Andrew Jacobs, who heads the regional development division in the EU’s Bangkok office.

But instead of extending the TCG, the signs are that the model has run its course and is likely to be allowed to grind to a halt. The Burmese government has effectively extended the TCG for another year; a decision that was conveyed to ASEAN at their summit in the Thai sea-side resort of Hua Hin in February. But already there are signs that not all is going to run as smoothly as it did, even in the Delta.

Visas are now taking much longer to approve as the TCG no longer is responsible. “It’s taking around 4 weeks for visas now, more than double the previous fast-tracking process,” said a western diplomat based in Bangkok who monitors humanitarian and development issues in Burma. “Most international NGOs now have a substantial back-log of people waiting for visas,” he said. “And permission to go to projects is also taking substantially longer.”

Most aid workers still prefer to put a brave face on it. “The end of the TCG would not be the end of our ability to deliver humanitarian assistance,” Andrew Kirkwood insisted. “It would only mean that we would have to work in the Delta under the same rules as we do in the rest of the country. These rules are more restrictive on international staff, but not for national staff. We would still be able to deliver assistance on a large-scale and in an independent, accountable manner,” he told Mizzima.

“If the Myanmar Government fazed out of the TCG, it would be the end of a successful mechanism which has brought unprecedented access in Myanmar,” said Luke Arend deputy head of the MSF mission in Burma.

The TCG has also helped improve the confidence of the international donors and encouraged a greater financial commitment to Burma’s humanitarian and development needs. “Many donors remain cautious about large-scale aid assistance to Myanmar, particularly outside of the Nargis affected areas,” said Andrew Kirkwood. “The $70 per head of aid assistance raised for the survivors of Nargis dwarfs the $3 per head in aid assistance allotted to the rest of the citizens of Myanmar. But, this must be balanced by the fact that other countries in the region, namely Laos and Cambodia, receive net aid flows of close to $50 per head, year after year.”

Rather than extending the TCG, greater effort needs to be made in getting the Burmese government at the highest level to discuss the country’s overall humanitarian and development needs, a senior UN official based in Rangoon told Mizzima confidentially. “The government thinks it knows what its doing – by building bridges, dams and road, sustained development will magically follow,” he said. “It won’t!”

But only the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon can have the kind of conversation that is needed, especially with Than Shwe, said the senior UN official. So it must be one of his priorities when he visits Burma later this year.

Some critics suggest that actually what Burma needs for development and the Delta’s recovery in particular, is not more financial aid, but dramatic reform of the country’s agricultural and financial sectors.

“There little hope of the Irrawaddy Delta recovering fully in the absence of the recapitalisation and reinvigoration of Burma's rural credit system,” said Sean Turnell, a Professor of Economics at Australia’s Macquarie University and a Burma expert. “Farmers in Burma have essentially stopped using fertiliser since they lack the credit to buy it. Yields are down. And as a consequence the possibility of widespread food shortages looms this year,” he told Mizzima.

“Little investment or land improvement is taking place, so recovery to pre-Nargis output in affected areas looks remote - and improvements that would lift Burma to the place it should be (and historically was) on the global agricultural scene, is impossible to imagine,” he added.

What Burma needs more than anything else is economic reforms, a liberalised rice market, and a robust financial sector, including extensive micro-credit schemes. This is clearly not on the junta’s agenda. And the Burmese people may be better off in the future, if the international community suspended most aid programmes until the regime seriously considered liberal economic reforms.

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