funding and burma article

For anybody that is interested in development, humanitarian aid, etc, this is very interesting.  Plus, it’s OSI that’s largely being talked about in terms of criticizing the report.  Go figure 🙂

The Nation (Thailand)

Burma could be next humanitarian folly

The unfolding controversy in North Korea is testament to the pitfalls of humanitarian assistance. Recent allegations reveal that tens of millions of dollars, even US$100 million (Bt35 billion), earmarked for humanitarian aid may have been misappropriated by Kim Jong-il over the past decade, possibly even funding his nuclear programme.

There are numerous other examples of humanitarian blunders in repressive and corrupt countries, the consequence of aid agencies operating unfettered by strict codes of practice. Ultimately, the insistence of pro-democracy activists upon transparency and accountability may help aid agencies in Burma to prevent the SPDC from looting, pillaging or otherwise perverting their programmes. Thus far, however, the efforts of the democracy movement have met considerable resistance from some corners, even on seemingly non-controversial matters like ensuring that aid actually reaches its purported beneficiaries.

In December, the International Crisis Group (ICG) levelled the most truculent criticisms yet in a briefing, entitled “Myanmar: New Threats to Humanitarian Assistance”. A respected conflict prevention organisation, the ICG offers incisive and timely analysis concerning global crises. Its coverage of Indonesia, for example, is unparalleled. In contrast, ICG’s coverage of Burma has been spotty, often relying exclusively on interviews conducted with Rangoon elite, and reflecting their perspectives and interests to the detriment of others.

The ICG’s latest briefing follows a two year silence on Burma. Openly contemptuous, it characterises the Burmese democracy movement as an “anti-aid lobby” that has “long tried to curtail foreign aid to [Burma], limit [humanitarian agencies] funding and operational flexibility, and contributed to their strained relations with the [SPDC]”.

Specifically, the report blames the democracy movement for the controversial withdrawal of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria in August of 2005. The ICG contends that the democracy movement’s stance on aid threatens to rekindle a new cycle of conflict and humanitarian emergencies in Burma.

In January, Aryeh Neier, the director of the Open Society Institute, released a nine-page critique of the ICG Briefing. His response lays bare ICG’s flimsy research and its misleading, incomplete, and erroneous assertions. Neier, for example, elaborates numerous instances in which the authors footnote public documents while omitting information in those documents that is inconsistent with the story ICG presents, and thereby distorting the positions of the groups to which views are attributed.

Although Neier stops short of labelling the ICG briefing as intellectually dishonest, he clearly insinuates such. He concludes ICG does a disservice to the cause of fair-minded debate by publishing a “shoddy briefing which relies on gossip in the place of evidence”.

The National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) is equally disturbed by the ICG’s report. Although the ICG essentially condemns the aid policy of the democracy movement, no effort was made to contact the NCGUB in order to verify its position on humanitarian assistance. In fact, the NCGUB has publicly called upon the European Union to fund HIV/Aids prevention programmes in the areas where the problem is most prevalent. Position papers to this effect are publicly available. ICG cites some of them, but apparently failed to read them.

The dearth of resources in the context of Burma’s HIV/Aids crisis is tragic but it is disingenuous to attribute this to the democratic opposition. Although awash in hard currency flows realised from its offshore natural gas pipelines, the SPDC continues to procure military hardware while neglecting desperately needed social services. In fact, Burma is ranked by the World Health Organisation 190th out of 191 countries in terms of spending on health care!

To further complicate matters, the SPDC continues to heavily restrict international aid agencies. In February of last year, the government issued guidelines severely restricting aid agencies. The SPDC has since forced international organisations to terminate employees with political backgrounds, to recruit staff from government-approved lists, and to control the manner in which money is transacted. Similar restrictions in North Korea likely mitigated the effectiveness of UN programmes and contributed to the misappropriation of humanitarian funds.

Aid without conditions is sheer folly. The Global Fund’s withdrawal set an important precedent – no aid if the SPDC insists on stealing or otherwise obviating aid’s effectiveness. Humanitarian Dialogue and Medecins Sans Frontier (Doctors Without Borders) have subsequently withdrawn in response to the SPDC’s restrictions and the International Committee of the Red Cross has significantly scaled back its operations. The democracy movement did not pull the strings of these organisations – they acted in accordance with their strict mandates and experiences garnered in humanitarian crisis around the world.

ICG’s approach is divisive and unfortunate. By presenting Burma’s complex situation in such polemical terms the ICG has further politicised aid. Castigating the democracy movement as opponents of humanitarian assistance distracts attention from the real culprit – the repressive military government. The democratic movement and international aid agencies in Burma share common objectives – the betterment of the Burmese people. The democracy movement and aid agencies working in Burma should continue to work together toward that end.

Postscript: in response to Neier’s critique the ICG has acknowledged shortcomings in its analysis and research and has redacted parts of its online briefing but stands by its characterisation of the democracy movement as obstructive of humanitarian assistance and by extension a potential threat to the future viability of the Burmese state.

Dr Thaung Htun is the National Coalitition Government of the Union of Burma’s representative for United Nations Affairs.

Dr Thaung Htun

Special to The Nation


LOAD-DATE: February 16, 2007



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One Response to “funding and burma article”

  1. One thing I’d like to do w/ my nursing degree is international relief. I’ve been craving it for years…can’t wait for the day that i can actually go somewhere.

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