Sunday, July 06, 2008

A Perspective from Inside Burma

The world (as defined by the international media) is now largely 'moving on' from the devastating cyclone Nargis in Burma/Myanmar, but of course reality proceeds at a more sluggish pace.

Recently I've been forwarded a couple of updates from a development practitioner working for an international NGO inside Burma and trying to assist the relief effort. The observations from this practitioner -- who we'll call 'John' -- provide a perspective that is different from the potted reports on the news wires. At times they read a little like an except from Catch-22.

In the first communique several weeks ago, 'John' described sitting in frustration in a comfortable hotel in Rangoon. All foreigners were restricted from visiting the affected areas in the Irawaddy delta, able only to blindly funnel aid through in the hope that it would reach the right people. The NGOs in the country were having proposals approved and were receiving funds, but were unable to obtain any detailed information from the affected areas or deploy staff skilled in programme logistics.

Meanwhile, great effort was going into restoring the ornamental parks of the capital to their former prettiness. Cranes, heavy machinery and workers toiled each day to repair the damage. At the same time, the principal waterways of the capital were still contaminated by rotting corposes, which were pushed away from the banks with long bamboo poles in the hope that they would float out to sea. It was too late for indentification, and John speculated that perhaps his 'host' didn't want to count the numbers dead, or couldn't spare the equipment for digging mass graves -- tied up as it was in the important task of park restoration.

Three weeks later, John forwarded another update. He had finally made it to the delta (six weeks late) and was endeavouring to take stock of the situation. What he found was a little different from the picture painted in the international media.

He said it was clear that many people had died needlessly, the Burmese regime cared little for the people, and there was a need for targeted humanitarian intervention.

Yet, as far as he could see, the local people had largely got on with the task of struggling through and rebuilding. In Bogale (one of the worst hit areas), by the time he arrived things seemed quite normal, the streets were clean, and all business were open.

Perhaps through no fault of the NGOs and the donors, the aid was late, and in many cases inappropriate. Post-hurricane, the 'experts' had worried about the risk of water-borne disease. International NGOs had arranged for airdrops of expensive water-purification kits, and a 747 had been chartered to bring in 15,000 50-litre plastic buckets. Yet this has turned out to be far less of an issue than predicted. Burmese village houses have guttering made of a split bamboo pole down which water runs into large clay pots (cheaper than and superior to the imported plastic buckets). Being monsoon season, there was plenty of clean drinking water and the rains were washing away parasites and mosquito eggs, meaning there wasn't much risk of water-borne disease or malaria.

Another practitioner with a food aid programme had returned from outlying villages where they had been distributing 'Kitchen Sets', complete with pots, pans, forks and spoons. He reported that people in the villages were quite mystified, having no idea what a spoon was used for.

The NGOs and development practitioners were left scratching their heads. Donor agencies had flooded the country with money and expensive equipment intended for an emergency which had largely passed and which in some cases was effectively useless. John wondered how much the donors really cared, given the overriding western agenda to open Burma up, and the opportunity to pump in money and people that the hurricane had offered.

On the other hand, the generals of the Burmese regime had seen this coming. Given their overriding interest in maintaining control of the country, their initial move of restricting the movement of aid workers, and ensuring they had little information about conditions in the hurricane-affected areas, made perfect logical sense.

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