Global Policy Forum

Myanmar: NGOs Cut Smoother Path in the Delta,

Integrated Regional Information Networks
February 11, 2009

Last year's Cyclone Nargis dramatically altered the humanitarian landscape in Myanmar, with almost double the number of NGOs now operating in the Ayeyarwady Delta. In the weeks and months following the 2 and 3 May disaster, about 40 international NGOs were given permission to operate in the Nargis-affected areas. "That almost doubled the number of NGOs here, in a short space of time," said Kerren Hedlund, the NGO liaison officer in Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital. Much of this is credited to the Tripartite Core Group (TCG) comprising the government, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the UN, which has helped build trust between the various parties working to help those in need.

The experience of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which runs a US$10 million programme building schools and shelters in Labutta Township, is typical. "We came here after Nargis in June and made an assessment, came back in July and followed up, and then back in August and signed an agreement with the minister [of Social Welfare], " NRC country director Joern Kristensen told IRIN. "It was a very smooth process," he said. While most of the NGOs operating in Myanmar before the cyclone did so under agreements with the Ministry of Health, the new NGOs working in the delta liaise with the Ministry of Social Welfare, which has coordinated post-Nargis rehabilitation. "We have been very impressed with the cooperation and support from the government," said Kristensen. "No stumbling blocks - it's been like this ever since we started."

Better access
Existing NGOs have also seen an easing of restrictions in the delta, the result of new arrangements negotiated within the TCG. "The TCG has been critical in improving access," said Andrew Kirkwood, country director for Save the Children, which runs a recovery programme in the delta as well as health and education programmes across Myanmar, where it has operated for 14 years. "International staff can travel alone to the delta, without a government liaison officer, and permission takes one week. In the rest of the country permission to travel takes four weeks and we still travel with a liaison officer," Kirkwood said. In addition, some agencies without official permission to operate in Myanmar have channelled funds to a growing number of local NGOs that have been given greater freedom to operate under agreements reached by the TCG, say aid workers.

"The infrastructure is poor. It is an aquatic environment and difficult to move goods and materials around there," said Kristensen. In addition, agencies often struggle to recruit qualified staff. However, the number of people employed in the humanitarian sector has probably doubled since the cyclone struck, say aid workers. Save the Children's staff numbers increased to 1,600 from 500 and dozens of international staff were relocated to Myanmar, both on long and short-term contracts. "Most of our new staff had never worked for NGOs or done humanitarian work so there was a huge amount of learning and training," Kirkwood explained. "One of the legacies of Nargis is a much broader base of humanitarian workers in the country," he added.

Outside the delta
The issue for many humanitarians is whether positive aspects of the Nargis response can bring a permanent improvement to the operating environment across Myanmar. Expected donor funding for a three-year $691 million recovery plan for cyclone-affected communities, launched on 9 February, will be largely contingent on the extension of the TCG mechanism beyond June 2009 and possibly to other areas of the country. "Donors will be concerned that the freedom to operate will shrink without the TCG, and they won't have the confidence that their donation would have the same impact," Hedlund noted.

Yet access is not the only factor marking out the delta from the rest of the Myanmar. Other needy regions receive little development aid. "In money terms, a little over $100 per person per year is now being spent in the delta. That compares to $2.50 per head in the rest of the country," Kirkwood noted. "While it's right and proper that we spend that money in the delta we also need to focus on increasing that $2.50 figure. The needs are overwhelming," he said.

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