Myanmar woos aid groups, but wariness remains

Myanmar woos aid groups, but wariness remains AFP/File – Cyclone Nargis which smashed through the southern delta region in May 2008 left an estimated 138,000 …


IRRAWADDY DELTA, Myanmar (AFP) – A tattered UN tarpaulin makes a shady awning for one of the huts dotting the emerald rice paddies of Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta, a reminder of the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis three years ago.
"We rebuilt everything ourselves -- the government did nothing," said Myo Tun, who came to the area with an international aid agency after the disaster struck and whose name AFP has changed to protect his identity.
Bodies were still floating in the area's network of waterways weeks after the cyclone hit, he said, as the ruling junta failed to act to help the region.
Now there are signs that the new, nominally civilian government, which took power earlier this year after controversial November elections that excluded democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, is striving to show a changed attitude.
President Thein Sein, a retired general who was prime minister during Nargis, has pledged to work more closely with humanitarian groups and responses to recent disasters suggest the approach has changed.
"They are more ready to give timely public information on details of these events, and to give access to international agencies," said Myanmar analyst Richard Horsey.
But privately, many remain cautious.
"I would not say that any organisation operates with 100 percent confidence in this country," said one senior international aid agency figure, asking not to be named.
Nargis smashed through the southern delta region on May 2, 2008 leaving an estimated 138,000 people dead or missing.
Myanmar's rulers refused foreign assistance for weeks while 2.4 million people struggled desperately for survival.
"Nargis was a real humanitarian watershed," said Chris Herink of World Vision, which took part in relief work after an earthquake hit eastern Myanmar in March.
Thousands are still sleeping in temporary shelters after the quake but, unlike when Nargis struck, those affected were helped quickly and by the army itself.
The United Nations said the earthquake, as well as Cyclone Giri, which affected an estimated 260,000 people in Myanmar's western Rakhine state last October, represented "increased cooperation" between agencies and government.
"It's an open question in terms of the new leadership and how they will regard humanitarian assistance and in particular international assistance," said Herink, who added that the signs at the moment were "positive".
Foreign aid has become crucial in filling the gaps left by a government that spent just 0.9 percent of its budget on health in 2007, according to the World Health Organisation -- substantially lower than any other country that year.
According to Save the Children, at least a third of all children in Myanmar are malnourished and one in 10 dies before the age of five.
In the past, overseas governments have scaled down aid in protest at rights abuses in Myanmar, or felt forced to pull out because of the junta's tight controls.
Sanctions have played a part, with major donors such as Europe restricting development assistance.
Overseas aid to Myanmar peaked in 2008 because of Nargis, but fell about 30 percent to $357 million -- or around $6 per person -- in 2009, according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Neighbouring Laos received 10 times more per person that year.
There are signs that foreign funding will rise, with increased donations from Britain and an expanded Australian aid programme, but local groups fear a lack of opportunity.
Horsey said that while the Myanmar government appeared more positive about international groups, it "still tends to be suspicious" of local organisations.
A representative from one Myanmar non-governmental group told AFP that overseas agencies "act as an umbrella for us, they are very important, but it is crucial that we build up local capacity".
His group provides services from education to agriculture, many of which he said should be provided by the state, "but they don't show any interest".
Maung Zarni, of the London School of Economics, said there were fears that government-friendly local groups would become more dominant.
"The military doesn't allow any entity to operate freely or show any receptivity towards any entity which doesn't serve the regime's interests and agendas," he said.
He added that the funding capacity of foreign agencies meant "they, not the locals, set the agendas in terms of what communities feel or think they need".
"Most international aid agencies have a certain amount of money to spend and then withdraw, but us civil society groups will stay even if there isn't any funding," said the head of another agency, who said he feared the role of local groups "will be very limited".
"I am quite worried for the future," he added.

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