Carving out humanitarian space post-Nargis

Two years after the destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis created a rare opening for foreign assistance into Myanmar, aid workers say they still face numerous operating challenges.



Under the Tripartite Core Group (TCG), comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the UN and Myanmar government, unimpeded humanitarian access was granted to the areas where Nargis struck on 2 May 2008, killing at least 140,000 and affecting 2.4 million.  



There were hopes the experience would free up access to other parts of the country needing aid. However, no major changes have taken place, humanitarian workers say.



“We have learned a lot and come a long way,” Bishow Parajuli, the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar, told IRIN. “But we have not yet taken full advantage of the trust that has been cultivated. There are positive moves, but we need to do more on that front.”



Some progress



Aid workers say the Nargis experience did help the government to better understand the international community’s work.



“There are issues that we are considering and discussing with the government now which we wouldn’t have thought possible before Nargis,” Chris Kaye, country representative for the World Food Programme (WFP) in Myanmar, told IRIN.



“There is an overall trend to a better working environment for NGOs in this country and it’s largely because of what the international community was able to do [after Nargis],” added Andrew Kirkwood, country director for Save the Children in Myanmar.



However, that period of easy access to Nargis-affected areas is evaporating, aid workers say.



“The issuance of visas is not so streamlined and fast-tracked …The fluidity of operations is quite different now to what it was a year ago. That’s unfortunate,” said Kaye.



Myanmar is also gearing up for its first elections in two decades this year, and the operating environment is changing.





Photo: Stacey Winston/ECHO
Humanitarian
access to much of Myanmar remains a challenge

While the UN says it has not seen more restrictions yet, international NGOs fear further limits, including restricting domestic travel for international aid workers.



“In the run-up to the elections in 2010, the government or the ministries are asking more and more INGOs for their numbers of international staff, and they are trying to reduce the number of international staff,” said Birke Herzbruch, liaison officer for a forum of INGOs.



Varied access



“It’s very difficult for us to say access is not being granted - that’s not true - or access is being granted everywhere, which is also another extreme. The truth lies somewhere in the middle,” said Thierry Delbreuve, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Myanmar.



For example, access to Myanmar’s conflict-affected southeast border is difficult for agencies, which only deploy national staff there.



“The access and space available differs from agency to agency,” said Ramesh Shrestha, the UN Children Fund’s (UNICEF’s) Myanmar representative. “Some agencies have better access than other agencies. It depends on the scope of work, it depends on the partnering ministries.”



Unpredictability over who is allowed to work in the country, and when, also makes planning difficult, INGOs say.



Obtaining a requisite government letter of invitation to a foreign aid worker can take months, while there is a constant backlog of visa applications.



And for an INGO to operate in Myanmar, it must negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the government, which can take two years.



“Nobody seems to be able to grasp or reflect accurately the situation because it is also evolving over time. Today you may not have access, tomorrow you may have it. What is important is to continuously advocate for humanitarian access to all populations in need,” said Delbreuve.



Room for work



Despite these difficulties, UN agencies and INGOs say Myanmar is being unfairly painted as a country where aid workers cannot operate effectively, or are co-opted by the military government.



“You can actually work here. Although it is difficult, although we have all the restrictions … we can all remain and maintain our humanitarian mandate here without being compromised,” Herzbruch said.



Aid workers who have been in Myanmar for a number of years say there are now agencies in every state and division in the country, despite variations in access.



Kirkwood referred to the mid-1990s, when agencies were only working in limited areas, such as around Yangon. “If you look over a 15-year period, there’s a huge opening-up of places we can access,” he said.



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