Access questions dominate aid conference

The donor conference for victims of Cyclone Nargis held in the former capital, Yangon, on 25 May was dominated by the urgency of gaining access for aid workers.

Myanmar was promised a significant increase in foreign financial support for its 2.4 million cyclone survivors, provided the government lived up to a pledge made to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to give aid workers unhindered access to the affected area.

The conference on 25 May brought together representatives of some 50 countries to discuss helping the isolated and impoverished country recover from the devastation.

The category four storm, which struck on 2 and 3 May, left 133,000 people dead or missing and wreaked havoc on the country's all-important rice-growing area.

Western officials expressed hope the meeting would be "a turning point" in the cyclone relief effort, following Ban's two-hour meeting on 23 May with Senior General Than Shwe, Myanmar's army chief.
 

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"We are definitely used to hardship"

"The message overwhelmingly was compassion for the victims, a great desire to help, and concern that the help had to be based on principles of full access to the areas and transparent use of funds," one western aid official at the talks told IRIN.

Many western governments at the conference - including the US and UK - made it clear any additional assistance would require Myanmar's generals to permit unfettered access to foreign aid workers in the area.

"The ball was put by speaker after speaker in the court of the government," the official said. "It was, 'if you do the right thing, we will stand by you. Implicitly, if you don't, there is nothing we can do'."

Fire setback

Aunpama Rao Singh, regional director of the UN Children's Fund (UNCEF) for East Asia, said that over the weekend the agency had obtained clearance for six of its international staffers to travel to the affected areas, and that the agency was "very optimistic" a corner had been turned.

But an early morning fire at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok on 26 May – where many international aid workers are awaiting visas to enter the country – prompted the closure of the visa section, and created a fresh obstacle for the aid community.

According to the UN's Financial Tracking system, the UN has now collected US$57 million for its $201 million flash appeal, or 28 percent of what has been requested.


Photo: Contributor/IRIN
A fire broke out at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, closing down its visa section on 26 May, one day after the Yangon conference

It has received additional pledges of $42 million, but those are not binding. It is unclear whether money pledged at the donor conference will go towards the flash appeal.

Many donors at the meeting simply outlined the assistance they had already given, and pledged more if conditions on the ground improved.

More help

Among the offers, the European Community upped its 46 million Euros ($72 million) pledged earlier by 17 million Euros, China offered $11 million, Australia A$25 million ($24 million) and the Philippines doubled its pledge from $10 million to $20 million.

Ban appealed for greater international help to meet cyclone survivors' immediate needs for food, shelter, clean water and medical care – and for help getting back on their feet by replacing lost seeds, fertiliser, water pumps, fishing boats and nets.

"There is good reason to hope that aid to the worst affected areas will increase significantly in the coming days," he said. "These needs must be funded, immediately."

During the conference, General Thein Sein, Myanmar's prime minister, affirmed the government's willingness to allow genuine foreign aid workers with "no strings attached" to participate in the relief and reconstruction effort, although he said authorities "will consider" requests on a "township by township" basis.

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Myanmar aid boost

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Offshore assistance still blocked

He ruled out, however, permitting US, French and British naval vessels carrying large quantities of relief supplies to deliver life-saving cargo directly to the stricken delta, via airlift or special landing craft.

Instead, he said, the supplies would have to be delivered via civilian vessels to the distant Yangon port. Aid workers say this is a time-consuming and logistically difficult journey to the worst-affected areas.

Myanmar's junta has drawn up an initial $11.7 billion cyclone reconstruction plan, which envisions projects including rebuilding 100,000 houses, replacing lost livestock and building large dykes across the delta area, and "artificial hills" to act as barriers to future tidal surges.

Donors, however, did not discuss the plan in any detail.

"People listened but the overall theme coming from the meeting was that it's premature to talk about reconstruction damage - there is still outstanding work for relief and early recovery," said Singh.

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