Inside INGOs: Aiding or Abetting?
covering burma and southeast asia
Monday, July 23, 2018
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COVER STORY

Inside INGOs: Aiding or Abetting?


By Tony Broadmoor DECEMBER, 2001 - VOLUME 9 NO.9


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INGOs inside Burma are trying to keep a humanitarian crisis at bay. But what can they accomplish with such a controlling and corrupt regime still firmly in place? Burma is facing a dire humanitarian crisis and without the proper assistance the situation is going to get worse before it gets better. The nostrum of increasing international aid is decidedly more complex than it initially seems, especially for the International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) already working in Burma. With the secret talks in Rangoon between Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi entering their second year, the answer to the question of increasing aid is still not clear. Roughly thirty International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGO) and a handful of United Nations (UN) agencies currently work inside Burma with the goal of stabilizing the country before total collapse occurs. Burma’s problems, however, run deep. The country has been suffering from forty years of economic mismanagement and institutionalized corruption. Its HIV/AIDS epidemic rivals the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa while the jungle-like conditions found throughout much of the country produce annual malaria and dengue fever outbreaks, killing thousands. The ongoing debate among Burma watchers is whether these groups should be working inside Burma. One argument against providing such aid is that by giving humanitarian assistance to a totalitarian regime, the regime boosts its legitimacy in the international community. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s official position is that aid money should only be provided to assist refugees at camps along Burma’s borders. More recently, however, Suu Kyi has reportedly told some of these organizations working inside Burma that if the aid can be delivered directly to those in need and the regime does not benefit from it, then she would accept it. Suu Kyi has reiterated this position to UN special envoy to Burma Razali Ismail on his last two visits to Rangoon. The INGOs now working in Burma all arrived after the current military regime seized power in 1988, when former dictator Ne Win stepped down from the post he had held since 1962. Before 1988, the Burmese government received almost US $400 million a year in Overseas Development Aid (ODA). But as a result of the military’s refusal to recognize the results of a fair and free democratic election held in 1990, and a long list of egregious human rights violations since, the amount of ODA has fallen to roughly US $50 million while the humanitarian crisis has worsened. The military regime has historically looked at international aid organizations with great suspicion. Since 1988, the government has viewed their presence as a potential threat to its grip on power. They fear the INGOs will act as a conduit to send potentially damaging information out of the country regarding the true situation in Burma. The government also expresses extreme consternation at any autonomous community organization that is beyond its control. "This is a military regime with a military mindset that is extremely sensitive to foreigners talking about their shortcomings," says one Rangoon insider. When it was revealed earlier this year that the regime had entered into reconciliation talks with Suu Kyi in October of 2000, many Burma watchers and citizens of Burma alike were pleased, considering it the best political development to come out of Burma in over a decade. INGOs hoped the reconciliation talks would lead to a more cooperative atmosphere between themselves and the regime. Since the talks began, a number of high-profile organizations have come to Burma to see what exactly has changed. There have been recent visits by the European Union, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), the International Labor Organization (ILO) and other high-level UN bodies. Smaller INGOs from Germany, Britain, and other parts of the world have also visited Rangoon to determine if the time is right to establish a presence. Unfortunately, the talks up to now have made things more difficult for the aid groups already working there. "The talks have actually caused a heightened state of tension amongst those of us working here," remarks one INGO worker in Rangoon. "Every time a report is issued that does not portray them in a positive light, the government storms around seeking accountability for statements found in the reports." Since the talks began, the government has stepped up efforts to control the groups inside Burma. A government official must now accompany INGO workers to their project sites and, most recently, the regime revoked the right to a waived visa fee. INGOs also have noted how difficult it is to import medicines and other necessary supplies. One community development group spoke of a recent four-month wait to get testing kits through customs.


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