Obscuring Burma’s Humanitarian Crisis
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Monday, July 23, 2018


Obscuring Burma’s Humanitarian Crisis

By Htet Aung MAY, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.5


A former program monitor looks at how restrictions o­n aid agencies in Burma hide the true extent of the country’s needs

Soe Khine—not his real name—was ordered to appear immediately at a local police station. The NGO township monitor had committed no crime, but he did hold a meeting with local residents in a township in Mon State to discuss an HIV prevention and education project designated for the area.

As a monitor of project implementation in Mon State, Soe Khine had forgotten that in Burma, monitors must also have their monitors.

He was summoned by police after a township leader from the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association had accused him of organizing local residents to participate in a particular project without first reporting to the local Peace and Development Council—despite the fact that the project had been in progress for two years.

This is how many grassroots aid agencies are forced to operate in Burma. The obstacles to implementation of humanitarian assistance projects are formidable.

Soe Khine’s troubles in Mon State were ultimately my responsibility, as I was charged with overseeing all projects initiated by that particular NGO (which must remain nameless for the safety of its current staff and the viability of its projects).

As an aid monitor, I should have traveled immediately to the area and sorted out Soe Khine’s problem. But I was forced to wait for approval from the ministry tasked with monitoring our activities. No matter what project you work o­n in Burma—whether it is for a UN agency or a local NGO, you are required to submit a detailed schedule of all your projected travel, complete with permissions from associated government ministries and state, division and township-level administrative bodies—all in advance of your trip.

“If there is an international staff member monitoring a trip to a project area, he or she can be expected to encounter a more complicated process of travel permissions from the authorities, often resulting in delaying or even postponing the trip,” a project officer of a local NGO who must remain anonymous told The Irrawaddy. Such restrictions, the officer added, affect the quality of the project monitoring system, particularly for performance-based and time-sensitive projects.

As I dutifully applied for the necessary permissions, I felt that the state and local authorities had little concern for my personal security. Rather, they wanted to be sure that I remained within their surveillance network for the duration of my trip.

It is important for the success of humanitarian projects to have a sound monitoring system in place for all NGOs to assess the achievements and shortcomings of their various projects. Any such system must involve the active and well-informed participation of all stakeholders, including project staff, local beneficiaries of aid, community leaders and government authorities. Such cooperation, however, is undermined by any surveillance-oriented monitoring system.

In some cases, a sound monitoring system requires spontaneous trips to project areas in order to get reliable qualitative and quantitative data about the real situation o­n the ground. Such trips are impossible to make under the current restrictions imposed by Burma’s military government.

International aid agencies have increasingly targeted Burma in recent years for assistance in combating such diseases as HIV, malaria and tuberculosis. But in the eyes of the Burmese authorities, the aid is rarely offered without strings attached. So, they impose unnecessary restrictions that undermine the aim and reach of the aid programs.

New guidelines governing the operation of NGOs in Burma have been in place since February 2006, and since that time aid organizations have found it increasingly difficult to operate in the country. The Global Fund withdrawal in August 2005 was due in part to travel restrictions o­n staff members that prevented the effective implementation of their projects.

Since that time, the International Committee of the Red Cross has faced similar problems in carrying out its mandate in Burma—so much so that it has become effectively paralyzed by restrictions o­n its services to political prisoners in the country.

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