BURMA: Donors View Civil Society in New Light after Nargis

  • by Marwaan Macan-Markar (bangkok)
  • Inter Press Service

Their work in the relief and reconstruction effort in the wake of Nargis, which killed over 140,000 people and affected 2.4 million people on May 3, 2008, has prompted a policy shift in the way Western donor assistance flows to humanitarian programmes.

'International donors had to review and redesign humanitarian funding after Nargis to direct money for smaller programmes run by local community groups,' admitted a European diplomat. 'It was a result of a learning curve after the cyclone.'

'If you wanted to increase outreach to different affected areas, you had to work with smaller civil society organisations,' the diplomat who handles Burmese affairs told IPS. 'We encourage large NGOs (non-government organisations) to sub-contract work to smaller community groups.'

Some Western aid givers have even expanded their funding flow to include community groups that 'operate under the radar and are not officially registered as a CSO (civil society organisation),' added a Rangoon-based diplomat. 'We acknowledge their view that they are far more effective and can get humanitarian work done by not being openly identified by the government.'

The European Union (EU), which gave 51.8 million U.S. dollars for relief efforts, is among those reflecting this shift in donor assistance. Money for smaller humanitarian programmes that cost 10,000 euros (about 13,300 U.S. dollars) was given in addition to the usual flow of funds for larger initiatives by bigger, more established NGOs, which amounted to 500,000 euros (664,980 dollars) from the EU.

The bulk of the funding till this policy change was directed towards the 13 United Nations agencies and the estimated 54 international humanitarian agencies and international NGOs (INGOs) operating in Burma. The INGO budget in 2009 was 128 million dollars, up from 48.7 million dollars in 2008 before the cyclone struck.

World Vision, a Christian charity working in Burma, also known as Myanmar, is among the INGOs that turned to community groups to help victims in the affected Irrawaddy Delta and the former capital Rangoon. 'They became very significant to us during the reconstruction phase,' said Win Zin Oo, the organisation’s humanitarian and emergency affairs director.

'The 10 cyclone shelters that we built were possible because of the assistance from local CSOs,' he acknowledged during a telephone interview from Rangoon. 'The bigger international NGOs and the U.N. may have the technical knowledge, but the community groups have the local knowledge which helps in proper implementation.'

This increasing embrace of CSOs since Nargis is echoed in a just released report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based rights lobby, to mark the second anniversary of Burma’s worst natural disaster. 'Individual Burmese citizens and existing and newly created local civil society groups played critical roles in bringing aid to those most in need,' revealed the 111- page report released here on Apr. 29.

'In the aftermath of the cyclone, thousands of people from throughout Burma spontaneously became humanitarian workers,' added the report, ‘I Want to Help My Own People: State Control and Civil Society in Burma after Cyclone Nargis’. 'One positive post-cyclone development was the Burmese civil society response.'

The achievement was all the more remarkable given the restrictive conditions the junta imposes on CSOs and the roadblocks created to relief efforts soon after the cyclone struck, said HRW. 'Just as international donors, U.N. agencies and INGOs were organising a massive response to send aid and relief workers into the country, the (regime’s) strict restrictions blocked many of these efforts.'

And the lead taken by Burmese CSOs to step into that void and to help the victims brought into sharp focus a community that had, till then, not been recognised as pivotal players in the country’s humanitarian initiatives. 'It was Cyclone Nargis that created the space for CSOs to enter the humanitarian space, not the Burmese government,' said David Scott Mathieson, Burma researcher for HRW.

'The post-Nargis phase has helped strengthen Burmese CSOs,' he added. 'They deserve most of the credit for the social response.' The broad network of CSOs being hailed since the cyclone has roots in Burma’s social fabric, from villages to cities. They range from Buddhist monks, community leaders, local activists, artists, doctors, and business people to homemakers.

Not all of them belong to the estimated 64 NGOs and 455 countrywide community-based associations that operate openly, according to HRW, which added that those outside government control pay a heavy price — including jail for humanitarian work.

Among Burma’s 2,200 political prisoners languishing in jails across the country are 21 humanitarian workers who were arrested and jailed for leading the civil society response to Nargis. The most well known is Zarganar, one of Burma’s famous comedians, who was part of an ad-hoc group of 420 relief workers that helped 42 flattened villages in the Irrawaddy Delta, which was the hardest hit by the disaster, in the first month after Nargis.

He was sentenced to 35 years in jail. Among his 'crimes' was being in possession of video footage of the cyclone’s devastating impact on the delta.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service