´After Nargis: Time to Normalise Aid Relations´, crisisgroup

Asia Report N°161
20 October 2008

Executive Summary and recommendations

The massive devastation caused by cyclone Nargis has prompted a period of unprecedented cooperation between the government and international humanitarian agencies to deliver emergency aid to the survivors. The international community should seize this opportunity to reverse longstanding, counterproductive aid policies by providing substantial resources for recovery and rehabilitation of the affected areas and, gradually, expanding and deepening its engagement in support of sustainable human development countrywide. This is essential for humanitarian reasons alone, but also presents the best available opportunity for the international community to promote positive change in Myanmar.

The government’s initial response to the cyclone, which hit Myanmar on 2 May killing over 100,000 people in the Ayeyarwady delta, shocked the world. International agencies and local donors were stopped from delivering aid, putting the lives and welfare of hundreds of thousands of people in jeopardy. But internal factors, along with international and particularly regional pressure and diplomacy, had their effect, and developments since then show that it is possible to work with the military regime on humanitarian issues. Communication between the government and international agencies has much improved. Visas and travel permits today are easier and faster to get than before. Requirements for the launch of new aid projects have been eased. By and large, the authorities are making efforts to facilitate aid, including allowing a substantial role for civil society. In late July, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes declared, “This is now a normal international relief operation”. The lead given by ASEAN in coordinating and fronting international aid efforts has been, and will continue to be, of particular importance.

Political reform remains vital and should continue to be the subject of high-level international diplomacy and pressure. But it is a mistake in the Myanmar context to use aid as a bargaining chip, to be given only in return for political change. The military rulers have shown repeatedly that they are prepared to forego any aid that comes with political strings attached. Aid should rather be seen by international policymakers as valuable in its own right as well as a way of alleviating suffering, but also as a potential means of opening up a closed country, improving governance and empowering people to take control of their own lives.

It will take years, and sustained international support, for the worst-hit areas to recover. Moreover, the massive damage to Myanmar’s food bowl will worsen the already dire humanitarian situation in the country at large. Growing impoverishment and deteriorating social service structures have pushed millions of households to the edge of survival, leaving them acutely vulnerable to economic shocks or natural disasters. If not addressed, the increasing levels of household insecurity will lead to further human suffering, and could eventually escalate into a major humanitarian crisis.

Government repression, corruption and mismanagement bear primary responsibility for this situation. But Western governments – in their attempt to defeat the regime by isolating it – have sacrificed opportunities to promote economic reform, strengthen social services, empower local communities and support disaster prevention and preparedness. Their aid policies have weakened the West’s ability to influence the changes underway in the country. As the regime moves ahead with its “seven-step roadmap”, there is an acute danger that the international community will remain relegated to a spectator role.

Twenty years of aid restrictions – which see Myanmar receiving twenty times less assistance per capita than other least-developed countries – have weakened, not strengthened, the forces for change. Bringing about peace and democracy will require visionary leaders at all levels, backed by strong organisations, who can manage the transition and provide effective governance. These are not common attributes of an isolated and impoverished society. As the country’s socio-economic crisis deepens and its human resources and administrative capacity decline, it will become harder and harder for any government to turn the situation around.

While “humanitarian” aid is a reasonable response to a temporary emergency, the deepening structural crisis in Myanmar demands a response of a different type and magnitude. The international community should commit unequivocally not only to helping Myanmar recover from the destruction of Nargis, but also to making up for years of neglect and helping move the country forward. This means much more aid. Equally importantly, it means different aid, aimed at raising income and education as well as health levels, fostering civil society, improving economic policy and governance, promoting the equality of ethnic minorities and improving disaster prevention and preparedness.

This shift will not be easy. The military leadership will need to be convinced that increased international development efforts do not threaten national sovereignty and security; donors must be ensured that aid is not abused or wasted; and implementing agencies will have to substantially enhance their capacity for development work, something for which the current aid structure in country is ill-equipped.

Myanmar is not an easy place to do aid work. Government restrictions and intrusiveness, red tape and corruption hamper activities, as in many developing countries. But agencies with a longstanding presence on the ground have proved that, despite the difficulties, it is possible to deliver assistance in an effective and accountable way. If the current opening can be used to build further confidence and lay the basis for a more effective aid structure, it may be possible not only to meet the immediate needs, but also to begin to address the broader crisis of governance and human suffering.

Aid alone, of course, will not bring sustainable human development, never mind peace and democracy. Yet, because of the limited links between Myanmar and the outside world, aid has unusual importance as an arena of interaction among the government, society and the international community.


To the UN Secretary-General:

1.  Remain personally involved to keep lines of communication with the military leadership open and help develop greater international consensus on an effective way forward.

2.  Strengthen efforts, through his good offices and all available channels, to create the political space for the UN and other international agencies to work on economic reform and development.

3.  Enhance cooperation between the UN and the region – for example, through the new Focus Group on Myanmar and by encouraging the evolution of mechanisms such as the Tripartite Core Group – on a broader human development agenda in Myanmar.

To the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN):

4.  Support fully the Tripartite Core Group and the Joint Assessment (PONJA) mechanism set up for the post-Nargis emergency relief phase into the recovery and rehabilitation phase, and ideally beyond.

5.  Broaden engagement, in close coordination with the UN and other agencies, in support of sustainable human development in the country as a whole, including by increasing ASEAN support within the existing frameworks for regional cooperation on food security and disaster prevention and preparedness.

6.  Further integrate Myanmar into ASEAN economic cooperation, with an emphasis on sharing development experiences and supporting capacity building in the country more generally, including within the private sector and at the community level.

To Regional Governments:

7.  Work to upgrade the current informal Focus Group on Myanmar – which includes Indonesia, China, India, Myanmar and the UN – to involve senior officials from capitals.

8.  Impress upon the military leaders that cooperation on a broader humanitarian agenda is an opportunity for Myanmar – and the region – to ease the longstanding diplomatic standoff with the U.S. and Europe and gain support for the longer-term development of the country.

9.  Work bilaterally and multilaterally to facilitate the delivery of aid according to international standards of impartiality, independence, accountability and transparency.

10.  Adjust national trade and investment policies towards Myanmar to support broad-based economic growth.

To Western Governments:

11.  Do not impose further punitive measures while the international community works with Myanmar to tackle the worsening humanitarian situation in the country.

12.  Lift political restrictions on aid, while maintaining high operational standards, including:

a) allowing the international financial institutions to re-engage, focusing on policy dialogue, technical assistance and capacity building (while recognising that large-scale lending cannot resume soon);

b) restoring the normal mandates and funding arrangements for the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and other UN agencies; and

c) revising regulations and policies to permit bilateral aid for sustainable human development, beyond narrow humanitarian needs.

13.  Repeal economic sanctions that affect livelihoods for vulnerable groups, notably import bans on Myanmar garments, agricultural and fishery products and restrictions on tourism.

To Donors and Aid Agencies:

14.  While maintaining prohibitions on direct budgetary support for the Myanmar government, increase substantially aid for sustainable human development – not just basic needs – starting with a much greater commitment to recovery and rehabilitation work after Nargis.

15.  Commit to a common set of operational principles, including widening access to vulnerable populations, protecting the independence of aid operations, improving accountability and transparency, protecting local staff and partners and involving the beneficiaries at all stages of the aid process.

16.  Form a Myanmar Aid Consortium to improve strategy, coordination, fundraising and monitoring.

17.  Work with the government to establish a formal mechanism for negotiating general procedures for aid operations, including regular high-level donor-to-government consultations.

To the Myanmar Government:

18.  Support the transition of the Tripartite Core Group and PONJA into more permanent mechanisms for aid coordination.

19.  Agree to negotiations with aid agencies on general procedures for enhanced aid operations, and to regular high-level consultations with donors.

20.  Permit access by international aid agencies to vulnerable populations throughout the country, including in conflict zones.

Yangon/Brussels, 20 October 2008