One year on from Cyclone Nargis and the figures are pretty disturbing: half a million people without proper housing, 350,000 still requiring food aid from the World Food Program and incomes down about 50 percent on pre-cyclone figures. The first anniversary of Nargis, which killed almost 140,000 people in the Ayeyarwady Delta last year, also brought to a close the UN’s Flash Appeal, which called for US$477 million in emergency funding. It received only two-thirds of that figure and the Tripartite Core Group’s request for an additional US$691 million has so far received only US$100 million. Despite the obvious need for more money to continue recovery work, governments around the world are reluctant to give more for fear it will wind up in junta pockets.
At a press conference in Yangon last week, Save the Children’s Guy Caves appealed for more funding to meet the “urgent needs” in the delta, saying the relief effort showed aid could be delivered in an “effective and independent way”. Similarly, former Tripartite Core Group spokesman Richard Horsey told AFP: “If the world doesn’t come through with the necessary resources it is abandoning victims,” pointing out Myanmar got “one-tenth” of the funding Aceh received following the 2004 tsunami. The ability to work properly here in Myanmar has been a point of contention since before last year’s cyclone and debated every time a scandal blew up that threatened to throw the relief effort off course. (First there was the denial of visas for international aid workers, then the currency exchange problem, and in recent months we’ve seen a new tightening of visa restrictions for foreign NGO staff.)
The UN and NGOs have stuck to a pretty steady line — that aid can be distributed properly and so should be given, citing the examples of the 3D Fund and Nargis work. The Economist last week had a wonderfully succinct piece that summed up the argument far more eloquently than I can; I highly recommend you check it out. One commonly cited argument for increased support is the miniscule amount of development aid given annually — less than US$3 per head — compared to neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. The latter example is particularly galling for many people living here, given lack of democracy and political freedom is often cited as a reason for not giving more aid to Myanmar.
There are some signs this is changing but more work needs to be done to depoliticise aid, says Dr Frank Smithuis, the head of Medecins Sans Frontieres Holland in Myanmar for more than a decade. He told me last week he has noticed a gradual increase in aid to the country that predates Nargis and, while he’s worried about the effect the global financial crisis will have on funding, he said the future for Myanmar people is now looking slightly more positive. “Many in the West now realise that the Myanmar people have been neglected and that that is a great injustice,” he said.
While criticising the lack of support for their programs — and those calling for a moratorium on aid — NGOs haven’t shied away from condemning the government. The World Food Program’s national director, Chris Kaye, said last week that the junta’s response to Nargis has been “inadequate”, while Horsey said they “clearly … could and should be doing more”.
The current visa situation is certainly a problem, but there are other areas where government policy is holding back the recovery. Several articles in the past few days have highlighted the major difficulty in the delta — rural indebtedness — which has been brought about principally because of the government’s inability, or unwillingness, to provide access to affordable credit.
This was a major issue even before Nargis — more than 60 percent of households in Ayeyarwady Division were already in debt one year ago, principally because landholders usually borrow money to buy inputs like seeds and fertiliser and then pay the money back when they harvest the paddy. But, with new credit almost impossible to get and interest rates of up to 30 percent a month, indebtedness has become an even more pressing problem.
This monsoon harvest season could make or break thousands of livelihoods in the delta. About 85 percent of people there are dependant on this single harvest – for landless households, its one of the few ways to find work and earn an income. But the lack of credit means that landowners are struggling to buy the inputs they need. This will certainly reduce yields and might create food shortages in some areas, says Sean Turnell, from Burma Economic Watch. But it is also likely to reduce casual employment for thousands of people, at a time when they need it most. Microfinance programs and agriculture projects can play a role here but this is one instance where the government could step in and make a real difference to lives in the delta.
“What’s needed is an urgent recapitalisation of Burmese agriculture via the creation of effective institutions dispensing rural credit. There is a desperate need to break the debt cycle, to open the gates for affordable finance. The creation of such institutions is difficult to foresee however,” Turnell, an associate professor at Australia’s Macquarie University, said. He paints a bleak picture for delta communities, which he expects will take about five years to recover from Nargis. “In the absence of an injection of capital into rural areas it’s easy to imagine conditions getting much worse.”