This New Mandala special interview was conducted in recent weeks. The interviewee is a disaster worker who has recently returned from several months working on emergency shelter in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in Burma. They prefer to be identified simply as a “disaster worker recently returned from Burma”.

Nicholas Farrelly: Could you give our readers an introduction to the context of your work in Burma after Cyclone Nargis hit the Ayerawaddy Delta in May 2008?

Disaster worker: My deployment in response to Cyclone Nargis began in mid May 2008 and concluded in the first week of August 2008. Due to visa issues, access to Myanmar was delayed until early June. The deployment was for a variety of reasons both difficult and interesting with many challenges due to the nature of the Government of the Union of Myanmar (GoUM) and the sensitive relationship between many humanitarian assistance actors and governments of other countries. Many issues during the response were similar to other emergencies where the cluster system has been activated whilst some were unique to the Myanmar context. [Note: the “cluster system” is a relatively recent initiative by the Humanitarian Reform project to provide coherent disaster response by facilitating coordination between all actors. There are eleven global clusters including shelter, health and WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene). The Cluster approach has been activated in a number of disaster situations since early 2006, including after Cyclone Nargis].

Initially it was very difficult to gain access to Myanmar and many visa applications were not being processed through the embassy in Thailand. When these restrictions were relaxed many visas were only granted for 14 day periods. As a result, many of the clusters had their coordination team members change more frequently than desired and some agencies struggled to maintain an expert international presence with a few exceptions.

Therefore much of the coordination of the clusters occurred in Yangon and Bangkok simultaneously. This was necessary due to a large presence of international agencies in Bangkok and their desire for information and the lack of expertise and support within Myanmar. From my perspective, the initial reason for activating the clusters in Bangkok was not just for agencies unable to get access but to support the clusters in Myanmar and respond to any requests made by it.

Minimal information was available with regard to the scale of damage, where it had occurred and those areas worst affected. Also the number of people affected by the cyclone was difficult to confirm. There was little historical information on population numbers and the accuracy of this information was unclear. Due to heavily restricted access to the affected regions in the early stages of the emergency the damage information remained low for a considerable time and was extremely difficult to ascertain.

There was a significant lack of trust between the GoUM and humanitarian agencies, minimal understanding of the cluster process and few opportunities to further explain this approach to the GoUM. This combined with differences in language, lack of communication infrastructure and limited access to authorities delayed any understanding or cooperation on the needs and approach required.

Damage to and lack of road infrastructure restricted access to the affected areas in a timely manner. The main transportation routes were via numerous rivers and waterways however limited telecommunications, radio and internet access further limited reporting and access to information.

Humanitarian agencies in Myanmar require a MoU with the GoUM to operate in the country, often these MoUs restrict agencies to regions within the country. These conditions were not waived without considerable effort during the response and are closely monitored and controlled by the authorities. I am not aware of any agency receiving an official MoU in response to the disaster despite numerous applications. Some agencies received a ‘letter of authorisation’ after presentation of their workplan. Many agencies continue to work with no official agreement.

As a result of minimal access and operational restrictions there continues to be a low presence of expert international staff in the field. Few of the international staff both in the field and Yangon-based appeared to have experience working within the cluster system. This appeared to be the case in many of the various cluster meetings I attended across all sectors.

Communications was and remains a challenge for all operating within Myanmar. Radio communication equipment is extremely restricted and much of the imported equipment held by customs. Internet connectivity was heavily monitored and restricted with many sites having access blocked. Mobile phone networks are limited, incompatible with other systems, highly controlled by the authorities with signal strength and clarity inconsistent. The administrative processes involved in obtaining either a mobile phone or ‘free’ internet access was a major difficulty for effective communication both within Myanmar and connecting to international support mechanisms.

Nicholas Farrelly: Effective disaster response can be difficult when working in a country without a formalised land administration system. Were land tenure issues problematic in the emergency response to Cyclone Nargis?

Disaster worker: Land tenure is often a very large and complex issue in emergencies and development. In Burma some agencies were starting to address this but for the most part it was not really an issue in the urgency of the emergency phase. Most land issues (rebuilding houses etc.) had been traditionally decided through village meetings and applications to a local committee. This seemed to be continuing but I think that UN-HABITAT was taking a lead role in trying to get an understanding of current practices and perhaps with a view to formalize the process.

Nicholas Farrelly: When the cyclone hit the Ayerawaddy Delta in May 2008 many people around the world were horrified by not only the devastation but also by the seemingly callous response of the Burmese authorities. As someone who has been working to improve conditions in the Delta how do you deal with the perception that a primary obstacle to the initial flow of aid was the Burmese government itself?

Disaster worker: The government was the primary obstacle to the initial flow of aid from the international community. There were efforts by the national government to support the local populations however there are very, very few governments in the world who could adequately respond to a disaster of this magnitude. Whilst the reaction of the Burmese government from an immediate humanitarian aspect may be considered harsh it is a common response from national governments when faced with disasters. Recent natural disasters (Aceh 2004, Bangladesh 2007, China 2008) had the national government restricting access to humanitarian agencies initially. The difference with the Burmese government is that this lasted for a longer period of time and remains more tightly controlled than most others.

There existed and for the most part remains a large lack of trust between the government and the aid community from both sides. However neither stereotype of an uncaring military government or invading foreigners was quite true. In fact, the lower and local levels of government had a greater appreciation of the requirements of the affected population and despite institutional protocols most attempted to the best of their ability to assist in the aid effort. Lack of trust in communication really hindered the relief efforts – whether between agencies, between the government and agencies, between national and international staff and between any one in Burma. I would say that trust and negotiation were the key elements in achieving anything.

Nicholas Farrelly: Could you, in general terms, sketch out the career trajectory that leads somebody to be sent to Burma as an aid worker? What sorts of things have you studied? Where did you get your humanitarian response training? What sort of prior experience do you have? Do you speak Burmese?

Disaster worker: Many people take many different paths in becoming an aid worker, some study it specifically and others develop an interest over time and start to look for opportunities to satisfy this interest. I was in the latter group and whilst starting my working life as a tradesperson, I moved to study environmental engineering and joined RedR (a global emergency response training organisation) to try to get exposure to the humanitarian sector. I did some of the training courses offered by RedR before relocating overseas to volunteer. I undertook various training courses over the years offered by different employers both in the private and humanitarian sectors. I have volunteered in Thailand and Aceh where after a short time I was offered a paid position. I continued in Aceh for 12 months and then took a position in Bangladesh for 6 months. Nearing the end of this contract Cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh and I took up a position in the emergency response for approximately 8 weeks. Based on this experience when Cyclone Nargis struck Burma, I was contacted and spent 3 months participating in the emergency response. I had and still have very little Burmese speaking skills.

Nicholas Farrelly: On a more personal note, when the call came to get involved in the response to this disaster what motivated you to pack your bag? Was there a moment when you hesitated?

Disaster worker: I had seen a small report through the media of the cyclone and received an email about 24 hours later from an agency I had previously worked with asking if I was available. My motivation is to assist people who for reasons outside of their control find themselves and their national governments in a situation that they do not have the capacity to effectively deal with. Despite the difficulties and challenges I obtain a great deal of personal satisfaction from assisting people and working in these environments. No hesitation.

Nicholas Farrelly: What have been the hardest things about contributing to the aid effort in Burma over the past few months? Can you tell us about some of the everyday challenges that you faced?

Disaster worker: Communication between agencies and the field was the most difficult problem faced. Communication infrastructure was minimal, highly regulated and controlled. It was very difficult to get a clear picture of the type and extent of damage suffered. On many occasions the only way to transfer information was to travel to other offices and collect hardcopy or transfer directly to computers. The lack of trust from aid agencies to the government and the government to the aid agencies created an environment of secrecy where many people were very hesitant to share information about their activities. Generally in an emergency, information is always hard to gather and the accuracy of data is often questionable. Agencies in emergencies are often forced to make decisions on limited accurate information and extract a general theme or make assumptions on the rest, whilst trying to continually update and improve the data they have. The particular communication challenges of Burma reduced the level of accurate information even further.

Nicholas Farrelly: What kind of reception did you receive from different parts of Burmese society? Were you ever made to feel unwelcome?

Disaster worker: I never felt unwelcome at anytime during the response. Generally the reception was positive although culturally the population is guarded about commenting or complaining openly about any ‘issues’. I think one of the most amazing things early in the response was the reaction and sharing between the affected population. There were examples such as helicopters laden with emergency relief supplies landing in the (equally devastated) wrong village, and questioning the local leaders to ensure they were in the right place. When asked, if incorrect, people would direct them to the correct village despite needing those same supplies. The sharing of supplies between households to ensure everyone received adequate assistance was also heartening.

Nicholas Farrelly: Do you sense that the mood in Delta areas has changed as world attention has shifted elsewhere? Anything you can tell us about the impressions you get on the ground would, I’m sure, be of interest to our readers.

Disaster worker: I don’t really think the population in the Delta ever had the perception that the world’s attention was on them, and to be honest, I don’t think it ever was. The world’s attention was focused on the national government’s activities and on portraying this as an inhuman response by the authorities. This was unfair (although not entirely untrue) and the attention given to this was not proportionate to the national government’s response. Yes, they prevented access to some (mostly foreign powers perceived as hostile), delayed access to many and continue to control access in my view too much, but this is common for governments in many disasters.

Nicholas Farrelly: Thank you for your time. This has been very informative.