The Washington Diplomat / June 2008
By Larry Luxner
The world watched with frustration last month as Burma's military regime slammed the door on foreign aid workers and delayed aid shipments with bureaucracy and excuses in the wake of the country's worst natural disaster ever.
Cyclone Nargis left at least 134,000 people dead or missing; at press time another 1.5 million were living in misery, most of them without shelter or sufficient food, drinking water or medical care. Only 10 days a week after the May 2-3 cyclone devastated Burma's Irriwaddy Delta region, central China was struck by a powerful earthquake that left at least 50,000 dead — sparking the largest outpouring of individual charity in Chinese history.
As the world contemplated how to respond to Asia's latest catastrophes, a panel of foreign-policy experts met in Washington to discuss the larger issue of public policy's role in disaster relief — and how humanitarian aid is seen as a useful tool of diplomacy, giving the U.S. government as well as NGOs [non-governmental organizations] an opportnity to further their own objectives.
The May 19 event brought together Elizabeth Ferris, co-director of the Brookings Institution-University of Bern Project on Internal Displacement; Maj. Shannon Beebe, senior Africa analyst at the Pentagon, and Kristin Lord, associate dean of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. It was moderated by Frank Sesno, professor of media affairs at GWU and former CNN Washington bureau chief.
"There's a certain self-interest involved in responding to high-profile disasters," said Ferris. "NGOs want to make sure their people are on the TV screen. Visibility is a key issue in fundraising; the more often you're in the media, the more likely you are to trigger a generous response."
To that end, said Ferris, branding is becoming increasingly important when it comes to natural disasters.
"Many NGOs have branding departments to promote the logo of the organization," she said. "For example, donations will often have a requirement that it should say 'gift from the American people' and concrete requirements as to the size and positioning of the logos."
Yet what a label on a bag of rice says isn't important to a Burmese cyclone victim or a Chinese peasant whose village has just been destroyed by an earthquake, argues Beebe.
"They don't care what's on the bag," he said. "They care what's in the bag."
Either way, it's debatable whether U.S. generosity really translates into a greater appreciation of the United States and its values.
"Humanitarian assistance after a major natural disaster does seem to positively affect attitudes toward the provider of that assistance," noted Lord. "After U.S. assistance following the 2004 tsunami disaster, the proportion of Indonesians who held positive attitudes towards the United States went from 15% to 38%.
"But positive attitudes have an expiration date," she said, noting that only 29% of Indonesians look favorably on the United States today.
Another example is Egypt — which has suffered no natural disaster at all.
"Despite receiving $1.7 billion in U.S. assistance each year, only 21% of Egyptians report having favorable opinions of the United States. And over 90% of Egyptians believe the U.S. war on terror is to weaken the Islamic religion and dominate the Middle East," said Lord. "Don't assume that a gift of any form will be reciprocated with any kind of action. It's psychologically awkward, and can result in resentment, not gratitude."
Furthermore, she said, the U.S. government would be well-advised not to advertise its assistance after a natural disaster too much, lest it infuriate the local population.
"A recent Gallup survey of the Muslim world showed that a lack of respect is one of the root causes of negative opinions of the United States, so trumpeting assistance may only reinforce this lack of respect — and further still if we consider that both Islamic and Christian traditions advocate quiet acts of charity," said Lord. "If the focus is on the victims and not on the generosity of the giver, then it can be positive, but you don't need to trumpet it. Let the assistance speak for itself."
In the case of Burma, however, the military regime running that country since 1962 has made clear that foreigners are unwelcome. In the weeks since the cyclone hit, Burma's junta has refused to let most foreign nationals into the affected area, insisting on handling aid distribution internally. The UN World Food Program believes 390 tons of food are needed each day, yet less than 300 tons have been distributed to victims so far.
"Sometimes you know that a certain percentage of relief will go just to grease the wheels," said Ferris, noting that "some of the worst scandals around Hurricane Katrina relief [in New Orleans] were quite shocking. And if people believe that it's all corrupt, they won't be likely to give."
Germans, for example, have been reluctant to donate money to Burma relief efforts because of doubts that the aid will ever reach the victims. One aid group, Caritas International, said it's received only 100,000 euros ($150,000) in donations — a sum "that bears no relation" to the scope of the disaster, Caritas spokesman Achim Reinke told German media.
"It's barely enough to pay for 1,500 tents," said Reinke, pointing out that the rainy season was about to begin and that tens of thousands of Burmese urgently need assistance.
Nicolas de Torrenté, executive director of Doctors Without Borders, told supporters in a May 14 email to supporters that three cargo planes have already delivered 110 tons of relief to Burma — mainly tents, food, water and sanitation supplies — and that two more planes are on the way to the international airport in Rangoon.
"But we are frustrated by the limitations Myanmar's government has placed on international staff. International aid workers already in the country are so far being prevented from reaching some of the most affected areas," he wrote. "International staff, particularly those with expertise in water and sanitation, are desperately needed but visa approvals have been exceedingly slow."
On May 13, EU development ministers meeting in Brussels urged Burma's army generals to give "free and unfettered access to international humanitarian experts, including the expeditious delivery of visa and travel permits."
The EU says it's prepared to release up to 30 million euros ($45 million) if the Burmese leadership eases its restrictions on letting relief workers inside the country, most of whose 52 million people were living in poverty even before Cyclone Nargis.
"We simply cannot stand by and watch as even more people die after the dreadful catastrophe which has already claimed tens of thousands of victims," said Germany's development minister, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul. "After the 2004 tsunami, we were able to prevent further deaths, but now there is a danger that tens of thousands more people could die because we don't have access to them."
Louis Michel, the EU's humanitarian aid commissioner, recently spent two days in Burma, trying to get authorities in Rangoon to accept more foreign assistance. Those authorities have declared southwestern Burma off-limits to foreigners and have also banned foreign staff for international aid agencies which already operate inside the country.
According to Ferris, 36 NGOs were working inside Burma before the cyclone; they had about 2,600 staffers, most of them local Burmese nationals.
Michel said he doesn't believe the military regime can handle the aftermath of the cyclone on its own, or its dubious claim that aid is reaching survivors. "They only pretend that everything is under control," he told reporters.
On May 12, the U.S. government delivered its first relief supplies to Burma on board a C-130 cargo plane that also transported Henrietta Fore, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Ky Luu, director of USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, said that in addition to 8,300 bottles of water, 1,350 blankets and 10,800 insecticide-treated bed nets on that first flight, the United States will provide an additional $13 million in support of the World Food Program. That would bring total U.S. cash assistance to Burma to $16.25 million.
"On a human level, this is a disater no matter how you want to quantify it," said Luu. "There are 1.5 million people in need of immediate assistance.
"Access is one issue. But even if access were opened up tomorrow, the basic infrastructure in terms of the ability to forklift, to move commodities and offload them right now [is lacking]. Most of it's being done by hand. If you were able to bring in flights, most likely they would be stacked up at the tarmac. We need the disaster experts who have capacity to be able to deliver the assistance. And this has to be done as soon as possible."
As to whether there's a silver lining to the catastrophe — in the form of Cyclone Nargis being a catalyst for political change in Burma — this seems highly doubtful.
Following the 2004 tsunami disaster, the Indonesian government took advantage of the situation to open up the troubled province of Aceh and launch talks with leaders of that province's secessionist movement. The result: an enormous disaster recovery and reconstruction effort, as well as a peace agreement that led to the election of a former secessionist leader as governor of Aceh province.
"A government that responds well to a natural disaster can enjoy increased legitimacy," said Lord. "The Somoza regime found it very difficult to remain in power in Nicaragua because of its very poor response to the earthquake in 1972."
On the other hand, Burma is not Nicaragua, and Ferris says it's extremely unlikely that the Burmese people will rise up in revolution against the military machine that has ruled their country for the last 46 years.
"Despite the experience in the rest of the world, the odds are that Cyclone Nargis will have no discernible impact on the power structure in Myanmar," says the academic. "Indeed, the militry leadership may gain more strength from the referendum on a new constitution held on May 10 than it loses from its lame efforts to help victims of the cyclone. This same regime, after all, has kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for more than 10 years, moved the capital on a whim, and put down the mass protests led by monks last September."
Asked by the Diplomat whether the United States should lead some sort of a military invasion of Burma should all else fail, all three panelists shook their heads.
"We can't force solutions," said the Pentagon's Beebe. "As tragic as it is, the last thing we want to do is go in and force a solution that's going to amplify other issues."
Said Lord: "It's extremely frustrating not to be able to bring food and water to people, but if you intervene this time, it sets a precedent. The long-term costs of a policy like that would be staggering."
Ferris said the very idea is "out of the question."
"There is some assistance going in, and it's good that ASEAN and the UN are working together, but I'm terribly afraid of any unilateral intervention," she said. "Where would you draw the line? How bad would it have to be? I'm not saying this in any way to defend the Burmese regime. But going that route would open a whole new can of worms."