International aid for Burma (Myanmar) faces funding crunch

About $1 billion is needed over three years, according to a new assessment. But the junta's lack of reform is raising doubts about long-term assistance.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

International efforts to help millions of people in Burma (Myanmar) left homeless and destitute by a lethal May cyclone are running low on funds, exposing political divisions among donor nations toward the isolated country's military rulers.

Ending a three-day visit to Burma, John Holmes, the United Nations head of humanitarian affairs, said Thursday that he was encouraged by signs of recovery such as house repairs and field plowing in the disaster zone, but underlined the urgent need for more aid. Earlier this month, the UN raised its appeal for the first year of relief operations to $481 million, up from $201 million.

An assessment released this week by the UN, the Burmese government, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations estimates that the combined cost of rebuilding houses, schools, and other infrastructure, as well as providing food aid and other essential services, is about $1 billion over three years. With 75 percent of hospitals and clinics in ruins and 450,000 houses completely destroyed, the report said the scale of the damage is roughly 2.7 percent of Burma's annual economic output and comparable in scale to the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia.

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But whereas Indonesia flung open its doors after the tsunami to international relief teams and allowed close monitoring of aid deliveries, Burma's junta has kept a tight grip on cyclone relief. Some aid agencies say they have carved out a space to work effectively. But others have run into bureaucratic roadblocks that critics say are discouraging some donors and raising doubts about long-term recovery programs.

In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, the US, Britain, and other countries with economic and political sanctions on Burma were among the main providers to the international aid effort. As the emergency phase gives way to reconstruction, though, temporary waivers on sanctions are likely to end, while Western donors have begun pressing Burma for political concessions.

At this week's ASEAN summit in Singapore, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chided Burma's glacial pace of reform, saying its road map to democracy was "going nowhere." ASEAN issued its own, somewhat pointed, criticism of its member state. The US has also tried to ratchet up pressure in the UN Security Council ahead of a visit next month to Burma by a UN political envoy who was appointed following last year's violent suppression of peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks.

Aid workers point out that US opprobrium means that Burma already receives a fraction of the foreign aid spent in Cambodia and Laos. The storm battered the country's food security at a time of rising global prices: more than 600,000 hectares of agricultural land were flooded, and fishing boats and aquaculture facilities were destroyed in an area that supplies some 65 percent of national fish production.

But diplomats warn that the political deadlock is hard to ignore.

"The country has suffered so long and badly needs reform. That's the conundrum: If you're going to go in and spend a lot of money, there's no guarantee for any change," says a senior Western diplomat in Bangkok.

Exiled Burmese activists argue that any credible aid effort must be backed by political pressure. "There's not only a natural disaster going on in Burma, there's also a man-made disaster, a regime that won't hand over power or even sit down to negotiations," says Soe Aung, a member of the National Council of the Union of Burma in Bangkok.

Mr. Holmes said the UN had collected most of the money from its initial appeal for Burma and downplayed concerns about a budgetary crunch. He said the end of World Food Programme relief flights into Burma next month and cutbacks in its helicopter service in the disaster zone were the right moves, as it was cheaper to use sea and land transport that could carry heavier loads.

"The boats are there, they can be hired. The trucks are there, they can be hired," he told a press conference in Bangkok.

Australia, Japan, and New Zealand separately pledged more money this week for cyclone aid. UN officials say that despite fears of aid being siphoned off by authorities, there are no signs of systematic abuses.

UN officials have been embarrassed, however, by claims that aid money is being converted into Burmese currency at a discount to the market value. Under existing regulations, foreigners are obliged to change hard currency into government-issued coupons with a lower exchange value. Holmes said he had flagged this as a "significant problem" in his meeting this week with senior Burmese officials.

In May, Burmese authorities put the number of dead and missing from the cyclone at roughly 140,000. That figure hasn't been revised, and aid experts say the final death toll will probably never be known.

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