Monday, May 26, 2008

This Burma-savvy businesssman makes cyclone relief happen

I found this interesting cyclone blog (via The Scotsman) by Paul Strachan, a Scottish businessman who has donated two tour boats to NGOs operating in the Irrawaddy Delta. Strachan is savvy in the local ways, and has been busting bones to find ingenuous means by which to deliver aid into the cyclone effected regions. He shares some valuable insights concerning the most effective means of "circumventing" the intransigent junta:
Supplies can be sourced here easily and far more cheaply than flying them in. This is mainland south-east Asia – Burma is surrounded by mass-producing, low-cost, tiger economies. This is not “darkest Africa”.

Village people here are mistrustful of foreign medicines and would prefer Burmese traditional medicines. And they find the high-energy biscuits being doled out by the aid agencies unpalatable and demoralising. Traditional staples such as rice and fish paste are both readily available just outside the disaster zone – indeed, last week, at the Thilawa docks, the government was loading ships with rice for export to Bangladesh. There is no shortage of rice.

There is no need to fly food in, just money, which is lighter, to buy simple essentials.

While the military regime may be incompetent to deal with the crisis, we should not under-estimate the resourcefulness of other Burmese institutions. Local firms, associations, clubs and schools have been collecting funds and goods to send to the needy. Their biggest problem is they can not deliver beyond the distance of a day trip, about 90 miles.

With so many political issues going on, the NGOs have had to learn how things work – you need a Burmese front organisation and the NGO takes the back seat. This is now working – and timely, as a continued local-only response would be impossible to sustain in the long term. These mainly urban, middle-class people do not have unlimited resources.

One obstacle to the delivery of aid has been international criticism, whether in the UN or in the media. The more the world criticises the generals the tougher their stance. In Burma anything can be achieved if you go about things in the right way. You do not confront. You pat them on the back and tell them they are doing a great job and please can we help them and then they let you in and you do your own thing. This is how fifty million Burmese have lived for nearly fifty years – not confront, circumvent.

Now we have delivered the ships to our NGO partners our next step is to try and wisely spend the £200,000 we have received in donations from our old passengers. Yesterday I had a meeting with all our team and long phone conversations with our ship manager now at Laputta who has updated us on conditions down there.

Conditions are appalling. The monsoon has struck and it is raining all day, every day and will continue like this till October. They will not see the sun for the next five to six months. These people have no shelter at all. They have no dry clothes. The young, the weak and the old are particularly vulnerable and will be the first to go. People are so demoralised that they have lost interest taking on any activity. (Unusual for so industrious people.) Imagine if you had spent the last two weeks soaking wet and up to your knees in water, nothing to eat or drink with your family dying all around you, your livelihood gone, your home blown away to oblivion, weakened with dysentery and influenza.

We have prioritised our effort to raise morale and give the people some degree of hope so they can get through the monsoon. They have to survive till October when they can emerge and try and rebuild their lives. The primary needs are basic Burmese food-stuffs and things to make people more comfortable and raise morale. The secondary need is basic shelter.
Paul Strachan's confidence in formal mechanisms is not very high:
Back in Yangon the NGOs are sitting around in what they call ‘logistics clusters’ discussing how to get supplies in. Or, now the planes are flying in we are all wondering where all the supplies are going. They are certainly not reaching the Delta. It is a great mystery as to where all these plane loads going. No one knows! What a furore – the UN, Asean, China all do a deal to allow the aid to be flown in. But no one explained to ‘them’ where it is actually meant to go. ‘They’ think it is all for ‘them’ and all part of the deal. Remember, this was a deal fixed by a Korean (Korea is a big investor here), to keep the Americans off ‘their’ backs and ensure that Burma’s neighbours cosy business interests are not disturbed. The status quo stands.
Strachan summarizes his group's perspective on the situation here:
As insiders with over 25 years experience of working in Burma we are not confident that bulk aid will be delivered. We are doubtful if traditional diplomacy, the UN or the intervention of Asean or China can resolve this impasse.

We know we can supply the relief operation from locally available supplies - these supplies are much cheaper bought within the country than flying them in. Everything is there and comes in cross border from India and China. Right now the issue of flying aid in is not so relevant. Though foreign aid workers can not visit the worst affected areas, Burmese nationals can. We can help support teams of Burmese medics aid workers, who are well trained and very competent, from our bases in the capital and supply them.

Paul Strachan says his company is absorbing all administrative costs associated with distributing the funds they receive. You can donate to Paul's rescue operation here.

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