Dear Administrator Fore:
Over the past five months, the US government has been generous in its response to Cyclone Nargis, providing almost $50 million in relief goods and services to the people of Burma. The US has also played a key role in supporting ASEAN and the UN to help negotiate an opening of operational space for humanitarian relief agencies to respond in the Irrawaddy Delta region. As implementing agencies with programs inside Burma and policy organizations with a long interest in Burma, we have witnessed the effectiveness of this relief effort and the benefits delivered directly Burmese in desperate need. However, we also fear that the withdrawal of US funding in 2009 from cyclone relief operations could result in a closing of this hard-won openness and the denial of services to hundreds of thousands of people in need.
Though the emergency phase of American relief operations will be winding down by the end of 2008, this is by no means an indication that life is back to normal for the 2.4 million people affected by Cyclone Nargis. International NGOs working with community based organizations have provided emergency medical attention, temporary shelter, and food aid throughout the delta region, but these programs alone will not help the victims resume their livelihoods, whether as farmers, fishermen, small businessmen, traders or day laborers. In a country that provides almost no social services, it is necessary to help ordinary Burmese rebuild their lives, attain food security, get access to microcredit and rebuild adequate shelter, and obtain needed medical care, education and other services. Without US and other international help, it will take many Burmese years just to return to the low standard of living that they had before the storm.
As part of its emergency aid program, OFDA has funded a wide-range of livelihood and early recovery programs to get people back on their feet as quickly as possible. Though this support has been critical for the people of Burma, this work needs to continue throughout 2009.
- Support for rehabilitating damaged agricultural lands and getting seed into the hands of farmers has helped speed up recovery, but it is estimated that this November’s harvest will not produce a normal yield. Farmers will need continued support through 2009 to make them productive again.
- Over 130,000 boats were destroyed by the cyclone, depriving communities not only of the means to fish, but also of their transportation and communication systems. To date, less than 10,000 boats have been replaced.
- 450,000 houses were destroyed by the storm, while a further 350,000 sustained some type of damage. Though 80% of delta residents have temporarily rebuilt shelters, many can now only obtain quickly degrading materials such as tarp, bamboo and thatch, leaving them in temporary, substandard and unsafe homes throughout 2009.
- 63% of residents in the affected parts of the delta have inadequate access to clean water, due largely to the salination of ponds and other water sources. The cleaning of existing ponds and the excavation of new ones will last well through 2009.
- 1,700 schools were destroyed, depriving children the cognitive, psychosocial and physical support going to school can provide. These and countless other humanitarian needs will go unmet if the US, and other donors , do not continue funding in 2009. In fact, continued US funding to address these needs would also provide encouragement to other donors in Europe and Asia to maintain their support.
The direct implementation of such programs by NGOs has put resources directly into the hands of the Burmese people. All throughout the delta, the international community is working directly with new community-elected village committees to assess needs and decide priorities. When seeds are distributed, lost livestock are replaced, or fishing equipment is provided, those inputs go directly into the hands of those in need. When ponds are desalinated, vocational training is provided or microcredit is introduced, it is done directly in cooperation with communities. These are all efforts to help ordinary Burmese rebuild their lives in a society where the government provides little to no assistance.
The ability to carry out this work effectively has increased as a direct result of international pressure on the Burmese regime. In addition to the improved operating conditions, humanitarian agencies now benefit from mechanisms to help resolve disputes that negatively affect the work environment. Through the ASEAN-led Tripartite Core Group (TCG), concerns can be raised directly with the government and resolved. Visas are issued regularly through the TCG, and ASEAN-led monitoring and evaluation updates will give us access to continued information on unmet needs.
Now is not the time to curtail engagement with Burma on humanitarian issues. After hard-fought operating space has been won, we must work to preserve this access. If funding is cut off in 2009, the operating environment for NGOs and community organizations may return to restrictive pre-cyclone restrictions. The US has been at the forefront of the drive to open up the delta to international humanitarian work – and to bring effective aid to the suffering people of Burma. We hope it will not contribute to a closing of this space due to a lack of funding.
As the 2009 budget year rapidly approaches, we hope that the US resolve to support and provide humanitarian aid to the people of Burma, particularly the victims of Cyclone Nargis, will be maintained at a generous level.