- Who We Are
- What We Do
- Get Involved
We, the undersigned, write to thank Senator Jim Webb and the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs for holding a hearing on U.S.-Burma relations, and applaud efforts to find new ways to encourage dialogue with the Burmese people. The policy review being undertaken by the Senate and the Administration come in the wake of heightened U.S. involvement with Burma in response to the tragedy of Cyclone Nargis. We encourage the U.S. government to continue to increase humanitarian assistance to the people of Burma to alleviate the suffering of ordinary Burmese, to strengthen civil society, and to encourage dialogue between the international community and the Burmese government. At a time when so much of the world’s relationship with Burma is deadlocked, humanitarian assistance is one of the few areas where concrete progress is being made.
Burma is one of the poorest countries globally. The United Nations Development Program estimates that the GDP per capita in Burma is the 13th lowest in the world. The average Burmese family spends 75% of that meager income on securing adequate food supplies. Less than 50% of children complete primary school and, according to UNICEF, under-5 child mortality averages 103 per 1,000 children. This is the second-highest rate outside Africa, after Afghanistan. Burma has the highest HIV rate in Southeast Asia, and malaria, a treatable and preventable disease, is the leading cause of mortality and morbidity.
While the Burmese military regime bears most responsibility for the situation in Burma, international humanitarian aid for the Burmese people has not kept pace with their needs. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for example, Burma receives less overseas development assistance, $4.08 per person (2007), than any of the poorest 55 countries. The average assistance in this group of countries is more than $42 per person. Many other countries with similar levels of poverty receive much larger assistance packages, such as Sudan ($51/person); Zimbabwe ($41/person); and Laos ($58/person).
U.S. policy towards Burma has traditionally focused on the government and not the millions of people in Burma, whose living conditions have steadily deteriorated. The Burmese people perpetually live on the brink of a humanitarian crisis, and Cyclone Nargis proved that further disruption can have disastrous consequences. The U.S. was the second largest donor for the Cyclone Nargis response, contributing $75 million to emergency efforts. This funding was carefully monitored and provided lifesaving emergency healthcare, shelter, and livelihood support to help Burmese citizens recover.
In Fiscal Year 2010, the Obama Administration requested $21 million for humanitarian assistance to assist people inside Burma, an important step towards greater U.S. involvement in alleviating their suffering. At a time when other countries are looking to the US for leadership, such an increase will help ensure a more unified approach among major US allies. Great Britain, the European Community, Australia and others are already moving to significantly ramp up their assistance. As the Senate and the Administration consider new approaches to Burma, it should increase humanitarian assistance to Burma gradually, with at least $30 million for FY2010, $45 million in 2011, and $60 million in 2012. This type of assistance should be available to people in need not only in the delta and along the border but throughout Burma. It should also be expanded beyond the current emergency assistance and limited health interventions to include agriculture, health, education, microfinance, capacity building, and income-generation.
Humanitarian assistance in Burma has the added impact of supporting the development of civil society organizations in a country where it is important to encourage non-state actors. Almost all international aid agencies work closely with civil society partners throughout the country to implement their programs. Humanitarian aid organizations now employ over 10,000 Burmese citizens who are directly exposed to new ideas and international standards of work. Their experience has a multiplying effect, as these staff work in villages country-wide. These efforts should be supported and expanded to allow the Burmese people to have a greater role in shaping their own future.
The international community has also seen how engagement can produce concrete changes in government policy through dialogue that contributes to improving the wellbeing of the Burmese people who have suffered as a result of current circumstances. Because of their long-term presence in the country, principled engagement with the government, and the efficacy of their programs, many international NGOs have been able to have a direct role in shaping national policy. International actors have been pivotal in gaining changes to nationwide HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, education, and disaster response policies. They have gotten to know which government officials are encouraging of greater engagement with the outside world, and how to best engage the government in sensitive issues. Promoting this type of dialogue should be supported.
Humanitarian assistance alone cannot solve Burma’s problems. It is an effective tool for helping a suffering people with direct aid, and for encouraging some officials to adopt more effective social policies. And it provides space for civil society to grow in a country where few opportunities exist. It must be seen as only one policy amongst many whose aim is to improve the lives of all Burmese. But the US should continue to embrace humanitarian assistance as a proven and effective way for achieving important policy goals.
Save the Children
International Rescue Committee
Population Services International
International Development Enterprises Myanmar
Church World Service
Médecins du Monde
International HIV/AIDS Alliance
Medical Action Myanmar
Norwegian Refugee Committee
Norwegian People’s Aid
|Burmese Civil Society
Capacity Building Initiative
Tampadipa Relief and Development