Friday, May 23, 2008

Couple of Links

AmeriCares is on the ground in Myanmar, and reports on the issues in moving outside of Yangon in a USA Today article.

Countercurrents offers and op-ed piece on the disaster in "A Tale of Two Storms".

Myanmar to Allow All Aid Workers?

Given the recent past history of Myanmar's government in terms of allowing most relief workers into the country, a report today indicates that the government will now allow all aid workers into the country needs to be viewed a bit skeptically. Never the less, it's a positive development nearly three weeks after Cyclone Nargis tore through the region. The agreement with the United Nations also might be an indicator of just how bad - and overwhelming - conditions are in the Irrawaddy delta:

Myanmar's junta agreed on Friday to admit cyclone aid workers "regardless of nationalities" to the hardest-hit Irrawaddy Delta, a breakthrough for delivering help to survivors, U.N. officials said.

Western disaster experts, largely kept out of the delta and restricted to the former capital Yangon, welcomed the news but wanted more details on the deal struck by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and junta supremo Than Shwe.

"The general said he saw no reason why that should not happen ... as long as they were genuine humanitarian workers and it was clear what they were going to be doing," a U.N. official with Ban said...

The initial report of agreement doesn't discuss the military ships from the international community that are waiting offshore to deliver relief supplies. It's safe to assume that the Myanmar government isn't going to let the ships dock, but it seems open to civilian ships and boats offloading supplies. That's a start.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Myanmar Perspective

The ongoing tragedy in Myanmar has shined a spotlight on the isolationist government of the country more than any other event in recent history. Yesterday, I received an email from a well intentioned person asking me to post a link to a particular website that is championing regime change in Myanmar. I responded as follows:

Thanks for the email. One would hope that the current crisis in Myanmar would transcend political considerations on the part of the junta, but obviously that hasn't happened, at least to the extent that one would hope. I'm cautiously optimistic that the junta's acceptance of relief coordination from ASEAN is a move in the right direction.

As you probably understand, I've tried to keep Myanmar Relief completely non-antagonistic in nature, and avoid the political theater that's been going on for the past two weeks. My preference at this moment in time is to concentrate on what's working, in hopes that whatever positive developments have occurred can serve as guidance for other NGOs and nations that want to assist.

In some respects, I can actually understand the paranoia of the ruling junta. That doesn't mean that I support the regime, in any manner, but if I were a paranoid dictator in a country that was beset by natural disaster, it seems natural to suspect all external offers of aid as a trojan horse for regime change efforts by the international community. Again, that doesn't mean I support the regime - only that I understand the origin of the paranoia.

That being said, at this moment in time, I'm reluctant to potentially jeopardize the efforts of any of the agencies I've been working through by linking to your great efforts. I hope you understand that at this moment in time, we're operating in two different worlds, even though they're not necessarily at cross-purpose with each other. I'd be happy to explore the possibility of linking efforts and working together once we're past the immediate needs.

Best regards,


Readers of this blog will also note that I have elected to use the official name of the country of Myanmar in my blog posts, rather than Burma. There is a simple reason. It is the official name of the country, and assuming that someone in the Myanmar government stumbles onto this blog, there is no reason to antagonize the regime and potentially endanger some of the relief efforts being documented in this blog.

I've also noticed something about the coverage of the Myanmar crisis here in the U.S. - let's call it "editorial hubris". When a publication like Time Magazine elects to ignore the journalistic protocol of using the legal entity name of a country or a municipality in that country, it's a boneheaded editorial decision, and doesn't serve to help matters in the immediate crisis. Here's Time's disclaimer to a recent article:

The junta that rules the country unilaterally decreed changes in place names, including Myanmar for Burma and Yangon for the former capital Rangoon. The U.S. State Department has not recognized these changes. TIME has chosen to retain the name Burma.

And anyone wonders why the Myanmar government distrusts the intention of international governments and aid agencies? Because the U.S. State Department doesn't recognize the name, a widely circulated U.S. news magazine doesn't, either? I just don't understand this approach, particularly at this point in time.

There are many viewpoints, thoughts, and theories on why the government in Myanmar has been so reluctant to accept outside aid. Countercurrents offers an extensive analysis of this reluctance (note: I don't necessarily agree with some of the finer aspects of the article, but as a primer and overview, the article is great).

Monday, May 19, 2008

Homegrown Help

In any disaster relief scenario, my experience has been that people in the affected country band together, and help each other. The ongoing crisis in Myanmar is no exception:

Rangoon travel agent Chin Chin used to take tourists to a nearby Irrawaddy delta town famous for its pottery. But the vast waterworld of rivers and rice fields that stretched beyond it was a foreign land to her until Cyclone Nargis and its horrific aftermath. On Thursday, Chin Chin and her friends bought rice and water, loaded it on a truck, and drove deep into the delta. She was shocked by what she saw: roads lined with hundreds of cold and hungry villagers, disregarded by their own government, who had walked for an hour from their broken villages to beg from passing motorists...

The monks are also on the move again. Buddhist temples and monasteries have always played a central role in helping the needy in Burma (as, in this religiously and ethnically diverse country, have churches, mosques and Hindu temples). After the cyclone, monks led small-scale relief efforts into the delta, the distinctive multicolored flags of their faith fluttering from cars and small trucks. Monks from well-known monasteries in Mandalay and elsewhere in Burma are either in the delta or heading there, while in Pakkoku - the Irrawaddy town near Mandalay where last year's protests originated - their brethren are reportedly soliciting donations for cyclone victims. Shwe Pyi Hein Monastery, which already runs a free clinic in Rangoon, has dispatched five volunteer doctors to the disaster area, who are treating more than 100 people every day.

Despite the participation of thousands of Burmese, the impact of this homegrown relief effort will always limited, admits Zaganar. "We deliver our supplies by road because we cannot afford a boat," he says. "But most victims live close to the water. We cannot get through to them." He says Burma desperately needs more boats and helicopters from abroad...

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the U.S. Gulf Coast, it wasn't the U.S. government that was first on the scene. Private citizens and non-organized church groups in nearby non-affected areas were the first into the devastated region with supplies, boats, and medical assistance. It shouldn't be terribly surprising that those in Myanmar who could help their fellow citizens were the first to mobilize, and work their own internal networks. Where networks don't exist, they're improvising and working around government restrictions.

Know of any success stories? Drop me an email and I'll post them...

Friday, May 16, 2008

Latest Casualty Figures - 200,000??

As I've acknowledged previously, in any given disaster situation, early casualty figures are notoriously unreliable. So, take the following report from MS-NBC with a grain of salt:

YANGON - Torrential tropical downpours lashed Myanmar's cyclone-hit Irrawaddy delta on Friday as state television said cyclone death toll has reached almost 78,000, with another 56,000 people missing.

British officials have said the number of dead and missing may exceed 200,000. Given Myanmar's ban on foreign journalists and restrictions on movement for most international aid workers, independent assessments are difficult.

Thousands of destitute victims took to roadsides to beg for help to supplement the meager trickle of aid flowing in...

200,000 seems high - but given the almost total inaccessibility of the Irrawaddy delta area, maybe it's actually low. I've avoided posting gruesome videos that are available on YouTube which were apparently shot in the delta region - it's bad. Really bad.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Appeal from Burmese Monk

Found on YouTube...

Turf Wars in Times of Crisis

I've been involved with non-profit organizations and relief agencies, in one capacity or another, for the better part of the past 20 years. One of the things that always strikes me during disaster response situations is the nature of turf wars within the NGO community.

The NGO questionnaire that I posted last week has received exactly one response, despite the fact that it was emailed to every agency on my rather extensive list. And yesterday, I once again emailed those on my list, asking a few simple questions:

Is your organization on the ground yet in Myanmar?
Are you encountering obstacles in trying to get supplies or personnel into the coutry?
What's working?
What's not?

I understand that many of my contacts (and the agencies that they represent) are very busy at this time, coordinating response to both Myanmar and the China earthquake. Still, my experience tells me that the lack of replies to either the questionnaire or the above questions is as much a reflection of individual agencies not wishing to disclose information in a public forum that could be utilized by competing NGOs.

In economic times such as we in the U.S. are facing, philanthropic support and individual donations to NGOs tends to be the first thing to be cut when budgets must be tightened. And chasing the dollars is always a struggle for any non-profit entity. But I would suspect that organizations such as Thirst-Aid and AmeriCares have benefited tremendously from their openness in publicizing their work and their needs.

Hopefully, the agency turf wars won't get in the way of sharing information and strategies in working either the Myanmar or China disasters. There is too much to be done, with too little time remaining, for community squabbles to get in the way of actually getting things done.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

USAF, USN Prepping Relief Efforts

Two YouTube videos, one of preparations on the USS Essex, and one of preparations for the first USAF airlift into Yangon.

Prepping water bladders, USS Essex:

USAF video, first airlift preparations:

Thirst-Aid Making Inroads in Relief Efforts

There are many NGOs that toil in relative obscurity for years in the most remote and politically inhospitable locations on the planet. Thirst-Aid is once such organization. I profiled their efforts last week as the disaster was unfolding, and received an update today from Bree Ervin:

The Thirst-Aid team has brought in 4 million Aqua Tabs for emergency water purification. They are also using their filters, and filters donated by Global Medics to create reservoirs of potable water for cyclone victims to use. “We’re working on getting cholera medicine into the country now. Curt Bradner is planning to be in Bangkok Wednesday and then we will go back into Myanmar together, hopefully with enough medicine to treat the 100,000 people we estimate to be sick right now.” Cathy Bradner is in Bangkok working with other NGOs to organize the relief effort and make sure that the right supplies are getting in.

“We have one team member in Myanmar at all times; making sure supplies are getting into the right hands. We’re keeping one person in Bangkok to keep up communication with other NGOs working to bring aid in. Our third member is in constant motion between our filter factories, Yangon, Bangkok, and meetings with other organizations. Right now we’re taking turns so we don’t burn out on any one role.”

...“When Thirst-Aid goes into a country we don’t swoop in with a big group of foreigners. Up until this year it was just Curt and Cathy. This year we added Bryan Berenguer (pictured) and he has been our Myanmar Field Director”. What thirst-Aid does next is hire locals to build ceramic water filter factories, develop culturally appropriate safe water education materials, and put together local distribution networks. It is this organizational model that is allowing them so much success in Myanmar while so many others are struggling.

Bree points out that, “Only a few locals are being allowed into the hardest hit areas, no foreigners at all. That’s stopping a lot of organizations from responding in those areas, but we have the local contacts, we’re getting in. And we’re helping to get supplies from other groups to those areas too. We’re all having to come together and really pool our resources for this one.” ...

Thirst-Aid has issued two press releases in the past 24 hours detailing the scope of their efforts. Since the press releases aren't yet available on their website, I'll add them as a download feature here a bit later today.

The bottom line is that there are success stories that will emerge from Myanmar. As I noted before, the agencies that have been working in the country and established relationships are having the easiest time accessing the country and getting assistance where it's needed.

Update: Check out this Associated Press story about Thirst-Aid!

Do You Shop Online or Use Ebay?

Mission Fish is a philanthropic arm of Ebay / Paypal, and is used by sellers to direct a portion of their online sales to charitable organizations. A page has been set up for Myanmar Cyclone Nargis Relief, and many online merchants and Ebay sellers are already participating.

More background info on Mission Fish is available here.