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Myanmar/Burma Cyclone Situation and Charitable Giving

This is a guest post from deepali of paradigm shifted. She has been following the situation in Myanmar/Burma since long before the Cyclone Nargis hit and agreed to post about what’s going on there now and how you can help. This a follow-up to my post on charitable giving and telemarketing.

On May 2nd, Cyclone Nargis made landfall in the Irrawaddy Delta of Burma. It is probably the most devastating natural disaster to hit the country, and while mortality in such situations is notoriously hard to measure, almost 50,000 are confirmed dead. The Red Cross and others estimate the death toll might peak around 125,000.

But even more alarming is the non-fatal damage done to the region: more than 1.5 million people have lost their homes (in a country of less than 50 million), and agricultural capacity has diminished considerably. What used to be considered the “Rice Bowl” of the British Empire is practically unrecognizable now.

To complicate matters, Burma is currently under the control of a military junta that has been denounced by almost every country in the world. Under the junta, social services spending is near $0 per capita, so poverty, poor health, and lack of basic freedoms run rampant. Its democratically elected leader (and Nobel Prize winner), Ang San Suu Kyi, has been under house arrest for 18 years. Immediately following the cyclone, the world rushed in to deliver aid… and was promptly shut out.

It has now been 2 weeks since Nargis hit, and there has been little improvement seen. Aid packages have made their way into the country (after getting hung up at customs), but aid workers themselves are still being denied access. A few development organizations are allowed to operate in Burma, and they have stepped in to fill the gap. As the government slowly allows aid into the country, these groups are struggling to deliver the needed supplies to the million-plus people who have lost everything.

Relief work is expensive. While those displaced by the cyclone are not officially considered refugees, they are living in refugee-like situations. Under the circumstances, there are minimum standards that need to be met to ensure their well-being. And as food and fuel costs soar, the cost of emergency relief goes sky-high. As a result, many of the groups working to assist survivors of the cyclone are running out of funds. And to make matters worse, a second cyclone is developing in the Bay of Bengal, and could make landfall next week.

Under normal circumstances, donations in the case of a natural disaster are easy. The usual suspects of relief work are capable, organized, and efficient. Under these circumstances, however, it’s not quite so easy. While some charities have people already on the ground, they are not aid workers. They can distribute supplies, but they are not generally trained to resolve crises that result from a disaster. Until the government allows aid workers full access to the region, humanitarian assistance will consist of small organizations operating locally.

There are a number of worthwhile organizations currently responding to the disaster. Some of them are local Burmese organizations, operating at great risk to themselves. Thus, many of them remain anonymous. They are in dire need of funds, and you can assist them by sending donations to their partners:

Avaaz.Org is working with the International Burmese Monks Association.

GHAP has a number of local partners, with whom I have had personal interaction/

Both of these groups work in both the short- and medium-term. In the medium-term only, the US Campaign for Burma has partners on the ground as well. Funds should be designated for the cyclone specifically.

There are also a few international organizations who have a presence in Burma with long-term projects. These organizations also have rapid deployment teams who are currently awaiting permission to enter the country. In the meantime, those on the ground are stepping in. Of these groups, Save the Children and CARE International have the largest relief efforts. MSF (aka Doctors Without Borders) is currently stepping up its operations as it receives permission to enter the country.

There are also some well-known relief groups who will be entering the country imminently, such as the Red Cross.

And finally, Google has stepped up to assist the fundraising effort. They have chosen two organizations who work in the medium- and long-term (the period after a disaster when donations and foreign aid are reduced to a trickle) to support. Your donations to these organizations are being matched by funds from Google.

All of these are worthwhile organizations working under hostile and dire conditions. Despite the lack of cooperation from the military junta, these organizations are ignoring politics and focusing on what matters the most – helping people in need.

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May 17, 2008 at 7:08 am
a case of conflicting principles « Paradigm Shifted
May 21, 2008 at 11:01 am

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephanie Chance May 16, 2008 at 11:15 am

Thank you for this information.

castocreations May 16, 2008 at 12:35 pm

My concern with giving for this huge tragedy is that even the aid workers who are there will be unable to help. The government there is a nightmare and so far all I’ve heard is that almost all aid is being distributed to the military and leaders. Only the rotten food has gotten to the people.

Which is why I hesitate to donate. In almost every other disaster like this I am right there donating. But this time … I just do NOT know where my money is going to go and I do not want it to go to prop up the evil dictatorship.

It’s a tragedy beyond tragedy. I also read that the government knew the cyclone was coming and did nothing to warn people to evacuate (though I don’t know if they even have the capability to warn people…who knows).

Patrick May 16, 2008 at 1:07 pm

This situation is extremely frustrating for the world community. There are a lot of people willing and able to give assistance. Unfortunately, the de facto government is too greedy,suspicious, and scared to allow aid to reach people. I’ll give prayers, but unfortunately, I think any monetary assistance would not be effective. It really is sad.

mrsmicah May 16, 2008 at 1:37 pm

@castocreation, @Patrick, I agree, it’s troubling to think that some of the money would go to the junta. I’m torn between hoping that something would get through…

I just can’t understand a situation how a government would treat their own people this way.

deepali May 16, 2008 at 2:36 pm

It’s definitely a moral quandary. But the innocent people of Burma are not responsible for the terrible actions of their government (and in fact, risk their lives to effect change), and I don’t think they should be punished for it.
It would be as if people in other countries denied aid to New Orleans after Katrina because they were opposed to the war in Iraq. The government (in any country) gets a cut of everything.

If even a small amount of donations makes its way to the right places, and some lives are saved, I think that’s enough for me.

That’s why I recommend donating to the groups that have local partners. They operate outside the government (unlike the intl NGOs who require cooperation with the government), and little of that funding will go towards the dictatorship.

And yes, the government failed to the warn and evacuate the people – just one in a long list of failures, IMHO. It’s really tragic.

fathersez May 18, 2008 at 12:32 am

The situation is so sad. There are a lot of Myyanmar people in Malaysia working at menial labour to help out their families back home.

Their Government is so odd. Last year there was the monks uprising……and these monks are the most patient and peaceful people you can think of.

Now with the threat of yet another cyclone, the prospects are frightening.

plonkee May 18, 2008 at 12:27 pm

I guess there comes a point when you have to decide whether it’s more important to oppose a heinous government or maybe attempt to improve a few lives. And, in the case of Myanmar, that’s a question to which there are no right answers – only deeply wrong ones. The world is not a perfect place.

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