Ending Burma's Isolation (Part II)
How much aid does the international community give to the people of Burma?
- Doing what we can to meet the basic needs of people living below the poverty line is just as much a human right as our efforts to secure their political rights.
- According to UN estimates, Burma is the 13th poorest country in the world, but receives less overseas development assistance — $4.08 per person as of 2007 — than any of the poorest 55 countries.
- A fisherman or farmer in Burma makes approximately $3 a day, and he spends 75% of that on securing adequate food for his family.
- The Obama Administration recently requested only $38 million for humanitarian assistance programs to Burma for 2009.
The Burmese manage the heat by getting up at 4:00 in the morning, going out to work until 10:00, coming home to rest until 2:00 and going out again until dusk.
Spend any time in Burma and one thing becomes very clear. Burma's 50 million people are some of the hardest-working people on earth. They deserve better from their government and also from the international community.
The Burmese have to work hard because they would otherwise die. There is no so-called safety net of government support for them. A fisherman or farmer in Burma makes approximately $3 a day, and he spends 75% of that on securing adequate food for his family.
If his house blows down because of some natural disaster, such as last year’s cyclone, this farmer or fisherman does not have enough left over money to pay for the reconstruction of his house — let alone to replace his boat or get the salt water out of the community's drinking water. And he can't go to the bank for a loan or the government for credit.
He goes without, and is forced deeper into poverty unless the international community comes to his assistance.
However, because those in power in Burma care more about enriching themselves than taking care of their citizenry, the international community has not been particularly responsive to supporting the needs of the Burmese people.
According to UN estimates, Burma is the 13th poorest country in the world, but receives less overseas development assistance — $4.08 per person as of 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 similarly repressive governments and levels of poverty receive much larger assistance packages, such as Sudan ($51 per person), Zimbabwe ($41 per person) and Laos ($58 per person).
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's re-arrest is tragic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the United States and other Western governments will find it hard to increase the size and scope of their assistance to the people of Burma.
Doing so would somehow be viewed as undermining the wishes of Suu Kyi. She once discouraged travel to Burma on the grounds that it would help the government, and was apparently initially against providing assistance to the Burmese people after the cyclone for the same reason.
However, if Suu Kyi were able to travel around the country and see what I have seen, she would know that the sanctions are not hurting the government; they are only further impoverishing the people.
She would agree that despite the challenges of working in Burma, significant opportunities exist to support the survivors of the cyclone, combat infectious diseases, improve education and strengthen civil society without providing financial, technical or material assistance to Burmese government institutions.
There are huge needs in the areas of health, education and livelihood throughout the country. Doing what we can to meet the basic needs of people living below the poverty line is just as much a human right as our efforts to secure their political rights. Building local capacity to think, analyze, solve problems and mediate their differences are, in any case, democracy-building activities with a small "d."
The United States gave generously to the people of Burma after the cyclone, providing $75 million to the emergency response effort. This funding was carefully monitored and proven to provide lifesaving shelter, healthcare and livelihood support to the people of the delta.
Despite the success of the effort and the realization that much more needs to be done, the Obama Administration recently requested only $38 million for humanitarian assistance programs to Burma for 2009, $21 million of which will be spent on humanitarian aid inside Burma.
The remainder of the money will support important and long-standing programs to meet the needs of Burmese refugees throughout Asia, as well as cross-border assistance to areas of southeast Burma that cannot be reached by agencies working inside the country. The funds that are dedicated to humanitarian operations inside the country represent a dramatic drop in funding from the commitment that the United States showed during the cyclone.
With conditions throughout Burma continuing to deteriorate, and the Obama Administration having committed to reviewing U.S. policy toward Burma, the United States should come up with a new policy towards Burma that does not legitimize the government or contribute to its coffers — but also does not drive the Burmese people deeper into poverty.
For the Delta, this would mean, among other things, funding a second wave of shelters. The plastic sheeting given out during the initial stages of the relief effort make the houses too hot, and people cannot afford the wood and thatch that their homes were constructed of before the cyclone hit.
It could also mean supporting Disaster Risk Reduction projects so that fewer people die the next time disaster strikes.
The United States could also be funding cash for work programs that promote democracy building with a small "d," but are also a good way to get roads, schools, foot paths and water storage containers built. This will give folks an alternative source of income as they try to get back on their feet.
Editor’s Note: Read Part I of this feature here.