Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Despite rising casualties from the May 3 typhoon in Myanmar (Burma), global relief officials are continuing to fight hard to get desperately needed plane-loads of donated water, packaged foods, blankets, plastic sheets, and medicine off the country's air strips and into the hands of victims.

Yet most aid, nearly two weeks after the storm, is still not reaching the needy.

Michael Kiernan, a spokesman for Westport, Conn.-based international aid group, Save the Children, tells Cause Global that Myanmar's ruling junta is blocking distribution—stealing, diverting, or warehousing for its own use the lion's share of supplies being flown in by donors worldwide. (The United Nations said today the World Food Programme is getting in only about 20 percent of the food needed due to the bottlenecks.) Further, the junta is barring all foreigners, including credentialed diplomats and journalists, from entering the country, and aid workers are being prohibited from accompanying any donated aid, tracking its distribution, or following up on its delivery.

Thanks to the use of social media—from Twitter to mobile video—detailed accounts of what's happening inside Myanmar (and what's not) are leaking out to the West. For an up-to-date account of the political challenges that international aid workers are facing in their push to help typhoon victims in Myanmar, see this May 14 YouTube/Al Jazeera interview with Tom Costello, CEO of World Vision, a Christian global relief nonprofit, on the ground in Yangon (Rangoon).

For some background on Myanmar's repressive military regime, see this Washington Post story, which lends some context to the aid blockade.

Should donors keep sending aid to Myanmar if there is no clear assurance that it will reach the needy? And would such aid be adequate, even if it did arrive and get distributed? (After the 2004 tsunami in Asia, for example, 4,000 tons of free drugs flooded into the Indonesian coastal town of Banda Aceh but 60% of them were irrelevant or unneeded and 25% had expired on arrival or shortly thereafter, according to Pharmacists Without Borders, a global nonprofit.)

World Vision's Costello insists it's important to keep raising money, sending basic food and supplies, and working to get around the bottlenecks—given the evidence of escalating need in the region detailed in Web reports. Ned Olney, who is overseeing Save the Children's response in Asia from his office in Washington, D.C., says the nonprofit's 35 sub-offices in Myanmar and 500 full-time staff already on the ground there "are helping us get some supplies through when other groups are finding it impossible." (The U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance has consigned Save the Children to distribute three planeloads of supplies; the U.K. has asked it to help distribute two such additional planeloads.) "It's not that nobody has access, because we do," Olney says. "But there's no question that it's been difficult and it's still a very delicate situation."

Moreover, Olney, Costello, and others agree that a more coordinated approach by aid groups worldwide is needed now and in the future to resolve common disaster relief challenges, chiefly those posed by distribution snafus including geopolitical conflicts. The New York-based Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) is discussing the creation of a global "SWAT team" of corporate aid networks to help donor groups avoid the all-too-frequent disconnect between need, distribution, and resources at home and abroad in the wake of natural disasters.

"Business groups should develop rapid deployment logistics teams and they should be formal and should be housed somewhere," says Alan G. Hassenfeld, Chairman of Hasbro Inc. and a founding member of the CECP. "And they should be made up of people who are able to interconnect on a global basis. We live in a world where there is going to be another disaster somewhere soon, ongoing, so let's mobilize now."

Can it work? Expect to hear more about the notion in social entrepreneur think-fests later this summer and fall.

What do you think?

(Photo of Myanmar children by Getty Images)

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Blogger Robert Pondiscio said...

The global SWAT team is a fine idea, and would work provided the corporations and agencies involved were not mired in their own processes and, to be frank, desire for credit and visibility (I'm not a cynic, but I've been around corporate PR enough to know you can't assume that these issues won't play a role at some level).
Moreover, how would this help Myanmar? The issues there have more to do with politics than logistics.

May 15, 2008 at 12:09 PM  

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