After AusAID cuts, award-winning clinic for Myanmar in dire straits

The Mae Tao Clinic for refugees in Myanmar. The humanitarian group on the Myanmar-Thailand border is in danger of closing shop if it doesn't find new sources of funding. Photo by: Attila Husejnow / CC BY-NC-ND

Yet another humanitarian group is in dire financial straits following the Australian government’s decision to cut the foreign aid budget and integrate AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

This time it’s the award-winning Mae Tao Clinic on the Myanmar-Thailand border, established in 1989 to provide health services to thousands of refugees and now in danger of closing shop if it doesn’t find new sources of funding.

“We are trying to diversify our donor base more in the Asian region to fill the gap,” Dr. Cynthia Maung, the clinic’s founder and a former refugee herself, told Devex. “We are [also] working on advocacy and fund-raising activities as well as partnership with different organizations. It is important to promote collaboration in the region.”

The clinic received AU$500,000 every year since 2010, comprising almost a quarter of its average donation coffers. But that money will dry up in December of this year.

Up to 130,000 refugees are currently residing in various camps along this border due to the ethnic conflicts and human rights violations in Myanmar. The problem is not only violence, but also stunted economic and social development, especially education and health.

Although the Burmese junta was dissolved and elections were successfully held in 2010, refugees continue to cross into Thailand in search of a better life. The Mae Tao clinic served 148,000 people in 2012 alone, including ethnic Burmese living outside of the camps — a clear sign that much work still needs to be done on healthcare in Myanmar.

Failure to meet funding renewal terms, government policy

The Australian government’s decision to cut the clinic’s funding is based on two main reasons: failure to meet renewal requirements and the decision to support the refugee return policy of the Myanmar government.

A senior official from the clinic’s Australian partner organization said Canberra recognized the changing political climate in Myanmar, prompting it to support its new policy on refugee repatriation.

“The main reason is the view of AusAID that a changing climate inside [Myanmar] means that [it’s time] for the gradual withdrawal of services from the border,” said Kate Lee, executive officer of Union Aid Abroad. “The government is encouraging the refugees [to] return from the border area and want projects that support that overall policy.”

The move was anchored mainly on the assumption that the projects of the clinic indirectly invites people, even outside the refugee camps, to either cross the border and stay in the border, according to Lee. This is because health services in Myanmar are among the worst in the world.

“We feel that it is too early for [them] to go back home or inside because there it not much improvement including health services as well as human rights protection,” said Maung, who this week is in Australia to receive the 2013 Sydney Peace Prize for her work at the clinic.

Another reason is the failure to meet the requirements for funding renewal set by the Australian government. Lee said AusAID asked Union Aid and Mae Tao to participate in the bidding for funding earlier this year, but they were told a couple of months later that they did not pass. The rejection was a big blow, as the clinic helps a significant part of the population in the border area in need of primary healthcare, maternal heath, eye care, prosthetic, vaccination and HIV services.

Mae Tao and Union Aid are still hopeful that the decision can be turned around when they appeal to DFAT for reconsideration.

Maung herself and representatives from Union Aid will meet next week with senior DFAT officials, while Lee stressed: “We are calling on the Australian government to reconsider this position and to recommit support for the clinic because it is known internationally and its work is invaluable.”

For now, the clinic will continue to operate until the funding runs out in two months, but longer will be difficult without new money.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.

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