In flood-stricken Myanmar, a new role for development partners

Flood victims in Yangon waiting for relief assistance. International aid groups temporarily suspend their “routine development work” to assist flood-hit areas in the country. Photo from Pact

As floodwaters begin to recede in many parts of Myanmar devastated by flooding in recent weeks, international help is bolstering efforts to reach those left without shelter or basic supplies.

Flooding in 12 of Myanmar’s 14 states and divisions — which began in late June and intensified last month when Cyclone Koman made landfall near the country’s border with Bangladesh — has killed at least 96 people, displaced 600,000 and inundated 1.2 million acres of rice paddy, state media said Sunday.

Rivers in downstream areas of the Ayeyarwady Delta are now also swelling, and thousands of homes have been evacuated in anticipation of secondary flooding.

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In the early days of the flooding, social media users were quick to criticize the government’s response, tempting comparison with last major natural disaster in the country in 2008, during which time the country’s military rulers failed to deliver humanitarian assistance to the affected and actively stymied international efforts to provide aid.

But the government has since received praise for its apparent 180-degree turnaround from its restricted response to Cyclone Nargis. It took three weeks for the former military junta to grant access to international aid workers in the aftermath of the May 2008 cyclone. The recent floods, however, prompted a more open response from the government, which has even been giving lifts to aid workers to transport them to hard-to-reach areas.

“The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is closely working with the government to coordinate the response of the U.N. and [international nongovernmental organizations],” Wynn Thane, deputy country director of Pact Myanmar, told Devex. “And the Emergency Operations Center has also been activated to monitor and respond in a coordinated fashion.”

“Someone has to be ready to take charge in times of crisis,” Jessica Lawson, a spokeswoman for Plan International, said, noting how the government’s coordination had been impressive. “They have relaxed restrictions in the hope that more aid will come in.”

From development to humanitarian aid

But while the government has become more open to international help, international response has been relatively tepid.

Contributions from individual donors haven’t been as encouraging, perhaps owing to a decline in media coverage of the Myanmar floods. According to Eddie Byrd, director of marketing and communications at Pact, an online fundraising campaign for the Myanmar response the international nonprofit launched Wednesday only managed to gather three donations totaling $600.

Thane considers the country donor response to the situation — 3 million Australian dollars ($2.2 million) from Canberra, $600,000 from the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, $300,000 from the Chinese embassy in Myanmar, $150,000 from Japan and in-kind assistance from India, among others — similarly lukewarm.

The U.N. Central Emergency Response Fund announced Friday that it had allocated $9 million to help aid providers scale up their assistance, adding that some 160,000 people are in need of lifesaving assistance following the floods. But the United Nations says there is still a shortage in funding, estimating that at least $47 million is needed for emergency aid.

“Even now that the danger has been realized, I do not see much real action from the international community,” Jason Meikle, deputy director of the Pact Global Microfinance Fund, told Devex. “On the other hand, local NGOs, businesses, student groups and others have been very active — to the shame of those who make disaster relief their business.”

That’s not to say there are no international aid groups responding on the ground.

Plan International has suspended its normal programming in the heavily affected Rakhine State, and is diverting its existing resources, plus extra emergency funds, to helping displaced people in the areas of Sittwe and Minbya.

“The INGOs are mostly focusing on the areas they are already working in, or they can donate through the Emergency Operations Center,” Lawson said.

Plan is committed to providing long-term relief, she added, explaining that its current provision of food and shelter to flood victims will eventually make way for work rebuilding schools and ensuring the livelihoods of those affected.

Similarly, Pact has decided to temporarily hold off “routine development work” in flood-hit areas, according to Thane. In the meantime, it has also ventured into humanitarian work to aid those displaced by the flooding.

“We don’t often raise funds for humanitarian crises such as these floods,” Byrd told Devex. “However, with the long experience and extensive network we have in Myanmar, we felt we’d be remiss if we didn’t try to amass funds to pay for an emergency response we felt compelled to undertake, with or without support.”

Budget realigned, but funding limitations remain

While the blurring of lines between development and humanitarian work is nothing new, the task of shifting from the relatively predictable undertaking of development projects to the more erratic nature of humanitarian efforts comes with its own set of challenges.

Through existing funding meant for other projects, Pact Myanmar has been able to realign its budget to respond to the emergency and buy necessary items such as drinking water, canned food, hygiene kits and life jackets. But the project funding doesn’t cover the purchase of medicine and rice as well as other agricultural products — critical needs in the current crisis.

“This funding is still being governed by existing donor agreements and regulations, which forbid us to do some specific things that we wanted to do,” Thane said.

Unrestricted funds from donors could help fill the gap — and assist development organizations such as Pact in easing affected communities toward long-term recovery.

Through PGMF and the fund’s existing network, Pact has been delivering emergency food kits enough to support a family of five for around three days.

Twenty-three of the 54 townships in which PGMF is active require emergency food rations, according to Meikle. In terms of the number of households affected and the severity of the impact of the disaster on the areas, Pwintphyu, Pakokku, Nyaungdon, Danuphyu and Ingapu are the five townships most in need of assistance.

“We are trying to provide in some of these areas from our own resources but need financial support to increase outreach,” Meikle told Devex. “The larger, midterm need is for immediate assistance to replant crops — there will still be time in most places — to provide food security in the next three to six months.”

PGMF will spend around 86 percent of donated funds on agriculture rehabilitation, 8 percent on emergency food distribution, and “exactly 6 percent” to cover management and transportation expenses, according to Meikle.

“We have distributed about $150,000 total in food aid, out of which $25,000 comes from staff and the rest from PGMF itself,” he said.

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About the authors

  • Simon Lewis

    Simon Lewis is a freelance journalist covering Southeast Asia. Following a stint as business editor of The Cambodia Daily newspaper in Phnom Penh, he has been based since 2013 in Yangon, where he also worked as an editor and reporter for The Irrawaddy news magazine. He has reported on development, business, human rights and religion in the region.
  • Anna Patricia Valerio

    Anna Patricia Valerio is a former Manila-based development analyst who focused on writing innovative, in-the-know content for senior executives in the international development community. Before joining Devex, Patricia wrote and edited business, technology and health stories for BusinessWorld, a Manila-based business newspaper.