As Donors Go into Burma, Cross-border Aid Dries Up

By Saw Yan Naing 15 May 2012

The Norwegian Initiative, a pilot project launched in the wake of a visit to Norway in January by Railways Minister Aung Min, one of Naypyidaw’s chief negotiators in peace talks with Burma’s ethnic armed groups, is the latest sign of a growing detente between the former Southeast Asian pariah state and the West.

The project, which is believed to have received US $5 million in funding from the Norwegian government, aims to facilitate the talks by providing financial assistance for consultations with local communities, needs assessments and the setting up of liaison offices.

According to NGO sources working along the Thai-Burmese border, where many of Burma’s armed groups are based, the Norwegian Initiative has already established contact with most of the groups and is also cooperating with community-based organizations (CBOs) to conduct needs assessments. The first, in Kyaukgyi District, Pegu Division, was recently completed, said a source close to the project.

Based on the findings of the needs assessment, the Norwegian Initiative will work with ethnic armed groups, the government, international and national NGOs, CBOs and communities to support projects which provide peace dividends for people living in areas affected by armed conflict, the source said.

But even as Norway, a major supporter of cross-border aid projects over the past two decades, steps up its involvement in Burma’s peace process, it is scaling back its aid to groups that have long functioned completely independently of the Burmese government. In effect, assistance for such projects is becoming increasingly contingent on their willingness to work with the Burmese authorities.

While much of Oslo’s aid money continues to target border areas, in the future, more and more of it will likely go directly to the Norwegian People’s Aid office in Rangoon, said sources. Funding is also expected to increase considerably. According to one NGO source in Mandalay, Norway has reportedly agreed to contribute a further $20 million toward the creation of a more comprehensive and integrated Peace Fund.

But critics, including CBOs on the border, say that Norway’s sudden shift to central Burma is coming at the expense of populations that continue to need support, despite the still tentative signs that Naypyidaw is willing to work more closely with outside groups.

Many groups say they’ve seen a precipitous drop in funding from Norway and other donor nations over the past year. Htoo Klei, the secretary of the Karen Office of Relief and Development (KORD), which operates its relief delivery in conflict zones in Karen State, said that the group’s annual funding was cut in half in 2011.

Until last year, KORD received 40 million baht (more than $1.2 million) annually, but it now receives just 20 million baht (about $640,00) as donors reduce cross-border funding, forcing it to focus on providing emergency aid while cutting back on other assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs).

“Some villagers have asked us why we have reduced our assistance in some areas, and we have to explain to them that our budget is getting much tighter because our donors have decreased their cross-border funding,” said Htoo Klei.

Refugees in long-established camps are also feeling the pinch, as they find it increasingly difficult to get the materials they need to rebuild the makeshift bamboo huts many have lived in for decades.

“No one can build a new house now because we can’t get enough construction materials. We can only do some repairs,” said Paw Mu Na, who lives with her family in the Mae La Oon refugee camp in northern Thailand.

Others who have tried to supplement the basic provisions they receive with money earned by running small shops have been told that in the near future they will have to support themselves completely, because they are no longer considered in need of assistance.

For some groups based along the border, the rush to Rangoon harms not only the short-term well-being of those in need, but also efforts to provide more lasting benefits to people in need.

“Cutting off assistance to border-based and cross-border groups to channel aid only through Rangoon would throw away the positive results of 20 years of support, and leave people in rural areas of Burma who have benefited from cross-border aid with no assistance,” said Kevin Malseed, program manager for the Canadian social justice organization, Inter Pares, which has been supporting border-based activities for nearly 20 years.

It is important to build capacity and extend the reach of organizations operating from central Burma, said Malseed, but it is extremely naïve and counterproductive to drop cross-border aid and initiatives to “reinvent the wheel” in Rangoon.

He added that national and international organizations working out of Rangoon simply do not have access to most areas where cross-border aid has been operating, and that as they extend their access further into ethnic regions, they tend to bring more government troops with them, which counteracts the benefits of their assistance.

Despite the positive change that has emerged under the new government led by President Thein Sein, critics say much more needs to be done before refugees can return to Burma and peace and security become a reality for Burma’s citizens.

“For reforms to become sustainable and for the situation for most people on the ground to change, the key is for the military to place itself under control of the government, withdraw some of its troops from villages, and put an end to impunity by putting human rights abusers from the military on trial,” said Malseed.