USAID Optimistic on Burma Work, but Firm on Terms

By Paul Eckert 8 March 2013

WASHINGTON — The United States is intensifying its aid work in Burma, winning more cooperation from the government in a country long estranged from Washington, US Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah said on Thursday.

The USAID chief unveiled three projects in the country, also called Burma, under a “US-Burma Partnership for Democracy, Peace and Prosperity” launched by President Barack Obama when he visited Burma last November.

The United States and other Western countries have suspended most sanctions in recognition of Burma’s dramatic political and economic opening since a reform-minded government took power in March 2011.

Shah, speaking to Reuters by telephone from Rangoon, said he had witnessed an “explosion of international support for this transition,” with 59 international non-governmental organizations and 22 bilateral donor countries working in a country that was largely off limits during decades of harsh military rule.

“There’s a real dialogue and engagement with government at a broad range of levels and there’s real progress on these reforms,” he said.

Critics say Western governments and businesses risk moving too fast in Burma, pointing to evidence of human rights abuses in recent months against the Rohingya Muslim minority group and ethnic Kachin rebels engaged in a conflict with the military.

Addressing those concerns, Shah said, “Everything we do is geared toward making these reforms sustainable and more durable, and if there’s backtracking, we will not continue to expand our efforts.”

“Our aid and our partnership and support are in fact conditioned on the government here continuing to make some of the right steps in terms of their direction toward reform,” he added.

The three programs unveiled in Rangoon on Thursday included a collaboration with the technology firm Cisco to set up two Cisco Networking Academies to teach information and communications technology skills.

Earlier, a USAID-led technology delegation including Cisco, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Microsoft visited Burma to look into projects to boost access to the Internet, strengthen transparent government and expand digital literacy, USAID said in a statement.

“These are designed to bring the capabilities of America’s information communications technology leaders to offer young people here the opportunity to be innovative and entrepreneurs and to really get some important skills,” Shah said.

Shah also launched a $10 million project under USAID’s “survive and thrive” program aimed at reducing preventable child deaths by dispatching US pediatricians, obstetricians and gynecologists, and midwives to train local counterparts.

Burma’s 61 preventable child deaths per 1,000 is “extraordinarily high,” and USAID hopes to bring that down to 37 per 1,000 in three years, saving 20,000 children each year.

An $11 million project was also inaugurated to support free and fair elections when Burma goes to the polls in 2015—an election that analysts say will be a critical step on the country’s road to democracy.

Human rights activists have complained that foreign aid goes mostly to comparatively well-off cities, while the countryside, and especially ethnic minority areas, have not seen the benefits of reform.

“I think the US is going too fast and the situation in Burma is not stable,” said Ah Noh, an activist from the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand.

“Things are changing in Kachin State, but in a bad way, with more fighting,” Ah Noh said in a recent interview in Washington.

Fighting has raged in Kachin State since June 2011, as Burma’s army tries to take control of a region rich in minerals and timber that straddles lucrative trade routes to China.

Shah said USAID policy was to push for greater access for US and other aid programs to remote ethnic regions within Burma.

“We always want and currently absolutely seek more access, specifically to internally displaced persons and ethnic minorities. We do believe that there’s been progress there,” he said.