Guest Column

End of Aid; Beginning of Resilience?

By Ashley South 26 March 2020

A few days ago, an aid industry donor asked that colleagues and I produce a revised workplan, stating how our project will be implemented in the coming months. Given the circumstances, desk-based work is welcome right now, and we will do our best. However, one wonders whether the old ways of working will be relevant for much longer. Maybe the aid industry will be one of the many victims of COVID-19? But however things develop, it will be critical not to lose the notion of solidarity that underpins international aid. It’s now even more important to treat each other with respect and love.

The ongoing health crisis is devastating communities, societies and economies across the world. When the dust has (hopefully) settled, our planet may be a very different place. This seems likely to be particularly true in the global north. Months of isolation will be fundamentally disruptive for certain economic sectors. The developed world is on the cusp of a major socio-political and economic shakeup.

If the Chinese recovery continues, which is of course profoundly to be hoped for, the People’s Republic will have a head start in rebuilding. Chinese investors may find some well-priced purchases in stressed European stock and other markets. This could significantly impact the global balance of geo-strategic power—including attitudes to and strategies of foreign aid. Already, the era “globalization” seems like a receding memory. However, global youth activism of the last few years gives reason to hope that what comes next may be more equitable and progressive than our previous destructive exploitation of the planet.

The pandemic’s long-term consequences are still very unclear. Thousands have already died in Europe and sadly more may follow. Many others are sick and depleted health services seemingly vulnerable, with economies in absolute crisis.

In this context, it seems unlikely that large amounts of foreign aid will be available for what just a few weeks ago we called “fragile” or “developing” countries. Politicians around the globe will be under pressure to prioritise spending their limited aid money closer to home—rather than on those suffering in far-off places. Hopefully, once-rich countries will not completely abandon their previous commitments to foreign aid.

Lesser amounts of Western donor aid may ultimately be somewhat beneficial to certain communities. Significant amounts of Western aid does not always reach those most in need of it. Nevertheless, humanitarian needs in poor countries will presumably be staggering, probably for years. Much will depend on whether the coronavirus ravages hotter countries in the global south, like Myanmar. Let us pray it does not.

The aid industry as we know it may be coming to an end. To the extent that humanitarian and development assistance continues, it is likely to be more closely bound to donors’ strategic interests. Some will see the end of a sometimes self-satisfied and self-serving Western aid regime (or “aid Raj”) as no great loss.

The whole world now knows what it feels like to be a victim of natural or man-made disaster—with uncertain future, worries all around, often dependent on the kindness of strangers. There are great challenges in store for societies and individuals who have long enjoyed high levels of human security. Hopefully, “first-world” countries can demonstrate the resilience of those societies that have historically been less fortunate.

Many of us in and from the rich world have long become used to comfort and security, and the belief that each generation will have a standard of living at least equal to—and probably better than—those who came before. Such comforting assumptions are probably no longer bankable.

One wonders how ethnic nationality communities in Myanmar will cope with and respond to the current crisis. Karen, Mon, Kayah, Shan, Kachin, Chin, Rakhine, Rohingya and other groups have long known underdevelopment, suffering and death, as a result of natural disaster and at the hands of government forces. These individuals and communities have developed great resilience and strategies of self-help and mutual support. Perhaps there are lessons here, which others could adopt and adapt. The most important of these might be to love each other, and share and conserve scarce resources.

Communities and local authorities will be particularly challenged by the return of large numbers of migrant workers from neighboring Thailand—only victims of the economic crash. Ethnic armed organisations (EAOs)—which have long sought to represent minority communities in the struggle for self-determination—may once again become highly relevant. The governments of Myanmar and elsewhere are likely to come under increasing pressure in the coming weeks and months; states may fail. In this case, non-state actors and EAOs will be increasingly important, as providers of at least limited security and services in remote areas (which may be less affected by the pandemic). Already, several EAOs and related civil society groups are providing health information and advice to the public. Such efforts and demonstration of responsible governance should be applauded and supported.

One fears however, that the Myanmar army may also see an opportunity in the present crisis. Will we see the Tatmadaw, as the Myamar military is known, move violently against EAOs—even those with which it has established ceasefires—while the world’s attention is focused elsewhere? Tatmadaw troop movements are reported in a number of Karen areas, with regular clashes still ongoing.

Hopefully, international donors will not to forget about Burma and other poor countries. Before closing down shop, perhaps the remaining donors in Yangon could allocate what funds are left to local organizations working to alleviate suffering. Also, regarding the peace process, the need for international advocacy remains.

Dr. Ashley South is an independent author, researcher and consultant, and a research fellow at Chiang Mai University.

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