Guest Column

UN Agencies Must Help Myanmar's Civilians

By Igor Blazevic 13 February 2023

UNAIDS has joined a list of United Nations agencies working with Myanmar’s junta while shunning the legitimate civilian National Unity Government (NUG).

The agencies claim they are being pragmatic to address civilian humanitarian needs. But this is disingenuous.

The existing approach leaves large numbers to shelter in camps or forests with insufficient food and healthcare.

Myanmar’s citizens who are most in need are those specifically targeted by the regime’s arson raids and airstrikes. And they are being abandoned by the international community.

UN agencies’ access is restricted to areas where the junta will allow them to deliver aid.

These international bodies have allowed the junta to weaponize aid, blocking off areas where the junta is attacking civilians and cutting aid.

All UN agencies and international NGOs working in Myanmar should do a small moral and efficiency test by making a simple spreadsheet for 2022 showing their total budgets allocated for Myanmar. The next column could show how much was spent outside the country, paying for offices in New York, Geneva or London.

Another column could show the cost of operations in Myanmar, including offices, cars, expat salaries, accommodation for foreign staff and travel to other regional offices set up since the 2021 coup. Additional costs for keeping most of the expat staff outside Myanmar since the 2021 coup should be added here.

One column should show the wages paid to staff from Myanmar and the cost of aid deliveries to territory under junta control.

The most important column should show money spent on delivering aid to liberated territory and territories that are the target of junta scorched-earth operations.

A final column would show income left unspent because access to those in need has been blocked by the regime.

An additional column could show money spent on training, online capacity-building and communication programs.

International agencies often waste budget surpluses on training, online programs, consultancy fees and analytical papers.

Comparing the total budget to the actual money spent on those outside junta control would expose an embarrassing imbalance.

Open disclosure of UN and other NGO budgets would expose how little is being spent on those most in need.

By refusing to engage with the NUG, UN agencies and other NGOs are failing Myanmar.

People in Sagaing and Magwe regions and Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayah and Karen states tell me that UN agencies are failing to fulfill their briefs.

Instead, they appease the junta in the hope that it will allow them to continue operating in a restricted manner.

Foreign staff claim they are doing their best in a highly complex, restrictive and risky environment. But these are manipulative and self-interested claims.

An alternative is possible and easy to do. Aid money should be divided into two pots: to be distributed by organizations operating with the junta and those delivering aid to non-junta territory.

UN agencies, NGOs and civil society organizations accessing the second “pot”, with funds earmarked for aid deliveries in territories not controlled by the junta, must have offices outside Yangon and must not engage with the regime. They should also sign deals with the NUG and civilian structures allied to the ethnic armed organizations instead.

Aid to regions outside junta control should be greater given the deeper need of people outside regime control.

This alternative approach could provide resources and capacity for Myanmar-driven “humanitarian resistance”, harnessing contributions from Myanmar’s diaspora, which already provides the most aid and takes the highest risks.

A simple division could unlock largely weaponized or paralyzed aid deliveries.

The policy change might force the junta to lift its restrictions on aid because it will want to retain funding to affiliated agencies, like the Myanmar Red Cross.

Igor Blazevic is a senior adviser at the Prague Civil Society Centre. Between 2011 and 2016 he worked in Myanmar as the head lecturer of the Educational Initiatives Program.