The crisis in Myanmar after cyclone Nargis of May 2nd last is critical. There have been at least 21,000 causalities, with – at the time of writing – some 40,000 people still unaccounted for. The catastrophic damage to infrastructure, including transportation, water, shelter and food immediately threatens even more.
I personally would concur with those who are concerned for human rights issues in Myanmar, and some of the policies and actions of the Myanmar Government. But an emergency situation is not the same as a longer term development initiative: in my view, a solid, democratic government should never be, and rarely in practice is, a pre-condition to emergency relief.
UNICEF has been on the ground in Myanmar since 1950. It currently has 9 offices in addition to its headquarters in Yangon. We currently have 170 UNICEF staff on the ground nationwide. Aid given via UNICEF goes directly to the people of Myanmar.
When the structures of a civil society are weak, when poverty is widespread and governance leaves issues to be resolved, the need in an emergency is even greater.
Delay and procrastination will cause further, and avoidable, deaths in Myanmar. The response to the 2005 south east Asian tsunami was immediate, and indisputably saved lives which would otherwise have been lost in the chaotic aftermath. In the case of the tsunami response, and now in the case of Myanmar, in-country pre-disaster stockpiles of emergency response materials by UNICEF and other major global organizations are critical. Replenishing those supplies is vital. Rapid reaction by the host government, including issuing visas to overseas nationals, is equally essential.
In my view, it is irresponsible, morally inexcusable and potentially murderous to delay.
The leader of the Irish agency Goal made certain statements today broadcast nationwide in Ireland by the national radio organization. Goal fundamentally is an excellent organization, and indeed UNICEF frequently partners with Goal in targeted projects in those developing countries in which Goal actually has a credible presence.
But I am disappointed by the comments today from Goal, which frankly were ill-conceived, factually incorrect and morally dangerous.
If the Board of Goal really sincerely believes that the Government of Myanmar does not care for millions of its own people, can the Board and wonderful staff of Goal still nevertheless sleep comfortably at night just letting people die, when practical assistance is possible and desperately sought ?
What moral right can an aid organization justify telling the people of Ireland to deny the people of Myanmar, to not join with the international community in responding to the plea for help, and to instead just allow people to die in the aftermath of Nargis ?