Bernard Kouchner's proposal to force aid on the Burmese regime is dangerous posturingby Alex De Waal / June 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
One month after Cyclone Nargis, millions of Burmese remain with inadequate food, contaminated water and no proper shelter. At least 130,000 have died or gone missing, and the toll from epidemic disease in the coming months could be as high again.
We hear much about the administrative and logistical mire of Burma, of a government denying that disaster has struck and obstructing aid work. We hear about the confiscation of relief supplies. We hear less about the host of local Burmese organisations, often enjoying co-operation from local authorities and supported by a smaller number of international agencies, that are present on the sodden ground of southern Burma. There is an Asian response: experienced disaster teams from India and Thailand are arriving. Expatriate Burmese physicians are flocking home to help in a quiet relief effort. Senior monks have also joined the cause, gaining access to the hardest-hit regions, such as Bogale. Monastic, church and local volunteer networks are able to reach even remote villages inaccessible to international personnel. “Building trust with the military is essential,” said a local doctor. “Without it, the politics take over.”
Most emergency supplies can be procured locally, but relief teams lack funds to purchase fuel, rent vehicles and pay volunteers. Tragically, the first days of the disaster, when emergency logistics were most needed, passed without outside help. With a few days’ warning and the aircraft and boats for an immediate response, many lives could have been saved. It’s a rule of thumb in disaster response that the first assistance comes from the nearest source, and that it is small in scale but efficient. People struck by calamity are responders as well as victims. One of the big lessons from the response to the 2004 tsunami was that official aid efforts should support those local responses rather than—as too often happened—foreign experts arriving and deciding that they knew best.
Preventing the next disaster—especially stopping epidemics of water-borne diseases and malaria—requires a public health effort. Only an organisation with the capacity and authority of a government can do this.
The Burmese government’s clear failures have led some to propose drastic measures. On 7th May, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner invoked the “responsibility to protect” principle and suggested “a UN resolution which authorises the delivery [of aid] and imposes this on the Burmese government.” He was threatening military…