Local agency staff step into the breach

Myanmar Red Cross volunteers loading water storage containers onto a truck. Families can use these along with water purification tablets to have clean drinking water.
(International Federation)

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has developed an extensive health-care programme in Myanmar over the past decade, with more than 1,000, mainly local, employees working on HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. So when Cyclone Nargis struck, MSF was well placed to deploy medical personnel into the Ayeyarwady Delta, despite the restrictions on foreign aid workers.

MSF deployed about 200 people - divided into 40 relief teams, each with a doctor, nurse and paramedic - to deliver emergency food and other supplies and to treat some of the 20,000 people that Myanmar authorities estimate were injured in the cyclone.

“There is a great enthusiasm among the staff,” Frank Smithius, country director of MSF Holland, said. “But to increase the response, it would be good to bring in extra people.”

Long-term NGO presence

Like MSF, many large international NGOs, including Save the Children, Care, World Vision and Merlin, were running projects on health, nutrition, education and poverty alleviation long before the cyclone struck.

More on Myanmar disaster
Cyclone Nargis: Lessons for Operational Agencies
UN humanitarian chief arrives in Yangon to boost aid efforts
Loss of mangrove forests exacerbates cyclone deaths
Cyclone devastates rice market
"We are definitely used to hardship"
Migrants rally to help at home
Aid reaching only a fraction of those in need
Public health "catastrophe" looms

Since the disaster, hundreds of local employees of these organisations, along with volunteers from the Myanmar Red Cross, have been on the frontlines of the emergency relief effort. Local aid workers have struggled to deliver food, water, shelter, medical care and other support to the estimated 2.4 million survivors of the cyclone.

But international organisations are chafing at the restrictions that with only a few exceptions continue to prevent nearly all foreign technical specialists - including veterans of other natural disasters - from entering the delta area.

Specialists needed

“We don’t need an invasion of foreigners - we have doctors to treat the wounds in general - but most people [in Myanmar] have not dealt with this kind of emergency before,” said Smithius, adding that MSF had specialists in Yangon, the largest city and former capital, who could deal with this kind of crisis.

After more than a week of waiting, MSF has finally received official permission for eight of its foreign specialists, including water and sanitation specialists and a medical coordinator, to begin working directly in the Ayeyarwady Delta area.

Photo: International Federation
Exhausted and homeless - people have spent days in temporary shelters with very little and the toll is beginning to tell

But most other organisations say their foreign experts are still confined to Yangon. Agencies say the lack of specialists on the ground is adding to the strain on Burmese aid workers.

“It’s very hard for our staff, who are reacting to something on this scale for the first time,” said Katie Barrett, a Save the Children child protection specialist, in Yangon. “There is no capacity for me to … help put their work in perspective, to keep giving pep talks and to top up training.”

Training local staff

However, aid agencies are doing their best to surmount these obstacles by using their specialists to train local colleagues before they go out to the disaster areas.

After the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies found out that their foreign specialists would not be able to leave Yangon to operate emergency water purification systems at the disaster sites, they began training local engineers to do it.

Photo: International Federation
Volunteers from the Myanmar Red Cross have been on the frontlines of the emergency relief effort

The IFRC is also training local staff to run 10 distribution hubs in the delta. Jack Sparrow, a spokesman for the IFRC, said: “We’re having to do things that we haven’t done before. You just have to be as creative as you can – and flexible.”

For organisations such as Oxfam GB, which had no prior presence in Myanmar, the frustration is being completely shut out of the relief effort. “We are not officially working there, so we are looking at other ways to support the relief effort,” said Sarah Ireland, Asia regional director of Oxfam GB. “We are funding international NGOs and local partners to do basic relief operations at this stage.”

Andrew Kirkwood, country director of Save the Children, which has people on the ground in Myanmar, hoped other humanitarian organisations would eventually be able to join the effort. “The scale of this has overwhelmed everybody, and all the existing agencies’ abilities to respond,” he said. “We’d like the government to let in other agencies to help.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article
Join the discussion

Support The New Humanitarian

Your support helps us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.