Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Humanitarian challenges for the UN

Tuesday, 17 July 2012 12:55 Ashok Nigam

(Commentary) – Myanmar is vulnerable to natural disasters and humanitarian crises. The worst natural disaster, Cyclone Nargis, struck Myanmar in May 2008, killing 140,000 people and 2.4 million people were severely affected.

In October 2010 in Rakhine State, Cyclone Giri left 45 people dead and affected some 260,000 people., The earthquake in March 2011, in the southern part of the Shan State close to the borders between Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, had a magnitude of 6.8 on the Richter scale.

The blue trucks of a UN humanitarian aid convoy in Kachin State in early June. Photo: UN

These and other disasters brought on by nature have caused untold human suffering to the Myanmar people. Thousands upon thousands have had to rebuild their lives from scratch.

In addition to natural disasters, there is ongoing conflict in Kachin State and communal tensions in Rakhine State which have led to displacement of a large number of people and for which immediate humanitarian response is needed.

In all humanitarian situations, it is the local communities and government actors that have been the first to respond. Neighbours helped one another, religious groups and community leaders responded instantaneously. These were the people, the first heroes of the situation, who had saved lives.

Myanmar has learned from these disasters and the communities have become even more resilient. Nevertheless communities must be strengthened and supported. The government now recognize where its efforts could be boosted by international assistance.

The government has the primary responsibility for its people. The United Nations and the humanitarian community are there to work with the government, and the partners on the ground. This is how we work everywhere in the world, and this is how we work in Myanmar.

At the same time, humanitarian assistance is guided by the principles which ensure that assistance is provided by identifying who are the most in need, what the needs are and how best the needs can be met. This means that we deliver independently and in a neutral manner without bias towards any race, religion or conviction.

The humanitarian assistance that is delivered by the UN and its partners in the national (NGO) and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and civil society is transparent and accountable through mechanisms that are recognized by the government, donors and the recipients of assistance.

As a trusted partner, the UN has delivered both developmental and humanitarian assistance in Myanmar and in a number of countries all over the world for a number of years. The activities of the UN in Myanmar are countrywide. From Kachin State in the north to Taninthayi and Mon State in the southeast; from Shan and Kayin State in the east to Chin and Rakhine State in the west; the UN delivers where it can with what it can.

It works with its partners, both in government and in civil society, in particular international and national NGOs who are vital for services to reach people on the ground. Between January and May this year alone, 545,000 people in Myanmar received 10,250 metric tons of food, including 8,930 metric tonnes or 178,000 bags of rice, countrywide.

Humanitarian partners are striving to provide assistance to all the victims of the Kachin conflict. As a contribution to this collective effort, this year alone in Kachin, UN assistance has been directly provided to as many as 40,000 internally displaced persons, including through nine UN supported convoys that have delivered food and household items to some 15,000 persons in 13 locations in areas affected by the conflict.

The assistance given to the displaced in Kachin faces many challenges, both brought about by the conflict and also due to weather and geographical conditions and infrastructure. It is highly dependent on the dedicated efforts of the various communities and partners who are there, on the ground, and are able to reach out to the displaced families in areas that the UN and its partners have been unable to reach.

Communal violence in Rakhine State has resulted in destruction of homes, loss of lives and livelihoods and much human suffering.

According to the latest figures from the Rakhine State government, over 63,000 people remain displaced across Rakhine State. Many more may have been somehow affected, and in need of support.

Once again, it is the local community structure that has initially taken care of the displaced and the distressed. Donations and offers of assistance from civil society and private individuals have been reported daily in the local media. Humanitarian partners strive to complement these efforts and assist all those in need.

Humanitarian workers work in the community by building trust. When natural disasters strike, resilience increases through communal trust and warmth. Conflict and violence, however, are fueled by mistrust, thereby eroding communities.

Natural disasters last a few days at most and communities pick up their lives once again as resilience becomes stronger. Conflicts and tension can be prolonged. Traumatized communities are weakened. Hatred and mistrust are also fueled by misinformation and rumours.

We must provide full transparency of information through every means, including the media, to avoid the consequences of misinformation to enhance trust with the victims of crises and to the authorities.

Myanmar is playing catch-up with the rest of the world. In his speech on June 20, President Thein Sein has underscored the partnership with the UN, INGOs and civil society in his plans for the development of Myanmar. The UN and its humanitarian partners stand ready to provide assistance in accordance with the humanitarian principles of independence, neutrality and impartiality, to those in need.

While acts of God are unavoidable, humanitarian disasters brought about by man must not stand in the way of Myanmar’s development and progress towards democracy. The United Nations and its humanitarian partners are here to work with the people of Myanmar, to support what can be achieved by the people, for the people of Myanmar.

– Ashok Nigam is the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar.

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