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UK to become top donor to Burma

Britain’s aid to Burma is set to rise dramatically in the wake of a major shake up of the government’s overseas spending, and looks set to position the UK as Burma’s top international donor.

The $US75 million due to be spent each year until 2015 will focus on the country’s woefully undernourished healthcare, education and livelihoods sectors, a statement released by UK development secretary Andrew Mitchell said. The four-year total of $US300 million eclipses the $US121 million spent between 2006/07 and 2009/10, although that figure doesn’t include the additional $US73 million for cyclone Nargis in 2008.

Burma has long been the region’s lowest recipient of overseas aid, despite it having Southeast Asia’s lowest GDP per capita and ranking 132 out of 169 global countries in the UN’s Human Development Index.

“We hope our action will galvanise others, because there’s no doubt that, to use the jargon, Burma is ‘under-aided’,” said Paul Whittingham, head of the Department for International Development (DFID) in Burma.

A recent review by the UK government found that 16 million people in Burma live in desperate hardship. Average annual salaries there hover at around $US400, and reports yesterday suggest that the government has allocated only 1.3 percent of a revised budget to the healthcare sector, while nearly a quarter will go on the military.

The historically scant aid directed towards Burma has been largely blamed on the West’s attempts to isolate the ruling junta through sanctions. Some claim however that the poor targeting of sanctions effectively amounts to a humanitarian boycott, with the quantity of overseas development assistance (ODA) going into Burma lower than Cambodia, despite having a population three times the size.

The increase in UK aid comes in the wake of comments last year by Mitchell that money going to Burma needed to be better targeted. Consequently, there will now be a scaling up of support for indigenous civil society groups working in the country, as well as continuing to use UN bodies and international NGOs.

That approach however has its detractors who claim that the ability of such groups to operate in a highly repressive environment must entail some degree of collaboration with the military junta.

One critic is Burmese academic Maung Zarni, a research fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE), who says that British aid policy to Burma is “fork-tongued and schizophrenic”. Providing aid to “shady” civil society groups that “openly advocate unconditional collaboration with the dictatorship” is, he says, at odds with Britain’s support for Burma’s pro-democracy movement and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

He also claims that the British government is “delusional” if its decision to increase aid is based on the “perception of change in Burma” and the “trappings of democracy”, a reference to controversial elections last year that the junta asserts has ushered in a new era of civilian governance.

Those concerns were echoed by Mark Farmaner, director of the Burma Campaign UK, which has lobbied the British government for an increase in assistance.

“Aid only tackles the symptoms, not the causes of poverty, which is the dictatorship. We are concerned that DFID civil society and democracy promotion funding is only working through registered organisations which the regime does not see as threatening,” he said. He adds that Britain “should also be working through groups based in exile who work with underground networks, and with other unregistered groups in Burma”.

But, says Whittingham, domestic Burmese groups “don’t have to collaborate with the regime”, although he did acknowledge that “it is impossible for them to operate without a degree of authority and permission from the government.

“We need the groups we fund to have certain basic systems in place, like the means for us to get our funding to them, such as a bank account, and often these require approval by the government,” he said.

“That is not the same thing as saying they are in the pockets of the regime or do the regime’s bidding – on the contrary there are many groups that entirely follow their own agenda to help the people that the regime largely ignores.”


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