UN aid has 'limited impact' in Burma

UN aid efforts in Burma are “unsatisfactory” and “with modest or limited impact”, a report released by an internal UN Development Programme watchdog has warned.

The study, carried out by the Independent Assessment Mission (IAM) and based on surveys conducted in a control group of villages, finds that there is only a “modest or limited” difference between the villages that receive the Human Development Initiative (HDI) support and the non-HDI villages. This difference is particularly starker in the fields of education and health – two important developmental concerns for Burma.

“Sadly, I am not surprised by it [the report’s findings], but I have to say that it is more a reflection of the restrictions put in place by authorities than the failure of international efforts to expand humanitarian space,” David Mathieson, senior researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW), told DVB.

“At a ground level, they [UNDP] are actually implementing projects and going through the long, hard grind but at a national level, policy makers just don’t want to make decisions.”

The HDI, which arrived in Burma in 1994, aims to bring change in areas of basic health, training and education, HIV/AIDS, the environment and food security.

The IAM report is especially critical of the Integrated Community Development Project (ICDP), Community Development in Remote Townships (CDRT) Project and the Early Recovery (ER) Project, concluding their performance as “unsatisfactory” and denouncing “the idea of continuation of these projects beyond 2011 in their current form.”

The findings of the independent team suggest that the problem with these projects lies in their design rather than management. It says: “The proposed measures, even if implemented, will fall far short of the change of approach and revision of programme design that is needed.”

Aid agencies have long complained about the difficulties of working with corrupt officials at the local level and the authoritarian regime on the national level.

“The complexity of the working environment within the country is difficult to comprehend,” Mathieson says. “There are too many regional variations – geographic and ethnic. Also, in places around urban areas, maybe authorities don’t see having foreign aid workers as much of a security issue but in border areas there are far more restrictions.”

One of the main reasons cited for the failure of the programmes is the broad scope of activities falling under the purview of the UNDP, leading to excessive diversion of limited funds. The lack of other aid efforts in the region is a contributing factor for the HDI’s involvement in a wide array of issues. Changes in environmental and political conditions during the last couple of years are added reasons behind the poor results.

The report, with its negative findings, could add to the already existing donor fatigue. The poor performance of UNDP raises questions about its presence in Burma and the viability of its projects. If the HDI does discontinue its activities in the 60 designated townships, what alternative model of development could bring a welcome change?

Mathieson doesn’t think the report “should add to donor fatigue.” In fact, he hopes that it raises awareness about the difficulties involved in working inside Burma. “There’s no way that the international community should be walking away from this, either in terms of funding or scaling of the project. If anything, this report should encourage aid workers and agencies to think of more adaptable ways of functioning,” he added.

The team, however, lauded the achievement of self-help groups (SRGs) and micro-finance (MF) projects which were implemented with the aim of empowering women.

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