Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Myanmar Cyclone: Limitis on Nonprofit Access To Myanamar Prompt Aid Groups To Explore Ways To Adapt Their MO

Caroline Preston of the Chronicle of Philanthropy  writes that aid groups are beginning to respond to the devastation wrought by the cyclone that hit Myanmar four days ago in which proximately 22,500 people are believed to have been killed, with another 44,000 still missing and charities indicating that they are fearful that the death toll could climb much higher.

As they prepare to mount relief operations in the country, many nonprofit groups are beginning fund-raising campaigns. Save the Children plans to announce a $10-million appeal later this week, while World Vision is asking donors for $3-million.  Other groups with smaller presences in Myanmar are also soliciting donations. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a New York charity that provides financial assistance to a handful of Jews living in the country, issued an emergency appeal to provide nonsectarian assistance to the cyclone’s victims. GlobalGiving, a Web site that matches donors with projects in the developing world, set up a disaster-relief fund for the crisis.

But many aid groups say their ability to respond to the crisis has been hampered by the political context.  Myanmar’s military regime limits nonprofit access to the country, and while Save the Children and World Vision have large numbers of employees in the country, most groups don’t. They operate by working with local groups on the Thai border, if they operate in the region at all.

Following the cyclone, the Myanmar government indicated a willingness to accept international aid for victims. But according to the United Nations, it has so far restricted that help to bilateral aid, meaning that assistance would be channeled through government relief groups.  Many nonprofit groups are still assessing how that arrangement might affect their ability to provide aid.

Staff members with Direct Relief International have indicated that the Myanmar government’s lack of openness is complicating their ability to raise money.  Many donors have called the charity’s offices over the last few days, offering money and volunteer assistance. But the group isn’t ready to send out an appeal, in large part because of the uncertainty surrounding how much aid it will be able to deliver. While the charity would usually create a fund specifically for the cyclone,  instead it is considering a fund to benefit disasters across Asia. That way, it could benefit from donors’ desire to give right away in response to the news coverage of the cyclone, without risking violating donors' expressed intent on how donated funds should be used.

The challenges faced by aid groups seeking to respond to this crisis highlight, among other issues, the importance of having tangible legal modalities for public/private partnerships aimed at addressing crises of this sort and flexible pooled funding mechanisms that enable aid groups to garner the spontaneous outflows of ordinary citizens' generosity without running afoul of rigid trust law or other requirements that demand a degree of specificity as to permitted use of funds that is not suited to a massive emergency situation.  The specter of aid groups being hampered in their relief efforts by such rigidity, as happened in the case of Hurricane Katrina (where funds donated to Hurricane Katrina could not be used for Hurricane Rita relief), should not be repeated.  A further concern is the specter of relief groups having to return desperately needed funds due to the absence of a regime of funding vehicles which would allow holding on to funds donated for emergency relief for the long term rebuilding needs that inevitably follow a  crisis of these proportions.  Direct Relief International's consideration of building an Asia-wide fund in this instance seems an inspired approach.  It is incumbent on the non profit, legal and international development aid and finance communities to join forces in ensuring that the necessary legal and financing mechanisms exist to support such approaches.


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