Monday, May 12, 2008

Local nonprofit finally ships aid to Myanmar


After an excruciatingly long period of careful political maneuvering, Goleta-based Direct Relief International sent off its first medical aid package to Myanmar on Monday, 10 days after a Category 4 cyclone wreaked havoc in the Asian nation.
Although the military government in Myanmar, also known as Burma, has welcomed aid from foreign nations, it has also expressed opposition to allowing international relief workers to enter the country and distribute supplies.
And while aid has slowly started to trickle into the ravaged nation as relief organizations reach distribution agreements with government officials, between 60,000 and 100,000 Burmese residents are presumed dead or missing and another 1.5 million have been severely affected, according to United Nations estimates.

Tom Tighe, president and CEO of Direct Relief International (DRI), said in his seven years at the nonprofit organization and previous experience as chief operating officer of the Peace Corps, he’s never encountered such a difficult political situation during an international disaster relief effort.
“The limiting factor isn’t resources in this one,” he said as workers nearby enveloped stacks of medical supplies in blue shrink-wrap. “…The limiting factor is the government’s lack of willingness to accept aid.”
He cited a 10-day window in which residents of a country hit by a major disaster need aid to combat a lack of clean water, proper nutrition and shelter before the death rate starts spiking exponentially.
On Monday, workers loaded up seven pallets of medical supplies and basic aid necessities at DRI’s Goleta warehouse, worth approximately $200,000. The delivery had originally been scheduled for Friday, but officials pulled the plug after another relief organization lost a shipment.
“It’s been probably the most complicated that I’ve seen,” said Brett Williams, DRI’s emergency response coordinator, of the approval process to deliver aid.
A DRI staff member in Bangkok, Thailand, has been working with the World Health Organization, other nongovernmental organizations and government officials to negotiate an agreement.
“We want to make sure there is a person on the other end who has a good distribution plan,” Tighe said.
Letting the regime there, a military junta that has been in power for nearly half a century, control the supplies without oversight is not acceptable, he said.
The organization is also working with a partner clinic in Thailand that has had success funneling aid into the cyclone-ravaged country. Williams said several $25,000 cash grants have been sent off to help their longtime partner.
Complicating matters for DRI is the difficulty in getting medical supplies to the right people, Tighe said. Unlike food and other supplies such as blankets and clothing, medical equipment needs a more exact system of delivery.
“If you drop a bag of rice, people know what to do with it,” he said, while medical supplies need to be in the hands of someone with medical expertise.
Monday's shipment — which is being flown from Los Angeles to Bangkok before being transferred to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and former capital — consists of basic antibiotics, simple surgical instruments, sterilization equipment, gloves and masks.
Traumatic injury from the cyclone, wound infections and a lack of clean water are among the top medical concerns, Tighe said, particularly in the heavily impacted Irrawaddy delta.
“Dirty water is a huge cause of infectious disease,” he said, citing malaria and cholera as examples.
While the aid package may seem small, Williams said there is approximately $60 million in medical supplies at the Goleta warehouse that could conceivably be sent if requested and deemed appropriate.
DRI isn’t alone in finding it tough to deliver disaster relief supplies. Other agencies have reported similar difficulty in providing aid to residents affected by Cyclone Nargis. The World Food Program told Reuters it had only 10 percent of the staff and equipment inside the nation that it needs.
“I think we need to be moving 375 tons of food a day down into the affected areas,” WFP spokesman Marcus Prior said, according to a Reuters report. “We are doing less than 20 percent of that.”
In the past, relief organizations have received vital information about infrastructure and affected areas within three to four days, such as during the 2004 tsunami that killed 230,000 people in Southeast Asia. Tighe said that information is still lacking at best, and the Burmese government isn’t allowing experts to assess the situation.
“They’ve issued very few visas for international Western relief workers,” he said.
Tighe’s concerns have been echoed by leaders from other aid organizations, perhaps none more emphatic than UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
During a press conference from UN headquarters on Monday, he strongly criticized Myanmar’s government for its slow delivery of aid.
“I want to register my deep concern — and immense frustration — at the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks.
“We are at a critical point,” he continued. “Unless more aid gets into the country — very quickly — we face an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dwarf today’s crisis. I, therefore, call, in the most strenuous terms, on the government of Myanmar to put its people’s lives first. It must do all that it can to prevent this disaster from becoming even more serious.”
Tighe and Williams said they plan to closely monitor the situation and their initial shipment, which is expected to arrive within several days. If appropriate, they will also rely on cash infusions for organizations working in the region, which have generally seen more success in gaining access to affected areas.

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