Novice Workers Struggle in Burma
Officials Keep Foreign Relief Experts From Cyclone-Hit Areas

By Amy Kazmin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 25, 2008

BANGKOK, May 24 -- For five days, Soe Thein, a Burmese employee of Save the Children, traveled by wooden boat up and down a corpse-clogged river to deliver food and emergency supplies to cyclone survivors at the tip of the devastated Irrawaddy Delta.

"In my life, I have never seen so many dead bodies -- in the water, on the land," he said. "Every house on the bank of the creek was destroyed. We saw no sign of life, except dogs sitting near the destroyed place, howling."

The survivors Soe Thein and his colleagues finally found had little food and were "very much in need." "We went on a long, difficult journey to reach them," he said. "In terms of our religion, we did a really good deed."

Before Tropical Cyclone Nargis struck this Southeast Asian country, Soe Thein's job was to write reports about Save the Children's health and education projects. But as international charities struggle against government restrictions to help those in need, Burmese such as Soe Thein have been on the front lines of relief efforts.

Pulled from their regular jobs running HIV-AIDS clinics, education projects and other efforts, more than 1,000 Burmese employees of global nongovernmental organizations have been trying to deliver food, water, shelter and medical care -- often facing both infrastructure obstacles and official ambivalence.

Such deployments are routine in large-scale natural disasters, when NGOs dispatch all available workers. But in the three weeks since the cyclone, aid agencies have been deeply frustrated by the government's refusal to allow foreign veterans of other natural disasters to supervise novice Burmese relief workers.

"Without international staff in the field, our Burmese staff are having to make life-and-death decisions every day without the benefit of experience," said Andrew Kirkwood, country director for Save the Children.

U.N. agencies and international charities are hopeful that might soon change. On Friday, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, Burma's powerful military and government chief, told U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that foreign humanitarian workers will be permitted to join the relief effort. Aid agencies are now waiting to see how the situation develops.

Without guidance from experienced foreign aid workers, Burmese relief workers have grappled with unfamiliar circumstances. In one incident, inexperienced workers distributed milk powder for orphaned babies, not realizing that using contaminated water and dirty containers to make formula could jeopardize the babies' health.

From Rangoon, Burma's largest city, experts directed fieldworkers to find lactating mothers willing to feed the orphaned babies. But local aid workers have had difficulty talking to women about such a sensitive topic.

"We are trying to coach them from Rangoon, with terrible communications," Kirkwood said.

Official attitudes toward Burmese working for international charities have varied enormously. In some areas, they are working openly, sporting their organization's logo on caps and cars, with the full support of local military commanders. Elsewhere, military officials have welcomed them but asked that they keep a low profile and pose as local volunteers. A few commanders have insisted that aid workers give supplies to authorities for distribution.

Doctors Without Borders, which had a major operation in Burma before the disaster, deployed 200 of its nearly 1,000 Burmese staff members, including doctors, nurses and paramedics, to the disaster zone early on. The organization finally received permission this past week to send eight foreign experts, including water and sanitation specialists, into the affected area.

"We don't need an invasion of foreigners -- we have doctors to treat the wounds," said Frank Smithuis, country director of Doctors Without Borders-Holland, "but most people in Burma have not dealt with this kind of emergency before. But there are people who do this for a living."

Most foreign experts, however, have remained confined to Rangoon, where they have hurriedly tried to pass on their skills to Burmese colleagues.

Katy Barnett, a child protection expert for Save the Children, is training Burmese in techniques of "child-tracing," to help reunite children and parents separated during the cyclone and its aftermath.

But Barnett expressed deep frustration with her inability guide the work.

"It's much easier to set up the system, monitor quality and build the capacity of the staff if I can go out and see it done, and demonstrate it done," she said. "Now there is no capacity for me to mentor people in the field."

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