The massive devastation caused by cyclone Nargis has prompted a period of unprecedented cooperation between the government and international humanitarian agencies to deliver emergency aid to the survivors. The international community should seize this opportunity to reverse longstanding, counterproductive aid policies by providing substantial resources for recovery and rehabilitation of the affected areas and, gradually, expanding and deepening its engagement in support of sustainable human development countrywide. This is essential for humanitarian reasons alone, but also presents the best available opportunity for the international community to promote positive change in Myanmar.
The government's initial response to the cyclone, which hit Myanmar on 2 May killing over 100,000 people in the Ayeyarwady delta, shocked the world. International agencies and local donors were stopped from delivering aid, putting the lives and welfare of hundreds of thousands of people in jeopardy. But internal factors, along with international and particularly regional pressure and diplomacy, had their effect, and developments since then show that it is possible to work with the military regime on humanitarian issues. Communication between the government and international agencies has much improved. Visas and travel permits today are easier and faster to get than before. Requirements for the launch of new aid projects have been eased. By and large, the authorities are making efforts to facilitate aid, including allowing a substantial role for civil society. In late July, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes declared, "This is now a normal international relief operation". The lead given by ASEAN in coordinating and fronting international aid efforts has been, and will continue to be, of particular importance.
Political reform remains vital and should continue to be the subject of high-level international diplomacy and pressure. But it is a mistake in the Myanmar context to use aid as a bargaining chip, to be given only in return for political change. The military rulers have shown repeatedly that they are prepared to forego any aid that comes with political strings attached. Aid should rather be seen by international policymakers as valuable in its own right as well as a way of alleviating suffering, but also as a potential means of opening up a closed country, improving governance and empowering people to take control of their own lives.
It will take years, and sustained international support, for the worst-hit areas to recover. Moreover, the massive damage to Myanmar's food bowl will worsen the already dire humanitarian situation in the country at large. Growing impoverishment and deteriorating social service structures have pushed millions of households to the edge of survival, leaving them acutely vulnerable to economic shocks or natural disasters. If not addressed, the increasing levels of household insecurity will lead to further human suffering, and could eventually escalate into a major humanitarian crisis.
Government repression, corruption and mismanagement bear primary responsibility for this situation. But Western governments - in their attempt to defeat the regime by isolating it - have sacrificed opportunities to promote economic reform, strengthen social services, empower local communities and support disaster prevention and preparedness. Their aid policies have weakened the West's ability to influence the changes underway in the country. As the regime moves ahead with its "seven-step roadmap", there is an acute danger that the international community will remain relegated to a spectator role.
Twenty years of aid restrictions - which see Myanmar receiving twenty times less assistance per capita than other least-developed countries - have weakened, not strengthened, the forces for change. Bringing about peace and democracy will require visionary leaders at all levels, backed by strong organisations, who can manage the transition and provide effective governance. These are not common attributes of an isolated and impoverished society. As the country's socio-economic crisis deepens and its human resources and administrative capacity decline, it will become harder and harder for any government to turn the situation around.
While "humanitarian" aid is a reasonable response to a temporary emergency, the deepening structural crisis in Myanmar demands a response of a different type and magnitude. The international community should commit unequivocally not only to helping Myanmar recover from the destruction of Nargis, but also to making up for years of neglect and helping move the country forward. This means much more aid. Equally importantly, it means different aid, aimed at raising income and education as well as health levels, fostering civil society, improving economic policy and governance, promoting the equality of ethnic minorities and improving disaster prevention and preparedness.
This shift will not be easy. The military leadership will need to be convinced that increased international development efforts do not threaten national sovereignty and security; donors must be ensured that aid is not abused or wasted; and implementing agencies will have to substantially enhance their capacity for development work, something for which the current aid structure in country is ill-equipped.
Myanmar is not an easy place to do aid work. Government restrictions and intrusiveness, red tape and corruption hamper activities, as in many developing countries. But agencies with a longstanding presence on the ground have proved that, despite the difficulties, it is possible to deliver assistance in an effective and accountable way. If the current opening can be used to build further confidence and lay the basis for a more effective aid structure, it may be possible not only to meet the immediate needs, but also to begin to address the broader crisis of governance and human suffering.
Aid alone, of course, will not bring sustainable human development, never mind peace and democracy. Yet, because of the limited links between Myanmar and the outside world, aid has unusual importance as an arena of interaction among the government, society and the international community.