Crisis Group response to OSI critique of Asia Briefing No. 58, Myanmar: New threats to humanitarian aid

from International Crisis Group
Published on 20 Jan 2007

Critique of ICG Briefing on Burma

Aryeh Neier

1. On December 8, the International Crisis Group issued a “Briefing” entitled, “Myanmar: New Threats to Humanitarian Aid.” A main focus of the Briefing was a decision in August 2005 by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to withdraw a grant of $98 million over five years for Burma after, according to ICG, “intense pressure from U.S.-based groups undermined sensitive negotiations with the government over operational conditions.” The consequence, said the Crisis Group “was a serious setback, which put thousands of lives in jeopardy.” The report bears a dateline of Yangon/Brussels and was written by a consultant for ICG who conducted research in Yangon (or Rangoon) but, it appears, not elsewhere.

Crisis Group Comment: The point of this Briefing was to warn of threats to the delivery of humanitarian aid, "most seriously from the military government" – with this issue being addressed by Crisis Group (which is a conflict prevention, rather than human rights or aid focused, organization) mainly because of our assessment that significant cutbacks on funding for humanitarian projects risk leaving Myanmar in so debilitated a condition that no future government will be able to deliver effective governance: Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia all illustrate the many risks of allowing states to fail. Humanitarian aid is not a solution to the country’s fundamental political and human rights problems: it is an emergency response in a situation with no good options.

The report is primarily devoted to Burmese government restrictions on humanitarian space – in a fifteen page briefing, more than seven pages are devoted to the problems caused by the government and just three to issues surrounding international actors and the Global Fund. The Global Fund issue is given attention because it has been the most significant withdrawal of an aid funding group from the country and the one which raises most clearly the difficult dilemma of how far legitimately-motivated political pressure should inhibit the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

The report was based on research in-country and in the United States. Crisis Group reports are always so far as possible primarily based on fieldwork in the countries they concern, and this one is no different in methodology or approach than any other. The primary author of the report spent more than six years in Myanmar, researching political and aid issues, including the entire period from the approval of the first Global Fund grant to the termination, and was therefore well-placed to follow events as they developed.

2. It is extensively footnoted but the footnotes that should provide the crucial information needed to back up the ICG’s allegation do not do so as all they say is ‘Crisis Group interview, Yangon,” or words to that effect, with no indication of who was interviewed or what basis the interviewee had for making certain comments. To the extent that the purpose of footnotes is to allow a reader to verify information by checking sources, these footnotes are of no value. (As the author and editor of many human rights reports, I sometimes withheld names or other identifying information in circumstances when those being quoted were susceptible to reprisals. If ICG had withheld the names of Burmese speaking critically of their government, that would have been understandable. But it appears ICG conducted no such interviews. Those quoted anonymously seem to have been articulating views that would not have antagonized the Burmese authorities. Hence, it is difficult to understand why they were withheld.)

The Briefing also contains many footnotes to public documents but generally leaves out information in those documents that is inconsistent with the story it presents. Thereby, it distorts the positions of the groups to which views are attributed, among them the Global Fund and the Open Society Institute.

Crisis Group Comment: This Briefing was based on multiple interviews with numerous people involved with the delivery of aid and with a full understanding of political decisions surrounding aid issues in Myanmar. Those interviewed included senior international officials and staff-members of organisations directly involved with decisions on these issues, and several Burmese with access to the relevant levels of government.

The footnoting style adopted in this Briefing is standard for Crisis Group reports, not only those written in countries under intense political pressure but where there are interviews with government officials, diplomats and international civil servants who are not authorized to speak on the record, or others who believe their careers or personal security would be jeopardized by so speaking. Our practice is identical to that regularly applied by comparable organizations. Repression by the government in Myanmar is not the sole reason people request confidentiality; many diplomats and officials routinely give off the record interviews.

The briefing relies on interviews, public documents and internal memos. Documents in public circulation rarely tell the full story of policy discussions, and even if they do it is normal practice for them to be quoted less than fully in published reports, given space constraints and the need to maintain narrative clarity. The question is not whether there is an element of selectivity involved in the preparation and presentation of a report, but whether notwithstanding that selectivity the published report presents a fair and accurate picture of what happened and why.

3. Although the Briefing contends that the decision to cancel the Global Fund grant was made by the Global Fund on the basis of U.S.-based pressure, there are no footnotes in the Briefing to interviews with either identified or unidentified sources at the Global Fund itself or with any individuals or groups in the United States. Accordingly, what is presented in the Briefing is a version of what happened exclusively as seen by unidentified persons in Yangon. That version is in part misleading, in part incomplete and in part flatly contradicted by the key official who made the decision on behalf of the Global Fund to cancel the grant. He was not interviewed by ICG.

Crisis Group Comment: The Briefing’s conclusions about the significance of political pressure in influencing the Global Fund’s withdrawal are supported by the overwhelming weight of the evidence available to Crisis Group. This included interviews with several key officials directly involved in the planning, negotiation and implementation of the programs in question, including a senior staff member from the Global Fund itself. (As to the position of the particular Global Fund official whose account is relied upon in the OSI critique, see 4 below.) Their perspectives and explanations were internally consistent and corroborated by the available public and other written material, including several internal memos confidentially shared with the author of the report.

Members of the US Congress made it clear early on that they were against any Global Fund programs to the government in Myanmar. Subsequent draft legislation threatened to cut almost half of US global funding to the UNDP, subject to conditions on ensuring no funding to the government or government-related NGOs that would have been extremely difficult for it to fulfil if it continued as principal recipient of Global Fund funding. Throughout the year between the approval of the first grants and the termination, there was pressure on the Fund and UNDP to revise the way the programs were implemented through the institution of ever more detailed and restrictive safeguards. As for the final decision to terminate the programs, it was made within a few weeks of the government announcing new travel clearance procedures, before it was clear whether they would even be implemented (as similar announcements in the past have often not been) and with hardly any effort by the Global Fund to renegotiate them.

In our judgment, the Global Fund withdrew hastily and without making sufficient efforts to resolve the situation. We remain convinced this was because it felt it was under political pressure from political figures and activists in the US. This is the judgment also of many other analysts who have worked extensively on Burma. One such judgment on the public record is that of Thant Myint-U (formerly head of policy planning in the UN’s Department of Political Affairs and one of the best regarded historians of the country) in his recently-published book, The River of Lost Footsteps: "And in 2005, even the Global Fund (which fights the spread of HIV, tuberculosis and malaria) withdrew under heavy pressure from pro-democracy activists." (p. 344)

4. First, the misleading. Though it appears that no one at the Global Fund was interviewed by ICG, the Briefing says that “Fund spokespeople claimed the August 2005 withdrawal was motivated by technical considerations only…..” A footnote refers to a “Fact Sheet” issued by the Global Fund on August 18, 2005. It quotes this as saying that, “Given new restrictions recently imposed by the government which contravene earlier written assurances it has provided the Global Fund, the Global Fund has now concluded that the grants cannot be implemented in a way that ensures effective program implementation.” What is left out, however, is any mention of what those “new restrictions” were that led to so serious a decision as cancellation of a grant.

Actually, what the Global Fund Fact Sheet stated is that the government had issued new travel clearance procedures that contravened earlier written assurances and that would have restricted access by the Principal Recipient (UNDP), implementing partners and staff of the Global Fund to project implementation areas so as to visit the sites where the programs it was funding were being carried out. Although funding agencies customarily regard the ability to monitor the use of their funds as central to the fulfillment of their mission, ICG characterizes the reversal of the agreement to allow this as “technical considerations only.” It is difficult to understand why ICG would choose to use such dismissive language and then leave out entirely the Global Fund’s stated reason for cancelling its grant as a central point of the Briefing is the cancellation of the grant. In another section of the Briefing, ICG cites what it refers to as “basic humanitarian principles” to which UN agencies and International NGOs operating in Burma confirmed their commitment “to dispel the misconception among government leaders that they are under the control of U.S. government and other political actors.” (These principles are cited at fn. 76 of ICG’s Briefing as ‘Guiding Principles for the Provision of Humanitarian Assistance,” UN Resident Coordinator’s Office, February 2006.) ICG neglects to point out that one of those principles, not spelled out in the Briefing, states: “Effective humanitarian operations require unhindered, sustained access for humanitarian personnel participating in relief activities to deliver, monitor, and assess humanitarian aid, enabling them to reach targeted members of the population in need of assistance.” It is this “basic humanitarian principle” that ICG denigrates as “technical considerations only.” What makes this even worse, of course, is that ICG says that the Global Fund “claimed” that its motive was “technical considerations only.” This is false. The Global Fund claimed nothing of the sort.

Though ICG did not interview the Global Fund official who decided to cancel the grant, I did interview him. The decision was made by Brad Herbert who served at the time as Chief of Operations of the Global Fund. Previously, he had served with the World Bank for 27 years and, a few months after his decision to cancel the grant to Burma, he left the Global Fund to start his own consulting firm.

Crisis Group Comment: It is not the case that no-one from the Global Fund was interviewed by Crisis Group: a (confidential) discussion with a senior staff-member in April 2005, who expressed deep frustration with what he expressly referred to as “strong political pressure from certain groups in the US”, was one of the bases of the judgment we reached as to the significance of that pressure in the withdrawal decision.

More detail could – and in retrospect should – have been given as to the 'technical' circumstances that lay immediately behind the Global Fund's withdrawal decision – i.e, considerations relating to operational restrictions of one kind or another, as distinct from ‘political’ considerations. There was no mystery about these considerationss, and much else earlier in the report describing the pressures the government was applying. The point of this particular section though, was to argue that these limitations were not the whole story, not that they were no part of it. We explicitly acknowledge in the report that the Global Fund had reasons to be concerned about the new restrictions, just as we explicitly say that the termination resulted from “the accelerating politicization of humanitarian aid by hardliners on both sides”. As made clear in our response to an earlier version of the OSI critique in December 2006, we were willing to amend the relevant section of the report on our website to make clearer the range and extent of such restrictions, including the new travel clearance procedures announced in July 2005: Section V.A of the Briefing was amended accordingly in a website revision posted 15 January 2007.

Brad Herbert was not interviewed, but his public position was on the record and is reflected in the report, in the reference to the Fact Sheet of 18 August 2005: the critical issue from Crisis Group’s point of view was that his denial of the role of political considerations, while certainly noteworthy, was not supported by any of the interviews that were done for this report. All that said, it would – with the benefit of hindsight – have been appropriate to seek out and record directly Herbert’s version of the story, and in particular to record what we now understand to be his explicit denial that any role was played by Senator Mitch McConnell’s office in the decision to terminate the grant. As, again, indicated to OSI in response to an earlier version of the present critique, we were willing to further revise the website version of the relevant section of the report to incorporate reference to that denial, as made to Aryeh Neier and recorded by the latter in a contemporaneous staff memorandum the substance (but not date) of which was communicated to Crisis Group in December 2006: this revision was accomplished in the posting of 15 January 2007 mentioned above.

5. Herbert told me that he made the initial decision to make the grant to Burma and, subsequently, to withdraw it. In negotiating the grant, he said that the Burmese agreed to the Global Fund’s standard requirement that Global Fund personnel should be able to conduct site visits without notice to inspect programs. He revoked the grant, according to Herbert, when the Burmese informed him that site visits would have to be scheduled six weeks in advance. He pointed out that a grant to North Korea, where tuberculosis is prevalent, could never be made because, at the outset, the North Koreans had insisted on a similar advance notice requirement.

Herbert told me that he believes the Burmese health minister negotiated in good faith the arrangements for unimpeded site visits and that the decision to reverse the agreement was made by the military.

It is worth noting that there is at least one consideration that requires the Global Fund to be able to monitor implementation of programs it funds in Burma according to its customary standards that goes beyond the concerns that any funding agency would have about proper implementation. That consideration, which ICG may not have known about, was brought to my attention several years ago by an official of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control who led an investigation of HIV/AIDS in Burma. He pointed out to me that some Burmese resist testing for HIV/AIDS because they fear that if they are shown to be HIV positive, the information will be used against them punitively by the military regime. At the time, we agreed that it would be helpful if opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi were to endorse testing and could assure Burmese that they would not face reprisals if they were HIV positive. I undertook to discuss the mater with Aung San Suu Kyi and, on a visit to Burma in August 2002, spoke to her about it. She was receptive to the suggestion that she should indicate her readiness to play a leading role in efforts to see to it that programs against HIV/AIDS, including testing, could be implemented effectively in Burma. Subsequently, however, she was detained again by the regime and has been held incommunicado ever since. Accordingly, it has not been possible for her to contribute in any way to the effort to limit the spread of HIV/AIDS. It seems likely that many Burmese still fear that they will suffer harmful consequences if tests show that they are HIV positive. I don’t know whether they have good reasons for such fears. From the standpoint of the Global Fund, it is, of course, essential that there should be no reprisals. Yet if notification of visits had to take place six weeks in advance, Global Fund representatives would be unable to make such determinations any more than they would be able to monitor programs to see that they are being implemented effectively or to see if funds are being diverted for improper purposes.

Crisis Group Comment: The Global Fund immediately terminated the project, rather than suspending it. This suggests that rather than wanting to find a way around these problems – which were unquestionably real and significant - through continued negotiations with the Burmese authorities, it preferred to cancel the program and put the blame on the government. Other organizations, such as the ICRC, have suspended operations in the past and tried to get the government to rethink policies. Indeed, since this report was published, the government’s order to close ICRC field offices has been reversed, although negotiations about future modalities for their work have yet to produce more substantial results; in a number of other cases onerous restrictions have been lifted or changed. This is the experience of many groups and reflects one of the difficult realities of humanitarian work in situation of political repression and conflict. The judgment of those interviewed by Crisis Group was that the Global Fund did not operate with sufficient flexibility or patience. Given that the Global Fund controls a very significant share of global resources devoted to these diseases, it has a particular responsibility to find flexible ways to work in sensitive situations.

The recent report by the Fund for HIV/AIDS in Myanmar (FHAM) says there have been improvements in an array of areas in 2005, with FHAM funding supporting an intensified response to HIV in Myanmar in several crucial areas – anti-retroviral treatment, support for HIV infected and affected people and families, voluntary and confidential counseling and testing and outreach to vulnerable populations. (See

The fact that FHAM has been able to make improvements in these areas suggests that the Global Fund would have been able to operate even in the very difficult and uncertain environment created by the government. A proposal for the Three Diseases (‘3D’) Fund (the $100 million fund recently established by the European Commission, UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Australia, essentially to replace the Global Fund role) states:

Recognising that it is not possible to effectively plan and implement a national response to HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria without the participation of the Ministry of Health and those responsible for implementation at local government levels, the Three Diseases Fund has been developed through an open and frank dialogue with the Ministry of Health in which the limitations on the donors' financing have been discussed and acknowledged. Systems and processes are being developed within which the programme of activities to be supported by the Three Diseases Fund will be based on agreed national strategies for the three diseases. (

Again this suggests that it has been possible to have an “open and frank discussion” with the government, no matter how difficult, and that the Global Fund withdrawal was hasty. The 3D Fund in itself can be reasonably seen as a rebuke to the Global Fund’s withdrawal.

6. Second, the incomplete. The Briefing says that, “U.S.-based advocacy groups led by the Open Society Institute put strong pressure on the Global Fund to institute additional safeguards on its Myanmar programs. Although OSI indicated that in principle it favored Global Fund grants to Myanmar, it insisted, among other things, that ‘none of [its] programs should be conducted by or with financial assistance to the ruling military junta or government sponsored NGOs (GONGOs)’.” A footnote states, “Memorandum in Crisis Group’s possession, Aryeh Neier (OSI) to Brad Herbert (Global Fund), 24 September 2005 [actually, the date was 24 September 2004]. ICG says that, “As a result, the Global Fund introduced tighter restrictions on use of its funds” although, as neither I nor anyone at the Global Fund was interviewed, it is not clear to me how ICG determined that there was a cause and effect relationship between my memo and the Global Fund restrictions. Was there something else done by OSI or did my memo itself constitute “strong pressure” or as the introductory language of the Briefing has it, “intense pressure”? ICG presents no evidence to substantiate its allegation of intense pressure so there is nothing that can be rebutted. The Global Fund itself says that it institutes an Additional Safeguards Policy “in certain countries where conditions suggest that Global Fund monies could be placed in jeopardy without the use of such additional measures.” (Statement, 18 August 2005)

More important, however, is what ICG says and does not say about my memo, which I sent to UNDP and the Gates Foundation as well as to the Global Fund and colleagues at OSI. First, the memo does not use the words “in principle” or words to that effect. Those words were inserted by ICG. The memo says that: “We are in favor of the Global Fund grants moving forward, but with one condition” – that is, no funding for the military or GONGOs. It then adds a point that ICG leaves out. It says: “This condition should not impede progress in the short term. There are legitimate NGOs that are in a position to undertake this work. Population Services International, for example, is already a sub-recipient of the Global Fund grant. Other NGOs can be engaged, among them Catholic Relief Services, Care International, Save the Children (US), MSF Holland, World Vision and World Concern.” In setting forth these options, it is obvious that OSI was doing more than endorsing Global Fund support for programs in Burma “in principle.” OSI was identifying practical alternatives to funding that would otherwise have gone to the military regime and GONGOs. In this connection, I should note that – as ICG could have learned if I had been interviewed about the memo - OSI has made similar recommendations to the Global Fund in other countries. For example, in a number of countries of the former Soviet Union, governments treat injecting drug users in punitive ways that impede efforts to limit the spread of HIV. Accordingly, OSI has recommended to the Global Fund that funding in some of these countries should go to NGOs that support a harm reduction approach to drug addiction and, in fact, Global Fund grants have been awarded to a number of such groups. An example is the Russian Harm Reduction Network which was awarded a grant of $10 million by the Global Fund in 2006. In Russia, as in Burma, OSI support for such funding was not just endorsement in principle; rather it was endorsement of a practical alternative in circumstances in which we strongly supported funding but thought that support for government programs would be inappropriate or counterproductive. ICG’s selective treatment of OSI’s memo has the effect of distortion. Also, although ICG refers to “U.S.-based advocacy groups led by OSI,” that allegedly put pressure on the Global Fund, it cites no other advocacy group. As its reference to OSI is distorted, one is left wondering who else played such a role. ICG does not say.

Crisis Group Comment: OSI is mentioned only in one paragraph and one footnote of a fifteen page Briefing, and not in any way that questions the organization’s good faith. Our words "in principle" were not in quotation marks, and no claim is made that they were taken from the memo: they were simply a characterisation of the OSI position, that it supported funding of humanitarian assistance but wanted additional restrictions or ‘safeguards’. Whether the ‘practical alternatives’ identified by OSI were in fact practical is a matter of judgment: those we interviewed believed that it was not possible for NGOs to take on all the functions involved in the Global Fund grant - this would have expanded costs and reduced services. Key donors to the Global Fund, other than the United States, have also rejected such an approach for the new 3D Fund (see quote in 5 above).

The assessment of OSI pressure having an impact on the Global Fund and others comes from interviews with those in the relevant organizations: they felt the pressure and many reported on it to their superiors. We understand that OSI was involved continuously in the discussions about additional safeguards (together with congressional staffers and other individuals, notably Michele Bohana of the Institute of Asian Democracy and Chris Beyrer from Johns Hopkins) starting with the memo in Sept 2004 and continuing through a number of communications until July 2005, just before the termination.

7. Another example of incompleteness in the Briefing is its failure to state why ICG treats the withdrawal of the Global Fund from Burma in an entirely different manner than the withdrawal in the same period of two other major international humanitarian agencies: the International Committee of the Red Cross and MSF France. The Briefing notes that MSF France left the country in November 2005 “due to constraints on travel and cooperation with local doctors regarding its malaria projects in Kachin and Mon states”; and that, in November 2006, the ICRC “was ordered by the government to close all its field offices around the country.” Yet neither MSF France or the ICRC is criticized in the Briefing. Were the reasons for the closure of the Global Fund program similar to the reasons for the termination of the programs of MSF France and the ICRC? At least so far as MSF France was concerned, that appears to be the case. MSF France issued a statement – left out by ICG – saying that, “By the end of 2005, the military authorities had imposed so many travel restrictions on MSF and applied such pressure on local health authorities not to work with our teams that it became impossible for MSF to work in an acceptable manner.” MSF added a comment, also not noted by ICG, that may provide a clue to the Burmese military’s reason for imposing these travel restrictions. According to Dr. Hervé Isambert, program manager of MSF in Myanmar: “It appears that the Burmese authorities do not want anyone to witness the abuses they are committing against their own population.” (MSF Press Release, March 29, 2006) In keeping with its practice, the ICRC was not comparably outspoken. Its director of operations, Pierre Krähenbül limited himself to saying that, “the ICRC is seriously worried that those most in need…will bear the brunt of this standoff.” (Press Release, November 27, 2006) As noted by The Economist, “Jealously guarding its reputation for discretion and impartiality [the ICRC] manages to work with the least tractable governments. But not Myanmar’s.” (November 30, 2006). Though ICG implies that the Global Fund acted hastily in withdrawing from Burma, and might have been able to sustain its programs there if it had been patient and negotiated further, the withdrawal of MSF France and the closure of ICRC’s programs both took place subsequent to the withdrawal of the Global Fund. This suggests that more extended negotiation would not have been productive.

Crisis Group Comment: Both the ICRC and MSF cases were mentioned as part of the briefing's extensive discussion of the great many obstacles placed on operations in Burma: they were not ignored. Seven pages of the briefing deal with government restrictions on humanitarian aid: it makes up the bulk of the document and it is very clear from the briefing where the blame lies for these problems.

The ICRC story is in many ways exactly opposite to that of the Global Fund. Although facing even tougher restrictions, it has continued negotiations with the government, while maintaining parts of its programs that are working. It is an example of what the Fund could and should have done. The withdrawal of MSF-France was never as serious a problem as the withdrawal of the Global Fund because of the limited scale of its operations, and we did not find evidence of external pressure playing any part at all in its decision: in these respects, it was not a comparable example, although it is a fair point, of which we could have made more, that MSF-France should itself have done more – as did the ICRC – to try and get the restrictions upon it lifted or modified.

8. Another way in which the Briefing is incomplete is that it does not even mention the Burmese government’s failure to use it own resources to address HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, all of which are prevalent in the country. Though current information is somewhat elusive, as of 2000 the World Health Organization ranked Burma 190th out of 191 states in its spending on health care. (Part of the difficulty in providing more up-to-date figures is the enormous disparity between the official rate of exchange and the unofficial rate. As of September 2005, the official rate was 1 U.S. $ = K6.42; the unofficial (but tolerated) rate at the same time was 1 U.S. $ =K1, 205.) As vast off-shore natural gas reserves have been identified in recent years, it is clear that Burma will obtain an enormous amount of revenue from exploitation of these reserves in the years ahead and is already deriving very substantial income from energy production. In comparison, to Burma’s own resources, the Global Fund grant was a pittance.

If ICG’s purpose in issuing its Briefing was to argue that meeting the humanitarian crisis should take precedence over other concerns, it is difficult to understand why it omitted any discussion of the Burmese government’s failure to use its own resources for this purpose. The Briefing devotes a substantial amount of space to tepid comments on Burmese government policies that hamper the delivery of humanitarian assistance. But, there is not a word in the Briefing criticizing the Burmese regime either for helping to create the humanitarian crisis, as through its policy of encouraging Chinese loggers and truckers to come to the country to cut down its hardwood forests and, thereby, promoting a sex industry to serve them that contributes to the HIV/AIDS epidemic; nor criticizing the regime for devoting the lion’s share of its budget to payment for its 485,000 person military, and for equipment for the armed forces, while providing derisory support for health care. It is astonishing that the Burmese government’s unwillingness to devote even a negligible part of its own resources to health care is not discussed at length in a Briefing supposedly concerned with the need to address a humanitarian crisis. Failing to point this out is like pointing to a couple of worn spots in a carpet while neglecting to mention that there is an elephant sitting in the middle of the living room.

Crisis Group Comment: The first footnote in the briefing refers to our previous reports, the most relevant of which, that on HIV in Burma, included the line in its summary: "Government spending on health and education is perilously low, and the economy has been grossly mismanaged by the military." Previous reports gave figures for HIV expenditure (approximately 30,000 USD although problems with exchange rates and other information make these problematic figures) and the general health budget pointing out that they were among the lowest in the world, well below WHO recommendations and grossly inadequate. Government money was described as "paltry." It is a matter of editorial judgment as to how much material should be repeated from one report to the next: with hindsight it may have been useful to reiterate some of this information, but the focus of the present Briefing was threats to humanitarian space and the point remains that it has not been overlooked in our wider reporting. Every single Crisis Group report on Burma has made it clear that the military government is responsible for the problems in the country. The present report makes it clear in the second sentence that the government is "most seriously" responsible for the problem. The second paragraph mentions a deterioration in the political climate and worsening domestic repression. Most of this Briefing is devoted to pointing out the problems caused by the government.

9. Third, the information in ICG’s Briefing that is flatly contradicted. ICG makes it clear that it considers that the main reason the Global Fund withdrew from Burma was threats to its funding from Senator Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky. ICG goes on to state, however, that: “Suggestions by aid officials in Yangon that members of the Congress directly threatened the Global Fund secretariat with withdrawing part of the US contribution if the Fund insisted on pursuing its programs cannot be confirmed.” Why could they not be confirmed? Why were those involved not called to comment?

As it happens, those “suggestions” can be contradicted. Several months prior to the publication of the ICG’s Briefing, I asked Brad Herbert about this as I knew about the rumors circulating in Rangoon. He told me that Paul Grove, McConnell’s aide, had opposed the grant to Burma in the first instance but subsequently let him know that McConnell would not attempt to take reprisals against the Global Fund because of the grant. Herbert said that no one associated with McConnell had any part in the decision to cancel the grant.

As ICG did not interview Herbert, Grove, McConnell or, apparently, anyone else in Washington, and there is no indication that ICG ever made an attempt to conduct such an interview, on what basis does it say that the suggestions, or gossip, of unnamed aid officials in Yangon “cannot be confirmed”? A more accurate statement would have been that ICG made no attempt to confirm the speculations of aid officials in Yangon. If ICG had made such an attempt, it would have found that those “suggestions” were contradicted.

Crisis Group Comment: As already indicated above, Crisis Group was perfectly willing, once we became aware of it, to incorporate in our Briefing Herbert’s express denial of the involvement of McConnell’s office in the decision to terminate the Global Fund program: the relevant section of the report was revised on our website on 15 January 2007. But we do not resile from our judgment that – whatever some participants may now be disposed to say or not say – at the relevant time the pressures on the Global Fund and UNDP, including threats to portions of their core funding, were certainly perceived as real by relevant participants. Those concerns were reported in some cases to superiors in internal memos seen by Crisis Group.

10. There is a useful debate to be had about how far it is appropriate to depart from basic humanitarian principles in order to provide humanitarian assistance in addressing a man-made, or government-made, disaster such as that in Burma. Rather than contribute to such a debate, ICG’s Briefing mis-states and distorts the views and actions of those whose positions do not comport with those of the author(s) of its Briefing. It also leaves out information that is crucial in making judgments about the issues it addresses. ICG does a disservice to the cause of fair-minded debate by publishing this shoddy Briefing which relies on gossip in place of evidence.

Crisis Group Comment: Crisis Group’s assessment was based not on ‘gossip’ but on many interviews with those involved in these events as they happened, backed up by contemporaneous memos and other documents. We have been reinforced in our judgment of the basic issues by comments from a number of well-informed outsiders, responding to requests from us to give the Briefing their close assessment, that they have not seen any errors of fact or assessment in this report. If any errors of fact are drawn to our attention we will correct them, as we always try to do (and as we did immediately on our website in December when an inaccurate memo date was drawn to our attention by OSI: so far, in all our exchanges, the only actual error to be identified). The criticism going to alleged sins of omission – that we have omitted certain facts or not interviewed a sufficiently wide range of people – is one that is potentially applicable to most of our reports. They could always be more comprehensive, but the cry is constantly for them to be shorter. Sometimes the editorial knife is, with the benefit of hindsight, wielded a little more robustly than is desirable, and in this instance we were prepared, as indicated, to revise the section on the Global Fund to give a fuller account of the circumstances of its withdrawal. What are ultimately in issue here are differences of judgment about underlying dynamics and causes, in a complex series of events. Differences of view about the weight of available evidence, however strongly held, do not justify describing this Briefing in the impolite terms adopted here.

Gareth Evans
International Crisis Group
Brussels, 20 January 2007