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Every action counts: How NGOs are supporting Myanmar’s displaced—Part 2

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In March, I sat down with Katie Striffolino, InterAction's Senior Manager for Humanitarian Practice, to discuss her work with the NGOs on the front lines of this crisis.

"We undertake a number of field visits every year, looking at different operational and policy issues as they affect humanitarian NGOs and conditions at the field level," she told me. "We do documentation and analyses, produce recommendations, and engage stakeholders on improvements to the humanitarian response, as well as actions that can improve humanitarian conditions to support overall response operations in any given context."

From February 10-20, Katie traveled to Myanmar with Rachel Unkovic, InterAction's NGO Coordination Advisor, to consult with, support, and learn from the Myanmar INGO Forum, its 140 NGO members, many of them InterAction members and local and national NGO networks and actors. Their trip had two objectives.

"First, we were looking at the Myanmar INGO Forum's governance, structures, and practices," she said. "We asked ourselves what lessons and experiences could we share with them from other response locations around the world and what we could learn from them to bring to NGO Consortia working in other humanitarian settings?

"Second, we conducted research into bureaucratic and administrative impediments as they affect the humanitarian response for both U.N. and NGO actors which will form a case study and inform InterAgency Standing Committee (IASC) normative guidance to Humanitarian Coordinators and Country Teams around the world on how to best, collectively support the humanitarian community in addressing undue bureaucratic and administrative impediments. We need to be collectively addressing these issues so that humanitarian programs can continue to run in an efficient, unfettered and principled manner."

The more time they spent with the Myanmar INGO Forum, the more they realized how similar it is to InterAction. While the diversity of their membership is a strength, it can often make it challenging to drive consensus and provide equal support to each member.

"I walked away feeling very grateful for what we have at InterAction, but also so impressed by how nimble and innovative the Myanmar INGO Forum and its members are, and have been, because of the resourcing constraints and the operating environment in which they are working," she said. "It underscored how critical NGO Consortia are in humanitarian settings- not just for the NGO community, but the response as a whole."

We discussed the Rohingya genocide. She told me about how dehumanizing the displacement camps are for the Rohingya. There is a sense on the part of the U.N., NGOs, and donors that this genocide happened on their watch. It makes coordination, trust-building, and collective engagement challenging.

"There is a high degree of mistrust across all stakeholder groups," she said. "There is a feeling of paralysis. There is an inability to collectively think strategically, as opposed to being entangled in what is essentially arguments that detract from the community's capacity and ability to look ahead. How do we collectively move forward in support of the population that remains?"

A byproduct of this tone, the structure meant to support humanitarian operations has become overloaded by development, peacebuilding, and human rights groups.

"Everyone is trying to combine all of these issues into the existing humanitarian architecture, resulting in an inability of the operational actors to move forward in a collective and principled, neutral way to deliver humanitarian services to people in need."

In short, the humanitarian space in Myanmar has become overcrowded.

Katie and Rachel identified an opportunity for humanitarians to neutralize the language used when engaging with Myanmar's authorities on issues related to humanitarian access and bureaucratic and administrative impediments. Doing so would distinguish the language and approach between humanitarian actors and everyone else and enable the humanitarian community to be perceived as neutral and impartial whereby more likely to gain access and the ability to provide the right kinds of support services to people based off impartial assessments of vulnerability. This has to happen if humanitarian organizations hope to maintain and expand humanitarian access to the populations that need their help the most.

"As humanitarians, we need to act---and be perceived---in a very neutral way. That is not necessarily happening right now in Myanmar. The humanitarian community also has issues trusting one another and sharing information, common problems, and helpful contacts. Nearly everyone is taking a very individualized approach to working with the government, and it prevents the community from learning and moving forward together. As experience in other contexts demonstrates, such an individualized approach just doesn't work effectively in these types of potentially hostile and/or politically charged environments especially when they are rife with human rights abuse."

"Humanitarians are the ones on the front lines of service provision. We need the help of other actors to provide cover and engagement to help mediate some of these issues that we ourselves- as neutral actors- are not able to touch. That will allow humanitarians to continue or expand our reach and for those able to engage on the political front, to focus efforts there," she said.

"We are just citizens. We don't have fancy passports or enjoy special privileges. We can't do some of the political engagement that's necessary for us to do our jobs safely. This is a collective problem; we need to treat it as such."

While working with NGOs in Myanmar, Katie also identified opportunities for advocacy to drum up support for their work stateside.

"When we go to these locations, there are a few questions I keep in mind:

  • What targets can we as InterAction reach to help our in-country NGO colleagues out?
  • How can we more effectively support humanitarian operations?
  • Is there something that needs to be done or said that is too sensitive for in-country colleagues to say or do?
  • Is it something that InterAction could be saying or doing?"

Katie also identified challenges with financial institutions such as the World Bank and other IFIs, who are increasingly entering humanitarian settings. There is space and opportunity for the NGO community- who tend to be the closest to affected populations- to collectively engage institutions such as the World Bank to consider the secondary and tertiary effects of their projects in countries with ongoing humanitarian operations.

"We know no one wants to see unintended harm perpetrated against populations that have already been traumatized and are trying to recover. The question is, how do we all work together to make sure that tension is not exacerbated, suffering is not increased, and threats are not enhanced rather properly addressed? That's where we can have a significant impact with our efforts out of Washington, New York, and other capitals."

Throughout our conversation, Katie emphasized the need for non-humanitarian international, regional, and domestic actors to continue pressuring Myanmar's government to take meaningful steps toward accountability. Her final words hung in the air long after she spoke them.

"What amounts to genocide and crimes against humanity has happened, and is happening, in Myanmar. That is inherently political, and requires a political solution," she said. "Politically generated problems, such as mass-atrocity crimes, often result in extreme suffering and related humanitarian need. It is a matter of how the international community can best work with local and regional actors in support of a political solution to the context in Myanmar -- which in part is accountability -- while improving the humanitarian response, reach, and scope, allowing people affected by this crisis to access lifesaving services while the crisis is resolved."

Until then, the Rohingya remain trapped in limbo.