The damage done to Myanmar by Cyclone Nargis this past May raised familiar problems for the humanitarian community. Almost overnight, governments and NGOs mobilized to help a poor and isolated community deal with the immediate costs of disaster, and the longer-term problems of sickness, displacement, and food shortage.
What set this disaster aside was the resistance that aid organizations faced from the Burmese government. In the days following the cyclone, UN food aid was seized, and aid workers were denied visas. A spokesman for the UN World Food Program called the delays "unprecedented," and Bernard Kouchner, French foreign minister and founder of Doctors Without Borders, suggested that the esponsibility to protect be invoked to help Myanmar's stricken population even without the consent of the government. (...)
Kouchner's suggestion that able governments and aid agencies invoke a "Responsibility to protect" goes to the heart of this debate. Diplomats to the UN from China, Russia, Vietnam, and South Africa denounced his suggestion, reading in it a measure of hypocrisy, and arguing that, even in situations as serious as the one in Myanmar, a state's right to sovereignty cannot be discounted. Others saw the probable tragedy of delay as a justification to violate Myanmar's sovereignty. (...)
Fortunately, according to a report in the New York Times, the human cost of the junta's initial skittishness was not as grave as anticipated. And with some attention still focused on Myanmar, it may be that, in this instance, the wait-and-see attitude adopted by most aid organizations was the right one to take.
And yet, for NGOs and governments alike, the lessons of recent disasters have been harsh. They operate in a world where aid is viewed as a political commodity, however well intentioned the donors may be. The human costs of this politicization may be significant; certainly, as swelling urban centers make disasters more deadly, it poses a crucial policy problem for aid organizations and international diplomacy.
New York Times Report: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/18/world/asia/18myanmar.html?pagewanted=1&ei=5124&en=01ee68ec0c4578e2&ex=1371528000&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink