Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Don’t believe Everything you Read . . . But Keep Reading!

My latest post was going to be titled “What Drugs is the US on Now?” or “Dear Hillary: Have You Lost Your Mind?” but since I learn something new every day about the Rohingya crisis (and very little of it is good) I have revised my opinion of the presumed freewheeling permissiveness of the US Administration towards Myanmar human rights violations and seen it for what it is: business as usual.  And not business in a vacuum.  The “democratization” of Myanmar has created a veritable love-fest, a pajama party of the highest order, between nations near and far who want a piece of that fairly lucrative and certainly untapped market.

Last week that cagy government-sanctioned media outlet Myanmar Breaking News reported that “the US has denied Saudi Arabia allegations that an ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim community is taking place in Myanmar,with the complicity of the authorities.” 

Of course, this is designed to convey US approval, or at least tolerance, of the way the Myanmar government is handling itself.  No problem here! Myanmar can say.  Those pesky Saudis—always trying to throw money at stupide things like mosques, poverty, starvation.  Who needs ‘em when we have Coca Cola and Pepsi on the way?

But I digress.

Now, I am not giving my Administration a hall pass on this, but the fact that I and others like me saw nothing to counter this story tells me a bit about how either we really don’t care that much, or how tired the world is, how truly worn out, from all these hate-based calamities.  There just aren’t enough column inches to cover everything.  Witness last week’s parallel incendiary activities in Assam, India, where an alleged attack on the Bordo by Assam Muslims from (surprise!) Bangladesh led to retaliatory violence, over 70 deaths, and a mass exodus of Muslims back into among other places (double surprise!) Bangladesh, from whence they came after being encouraged by the Indian government to resettle for the purposes of increasing voter rolls during crucial elections and, of course staying and straining the social and economic infrastructure.

Interesting sidebar: “The Indian government has blamed unidentified groups in Pakistan for uploading images of what appear to be massacres of people in Myanmar and Thailand and passing it off as [the Assam area in] Northeast India.”

Make no mistake about it: this is a universal issue.

So imagine my confusion when last week I asked a former top-ranking US official in Myanmar if there appeared to be a trend in the region of persecuted groups following the Rpohingya’s lead and making a break for it in the hopes that the global spotlight would finally expose their situations as well.  I asked this to learn what the experts thought the political and social landscape of southeast Asia would look like over the next two years.  The response? “I don’t know anything about those other countries; that’s not my area.”  Which is precisely the mindset that got us into this position ijn the first place.  Pardon me while I slit my wrists.


Let us crawl back to Myanmar for a moment and examine the US’ rather Suu-Kee-ish response to the crisis.

Instead of stating, as the Myanmar press claimed, that human rights violations are certainly not happening in Myanmar, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell’s August 10th press brief had the familiar blandness of a damp dishtowel: “ . . . we continue to urge all parties to exercise restraint, to refrain from further violence, and to uphold principles of non-discrimination, tolerance and religious freedom. We obviously have some concerns about making sure that [the displaced] get humanitarian aid.”

Not a battle cry, but not a Saudi-bashing disavowal, either.

So . . . why is the US, in the body of the State Department, being so circumspect when in the last 3 weeks practically every human rights organization and media outlet has amassed enough information, despite government-staged visits of refugee camps, to be pretty sure that the Myanmar government, especially the Myanmar local governments (state leaders, military, police) are taking this opportunity to join their regional neighbors in passively (if you can call it that) exterminating this group?

Let’s go to the bedroom, and see who’s crawled under the covers so far.

Well, there’s the US, of course, a little late to the party but still trying to take up as much space as possible via lucrative Pepsi and Coca-Cola contracts, there’s the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey,  and they’re all trying to be quiet as mice about talk of genocide because that tends to shut the old door when you want to get in a country and start making money.  The US can “loosen” but not “lift” embargos on Myanmar that will appease human rights watch groups while at the same time put a toe firmly in the door for corporate interests to slide through.  Myanmar, for its part, welcomes this attention because in addition to not being able to pay its expenses (including its army), this friendly interest from large countries presents the semblance of things “getting better.”  In The Disunion of Myanmar in the August 18 Latitude, Swe Win writes that contrary to trying to alleviate ethnic issues, “the government has been exploiting the situation: rather than intervene to ease communal tensions and finally clarify the murky legal status of Rohingyas, it is further stigmatizing them in order to ingratiate itself with the [Buddhist] majority.”

So things haven’t gotten better; they’ve just gotten different.  From a militarily-ruled closed system, a democracy emerged that by definition had to at least pay lip service to sunshine.  "Politically, [Parliament member] Aung San Suu Kyi has absolutely nothing to gain from opening her mouth on this," Maung Zarni, a Burma expert and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, told the Associated Press. "She is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her principles. She's a politician and her eyes are fixed on the prize, which is the 2015 majority."  (the Independent) So the “progress” that the world sees in Myanmar is not so much the changing of anyone’s beliefs or ideology so much as the actual presentation of tiny bits of information where there had only been our imagination.  So sure, they’re starving and oppressed and treated like animals but look!  We’ve decided to feed them!  Next step (of course): human rights for all.

China's also in on the sleepover.  According to the August 12 Express Tribune (Pakistan), “China had earlier warned Pakistan on the Burma issue by imposing restrictions on Ramzan fasting. They have also worked behind the scenes or may even have warned Saudi Arabia. With this aid and not blaming anyone, Saudis keep their good name with Muslims and also obey China. Burma, China and Japan have a sizable Buddhist population. With US oil and gas production increasing and the US reducing its oil imports, no oil exporting country can afford to alienate China, Japan and India. Burma has strong Chinese support. Even Bangladesh has no sympathy for the Muslims in Burma. This gesture [the $50 million in aid from Saudi Arabia] will make the Burma issue forgotten in no time. The substantial Buddhist population in China, Japan and Burma have not forgotten the Bamyan Buddhas [destroyed in Afghanistan] and they do not blame the Taliban for the destruction. They blame the forces behind the Taliban that incited and influenced [them]”.

Funny thing, one can think that media and global pressure have led to today’s AP announcement that “Burma's government said today it would no longer censor local media outlets, the most dramatic move yet towards allowing freedom of expression in the long-repressed nation.”  Or one can be cynical like me and wonder if this is not a first step in the allowing of these commercial global markets to be able to be more successful in the country via the use of media, and that it has nothing to do with honoring any kind of idea of freedom of speech or expression.  AP adds that “reporters will still have to send their stories to the Press Scrutiny Department after publication so government monitors can determine whether their work violated any publishing laws.”

The official with whom I spoke made it quite clear: if the Rohingya continue to demand minority nationality status, they will never make any gains.  The only way that they may ameliorate their current situation is to accept citizenship status—not minority status, but just citizenship status.  (and that isn’t even offered yet.)  Swe Win’s article also reports that “[the Burmese government] has announced that it will place any “illegal” Rohingyas — meaning, in its view, any Bengalis who settled in Myanmar after independence in 1948 — in detention camps to be run by the U.N.’s refugee agency or send them away to other countries.”

One would conclude that this might give pre-1948 “citizens” (ie anyone over 64 years old) a country, but no compensation for generations of abuse, no ability to seek asylum as a persecuted minority, and no recourse from what will most likely be a continuation of human rights violations by local militia and citizen hate groups.

But at least Pepsi will be able to sell soda, and Hillary will be happy.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Must-watch Video on Rohingya

On Tuesday, the New York Times Lede blog published this post on the Rohingya.

The article features a video from BBC's Channel 4 -- one of their reporters was able to sneak into Rohingya camps, get footage of razed villages burned to the ground,AAAAAEabvr4~,Wtd2HT-p_Vh4qBcIZDrvZlvNCU8nxccG&bctid=1785256986001

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

And Still More Good News

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto─člu and PM's wife, Davuto─člu deliver Turkish aid to Rohingya Muslims

Some More Progress . . .

(Ahlul Bayt News Agency) - The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) says it has persuaded Myanmar to allow Islamic countries and organizations to provide assistance to Rohingya Muslims displaced by sectarian violence in the Southeast Asian country.

On Friday, an OIC delegation and President Thein Sein held talks in Rangoon on the "deplorable humanitarian situation in Rakhine state" and Myanmar agreed to the OIC proposal, the 57-member organization announced on Saturday, AFP reported.

The OIC delegation told Thein Sein that Islamic humanitarian organizations were ready to provide assistance to all residents of the strife-torn state.

Myanmar refuses to recognize Rohingyas as Myanmarese citizens and classifies them as illegal migrants, although the Rohingyas have resided in the country for centuries.

Myanmar President Thein Sein said on July 19 that the “only solution” to the plight of the Rohingya Muslims is to send the nearly-one-million-strong community to refugee camps run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “We will send them away if any third country would accept them,” he added. “This is what we are thinking is the solution to the issue.”

However, the UN refugee agency has rejected the idea of setting up refugee camps to accommodate the Rohingyas.

"--a little Myanmar within"

An 8/9 report in the Jakarta Post that President President Yudhoyono of Indonesia is supporting humanitarian aid to Rohingya as well as the protection of their rights brought a letter from a reader in West Java reminding the President (and his fellow Indonesians) of their country’s continued abuse of their own minorities, and urged the President to “sort out religious problems in his own backyard first before meddling in religious affairs which are not his own. Do not forget that we have many religions in Indonesia. Our first president Sukarno and Mohamad Hatta did their utmost to uphold Pancasila and succeeded but you have failed to do so.”
This letter to the editor elicited this comment on August 11:

I feel deep sorrow when I read news about some leaders/Ulema crying for persecution of some distant Muslim Brothers completely forgetting how they are treating their minorities or even those who they do not agree with. Unfortunately every Muslim country has a little Myanmar/Burma within.

I think we could alter that last phrase to read “every country,” and we should all remember the gradual normalization of our own nations’ systematic persecution, abuse, and genocide of parts of our societies that at one time or another we wished to eliminate.  Just because the US’ attempts to systematically eliminate its own indigenous groups happened over 150 years ago does not mean that these actions were not as horrific as what is happening in Myanmar today.  We all have “a little Myanmar within,” and we need to remember this when we are urging new governments to tackle issues that we still, after all this time, have not ourselves adequately addressed.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Back to Aceh

A few posts ago I had been talking about our successful coffee project in Aceh.  It was not without its challenges.  This project, and a subsequent project that JMD was about to start, suffered the fate of what we began to realize had been a trend during the years after the tsunami in the marginalization of local NGOs by their large international counterparts.  JMD looked around one day and realized it was one of only a handful of local providers still left in the province—and possibly THE only sustainable livelihoods agency.  It  is widely acknowledged that a substantial amount of the reconstruction money was diverted into personal pockets, but the funds that were left went towards direct services or administration.  And we know the large salaries that ex-pats can command.  None of it, however, was earmarked for training local NGOs in how to be the go-to agencies of the province’s future, even though several assessment documents indicated that this would be the key factor in the sustainability of the reconstruction efforts.

 The paper below was written out of frustration and the need to do something about our situation—even if only to chronicle it for organizations who might actually give a rat’s patoot.  But as we were told, when we were given the opportunity to speak with the Vice President of one of the largest of the humanitarian NGOs, Aceh, the tsunami and the conflict are old news in the world of global interest and donors.  So many new and continuing crises—Darfur, Somalia, Mali, Afghanistan, and now the Rohingya, just to name a tiny few—have numbed the philanthropic sensibility of would-be donors.  We are just not on the map anymore.  To use the catchphrase du jour of media commentators on these crises, they just "don't engage American vital interests."  In other words, they have nothing we want. 

Still, we surely hope that these shenanigans do not keep repeating themselves every time a large NGO with a bazillion-dollar contract comes swaggering into a desperate humanitarian crisis saying “Relax and step aside—we’re here now,” effectively cutting off local assistance and potential capacity building at the knees.

Local NGOs: The Other Tsunami and Post-Conflict Victims in Aceh Province
[note: we have eliminated the names of the agencies involved for this blog post.]
After natural disasters or wars ravage developing areas of the world, large international aid organizations who arrive to provide assistance are often surprised, and humbled, to find small groups of local citizens already working or organizing, in whatever limited capacity they might have, despite being victims themselves.  This was the case in Aceh province, Indonesia, after the 2004 tsunami killed over 170,000 Acehnese citizens and revealed to the world the nearly irrevocable damage to both the economic and social health of the province that had already been caused by the ongoing conflict between Acehnese separatists and the Indonesian government.  In Banda Aceh after the tsunami, a concerned group of citizens formed and registered a non-profit agency, Jembatan Masa Depan (Bridges to the Future) to help the international community implement its recovery programs in the most difficult to access and hardest-hit areas of the province.  The agency was named after the international organization that first assisted it—Building Bridges to the Future Foundation, Inc. (BBF), based in New York.  JMD’s mission was to provide sustainable livelihoods assistance, post-tsunami and post-conflict, to widows, fighting age males, and those marginalized individuals who were deemed by large aid agencies to be too “difficult” to access and too small in number to justify the expenditure of international administration of projects.  Over time, it became apparent that the international community, in order to provide any effective reconstruction or peace-building and sustainable economic assistance, had to seek out, utilize, and help augment the services of local NGOs such as JMD.  However, in Aceh, even throughout the four years of active reconstruction administered through the Agency of Reconstruction and Rehabilitation (BRR), the established government/international partnership organization, international aid organizations, themselves the beneficiaries of billions of dollars in multi-donor funds, provided little or no technical assistance to established local NGOs.  They hired many Acehnese citizens, to be sure, and improved their individual capacities, but this only served to create a cycle of dependence on the international presence for those positions for which they were qualified. Local NGOs, including JMD, lacked the administrative capacity to go toe to toe against a preferred international “implementing partner,” in terms of accounting and reporting ability, work plan development (in English), strategic planning, recruitment, HR, monitoring, etc. 
This failure on the part of international agencies to devote monetary resources and training to strengthen existing local NGOs and help fledgling community groups prepare to formalize their efforts was extensively documented in several international assistance assessments, including the 2006 NGO Impact Initiative.  One of the key areas that was inadequately addressed with respect to response and reconstruction, notes the study, was that of Enhancing Local Capacity.  The workgroup devoted to this area repeats throughout the document that to a significant extent, local ownership of the tsunami response was undermined by the actions of international agencies. In some cases, recognition and engagement with local capacities was totally lacking . . . .  Underlying the problems at the community level [was] a lack of engagement at the earliest stages with community-based and local non-governmental organizations…many of [which] had played a major role during the search and rescue phase.”
Despite the calls to action by all members of the working group and the collective authors of the entire study, lack of international assistance to NGOs continues in Aceh.  Unfortunately, the point is now nearly moot, since JMD remains one of the few, if not the only, local NGOs remaining in Aceh that provides sustainable livelihoods assistance to post-tsunami and post-conflict communities.  It is referenced by large agencies in reports to donors eager to see “local involvement.”  It is courted obliquely to fulfill the requirements of organizations such as the World Bank who academically stress local involvement.  But there has been no organization and no funding source to date who has offered to provide training and funding for JMD to survive in its own country.  Further, for the past three years it appears as if the international aid community has partnered with donors to do everything it can to wipe local, organized and sustainable assistance from the face of Aceh.
Two months ago, the Indonesia Department at USAID published USAID’s Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (DRG) group’s Call for Papers for its “Local Capacity Development Summit” to be held in June, 2012.The object of the Summit was “to learn about successful local capacity development efforts of external partners and organizations.”  USAID Indonesia encouraged affiliated organizations to write about “their most successful local capacity development efforts” and share “innovative LCD experience and lessons learned.”  BBF has asked for those papers from the Summit that were from NGO’s claiming to have had any “local capacity development efforts” at all, never mind successful ones.  To date, BBF has not received a response; it would be interesting to see if there are indeed NGOs claiming to provide these services to local partners in Indonesia. They are certainly not doing so in Aceh, nor could they at this point.  JMD’s own investigations as well as a fairly exhaustive internet survey reveals only six such NGO’s, and of these one is a Human Rights NGO network, one deals with maternal health, one focuses on microfinance, one is Jakarta-based, and one is the Jesuit Refugee Service Indonesia, which has been inactive since 2009.  The sixth one is Jembatan Masa Depan itself, and it would gladly be the recipient of any type of capacity building an international partner would care to give it.  It is well known to the USAID Mission in Jakarta, yet JMD’s attempts to stay connected and receive updates have been routinely brushed aside.  In 2009 a component of Agency A’s USAID-funded “SERASI” initiative included JMD as an implementing partner, at the suggestion of the USAID Mission. JMD had successfully implemented projects previously for Agency A, to their great satisfaction, and JMD was in the middle of an additional Agency A initiative in an extremely remote and difficult area, dealing with communities who had heretofore never had contact with either a local or international NGO.  JMD, acting in good faith spent a considerable amount of time drafting program plans, budgets and finally contract documents with USAID.  Agency A had in fact asked JMD to notify the communities that JMD had been awarded the contract, which it did.  After both USAID and JMD had signed the contract, Agency A refused to sign it.  It would not tell JMD why. A JMD representative travelled to Jakarta (not a small expense) to ask the USAID Chief of Mission what the issue was, and was told that USAID could not communicate with JMD because the contract was between JMD and Agency A.  Agency A refused to tell the communities that there would be no JMD project, so JMD lost considerable credibility with an extremely volatile community whose trust it had finally earned.  JMD was hurt but not surprised.  It has rarely enjoyed equal partnership status with any of the international agencies with whom it has worked, and for whom it has taken over and administered projects.
The NGO Assessment also notes that Humanitarian proclamations, plans, programs and procedural guidelines abound with statements about the array of benefits that the sector will gain when local organizations and nationally recruited personnel take their rightful place in the system. It is equally evident that capacities are not being built or utilized at the pace these claims would imply to be essential.
“The findings from the tsunami response seem to indicate this is still true, that standards developed are not being met and that lessons learned are not being applied.”  Most local providers would tend to agree with this assessment, since virtually none have ever been informed what those “lessons” were.
Several factors, state the report, have contributed to this pushing aside of local NGOs, including “competition between service delivery and capacity building.”  It is this factor that we would like to especially address in this document, as it has caused JMD to re-evaluate its ability to continue functioning as an NGO; when it dissolves, there will be no local NGOs trained or supported in sustainable post-tsunami/post-conflict livelihoods efforts, despite the billions of dollars that went to international organizations to accomplish this.
The two years immediately following the tsunami were necessarily devoted to emergency stabilization and reconstruction activities.  It is from these years that the Report draws the majority of its examples, acknowledging that capacity building may have been placed aside in favor of timely responses that could not wait for local actors to form cohesive and effective coalitions.  However, all was not a frantic humanitarian dash around the province.  Large aid agencies were taking other factors into consideration when administering assistance, such as the unforeseen hazards of working in an area of still active internal conflict, the vast economy of scale issues caused by the immense dispersal of small pockets of victims throughout remote and hard-to-access areas, and the immediately post-response media withdrawal that prompted many headquarters to order the withdrawal of their organizations prior to the completion of specific and needed activities.  JMD found itself, in those days, finishing project after project at the behest of large international agencies who left them with little more than materials, some implementation funds, and a hearty farewell.  In one case, JMD’s donor BBF went on BBC radio to underscore this lack of an exit strategy by reminding listeners that on December 31 the majority of the large NGOs were going to leave Aceh and some critical initiatives involving food delivery and water purification, were going to be curtailed, leaving hundreds of families with no drinking water and no ability to plant crops for food.  But it was December 31 and time to go.  This public announcement, however, prompted Oxfam to provide training to JMD staff in operating the water plant, and the Red Cross also stepped in to help with the water delivery, and JMD received a grant to provide further water purification services to other villages in need.  Machines were donated to continue clearing the salinated crop fields.  This type of handing-off of projects happened time after time in 2005-2006.  And at the time JMD consisted of three people! But not once, as the NGO Assessment Report points out, did the international community offer to strengthen the agency itself, to prepare it to be autonomous and confident enough to be the direct link between donor agencies, the government, and the affected communities.1
 After 2006 and throughout reconstruction, JMD was asked time after time to subcontract with an international partner/recipient of funds from USAID, World Bank or other agency funneling its respective government’s assistance to Aceh.  The funds provided, however, were stipulated to go to direct service only, with very little allocated to administrative overhead (bookkeeping, reporting, office maintenance, travel, supplies, utilities, staff development.)  In fact, one donor NGO refused to accept that field officers who were providing nothing but training in livestock health, crop rotation, green farming techniques and business skills were “direct service;” their insistence that JMD categorize them as “administration” precluded the agency from being able to put in a line item for true and necessary administrative costs.  JMD has been unable to recoup sufficient administrative costs to hire appropriate program development and management staff.  The foundation BBF currently provides funding for all technical assistance to JMD; its hope was that during the influx of funding through the European Union and EDFF’s assistance post-tsunami, a portion of that assistance would be taken on by the international community.  It was never so.
The following examples are presumably typical of local NGOs in Aceh who were struggling to survive after 2004.  So few remain, however, that it has been difficult if not impossible to chronicle their trajectory into dissolution.  JMD alone remains because of the stubbornness and commitment of one private foundation, not the international NGO community’s desire to assist in local NGO sustainability, or the Indonesian government’s inclination to financially support such entities.  JMD’s future, however, is bleak.  Its most recent “partnership,” for example, has resulted in the near gutting of the agency. 
In 2009 JMD developed two highly sophisticated and well-received project proposals in response to the Economic Development Financing Facility (EDFF)’s solicitation for programs that would utilize the final portion of the multi-donor fund not yet dispersed.  Because of JMD’s longstanding relationships with many government and international aid representatives, it learned that one of its proposals was to be “appropriated” by a high-ranking member of the government and modified to suit that individual’s private foundation; the other project, aimed at rehabilitating a large segment of the highly acclaimed Acehnese Robusta coffee industry, was noticed by EDFF because JMD was the only local NGO proposing to provide training to coffee farmers.  Since “partnership” with a local NGO put the stamp of approval on an international NGO’s proposal, and because Robusta coffee was an internal product and deemed by donors as mostly valuable to Indonesians, EDFF asked Agency B to consider JMD to be the training partner for the award that Agency B, as a large organization, was designated to receive.  One of the largest issues that local NGOs have faced is the international donor community’s fear, often justified, that the immense bureaucracy surrounding reporting and financial accounting methods alone would render a local NGO incapable of managing a grant.  Since none of the funds ever were reserved for training Acehnese agencies in how to manage the funds themselves, agencies like JMD were at the mercy of the international donors like Agency B if they wanted to even participate in reconstruction projects.
A skeptical reader of this account may be tempted to point out that that the international NGOs worked exclusively in country, hiring over 90% Indonesian/Acehnese staff, and as projects progressed, those staff were indeed trained in the nuances of the administrative and reporting requirements of World Bank, USAID et al.  Those staff, at this moment in time—the end of the EDFF funding and the exodus of all international organizations—are now well-trained individuals who must leave their home if they wish to find employment, for there are no local agencies left for whom their skills would have been such an asset.  The international NGOs created a community of trained nomads, and unless, individually, some decide to form an association, band together, and seek yet another source of funding to bind them together and accomplish a mission that as individuals they were never trained to develop, Aceh itself will be no better off.  Some of its citizens will have had life-changing experiences, but this is not the sustainable development either envisioned by EDFF or reported on by the NGO assessment.
Back to JMD’s involvement with Agency B: JMD was a subcontractor, but was treated by Agency B as more of a sub-grantee, which it was not.  Being inexperienced and lacking administrative capacity, however, contract negotiations were not JMD’s strong suit.  The agency saw an opportunity to do what it does best—help people in remote areas reclaim their livelihoods.  They assumed everything would work out; after all, they were being taken care of by a large NGO.  Agency B agreed to pay JMD up to a set amount for a March 2011 to March 2012 project that involved this tiny agency training 7 field officers, 50 farmer peer educators, and 1,000 individual coffee farmers.  The fiscal reporting was challenging for both JMD staff and for Agency B’s Acehnese staff, who were also learning the World Bank system.  Reports were mis-filed, rules changed, payments were late, and JMD learned that as an agency it was not able to advance via this project; all the funds were going to direct service and operational costs.  At the end of the year, the agency would not have been able to spend some of its contracted amount on training for the fiscal director, hiring of more administrative staff—anything that would make it better, larger, stronger for it to be in a better position to continue its services when the contract ended.  It realized that instead that it would be merely depleted.  The only thing Agenc yB wanted JMD to do was work--until the work was done.
And then in October 2011 Agency B told JMD that World Bank wanted Agency B to begin a five-month no-cost extension—an unheard-of burden to place on a tiny local agency.  JMD told Agency B that if Agency B wanted to continue the project past the original end date, Agency B needed to keep paying JMD its monthly allocation above and beyond the contracted amount.  Agency B said it could in fact do this because it had a surplus.  This turned out to be a manipulative distortion.  The “surplus” to which Agency B referred was the money that JMD had not yet spent of its original year-long contract, which JMD was now being asked to stretch out for 5 additional months.  JMD reminded Agency B that Agency B had asked it to start the project 2 months earlier than March 2011 and still owed the donor—BBF-- that money.  Agency B responded that it would not be repaying BBF.  Agency B had asked JMD to sign a no-cost extension letter that included as an attachment a letter from JMD requesting a monthly payment from Agency B.  The no-cost extension letter referred to JMD’s letter, stating that it was “rejecting” that particular request.  Agency B held up payment to JMD for four months (from December 2011 to March 2012) because it said that its own reading of JMD’s accounts showed it had “enough money” to perform services.  As of May 2012 it was holding up February and March 2012’s payment.  BBF’s financial intervention kept the agency afloat, but barely.  In fact, Agency B was well aware that JMD would have to be placed even further into debt by Agency B’s refusal to pay salaries during Ramadan, which falls at the crucial end of programming.  JMD was faced with a choice: act despicably and fire all staff right before the holy holiday, or be plunged further into debt and complete the project for Agency B.
Whether this is all legal is not really the point.  But it is is astounding that a small local agency who trusted a large international one and is now in its final months of programmatic work is basically functioning as an indentured servant.  This servant, incidentally, provided the only positive results in a complex, multi-faceted and multi-million dollar grant that included market development, distribution expansion, and networking with cooperatives.  Nothing but the JMD farmers’ training project had positive results.  Agency B will argue that it bent over backwards to help JMD, that JMD’s reporting was always sloppy, that its English documents were not coherent, that it “sat” with the finance director to help her understand how World Bank wanted the forms.  That is not capacity building, nor is it helping the local agency survive, which should have been part of Agency B’s mandate in the first place.  That is merely whipping the dying horse until the cart reaches the market and the fruit is saved. 
The above is just one example of JMD’s experiences with international “partners.”  During its Agency B project implementation, it had looked to another agency, Agency C, for better treatment and, not surprisingly, was again disappointed.
Since 2005 the President of BBF had been speaking with World Bank colleagues in Jakarta and Aceh about the need to provide competitive programming funds for small local NGOs such as JMD.  Although sympathetic, her colleagues informed her that World Bank necessarily had to implement much larger projects in scope and funding than local NGOs could handle.  She asked that JMD at least be given the opportunity to submit a proposal during an RFP process, but was denied this request, as JMD “did not have the credibility.”  She asked how local agencies could achieve credibility if they were never permitted to implement projects that could prove their credibility.  But this was not World Banks’s concern.  In late 2009 JMD learned, through colleagues in Jakarta, that World Bank had awarded a multi-million dollar contract to Agency C that included a sustainable livelihoods component based in areas in which JMD had worked previously.  She contacted the head of World Bank in Aceh and asked why no RFP had gone out for this project and was told that World Bank could decide to sole-source contracts from time to time, and that Agency C had been a previous grantee in good standing, and had done a similar project.  BBF’s president pointed out that JMD had been doing similar projects for several years.  She then asked the question she had been asking World Bank for years: what was the process whereby an agency applied to World Bank for funds?  She was told that agencies submitted proposals and based on viability, need, etc. they were funded, that no RFP process was required.  She then asked, “So after asking about funding for this local NGO for years, no one has ever told me that we can just apply.  Where may JMD now send its proposal?”  After a confused silence and a referral to a project director she was told that JMD couldn’t really apply . . .but could not explain why an agency like Agency C could. 
Although unsatisfactory, the conversation apparently set some gears in motion because shortly thereafter JMD received a call from Agency C, stating quite plainly that the World Bank had contacted them and told them to sub-contract the sustainable livelihoods portion of their new project to JMD.  JMD was asked to develop a training and implementation model and submit a proposal for this component, which it did in early 2010, during many meetings with World Bank and Agency C at their offices in Banda Aceh.  This became the basis for Agency C’s additional livelihoods sites, the existence of which JMD learned of several months later.  As the months wore on, Agency C kept JMD informed of the “progress” that it was having in finalizing contracts and language with World Bank.  JMD was asked no fewer than four times to revise its budget, its scope of services, its timeline, and its staffing pattern.  It complied each time, having been assured by Agency C that these revisions were mere formalities and that signatures were forthcoming.  Due to several delays in starting the ranger training component, Agency C urged JMD to be as ready as possible for the moment when the contract would be signed.  It urged JMD to hire staff, and welcomed those staff at Agency C’s preliminary ranger trainings.  It praised JMD’s choice of project coordinator, and included him on subsequent correspondence.  BBF fronted the several thousand dollars to JMD so that it could comply with Agency C’s wishes and act in good faith, as a willing partner would do.  In April Agency C informed JMD that World Bank had decided to reverse itself and that Agency C could not name JMD as the sole source contractor, and that Agency C had to publicly advertise for a subcontractor.  A seven-day response window and another week of “review” revealed that of the only two responses other than JMD, neither was from an NGO and neither was qualified.  JMD had meanwhile re-written its proposal to fit the guidelines of the RFP which appeared in the paper without Agency C letting JMD know where or when it would appear.  Fortunately JMD staff had their eyes peeled and spotted the ad two days before the deadline.  Agency C apologized for the “oversight.”
One week later, with community beneficiaries already asking about their livelihoods programs, Agency C notified JMD that World Bank had decided that Agency C had not advertised nationally and so the RFP and responses were invalid.  Twenty days passed while a new notice and response deadline were set.  JMD again re-wrote its proposal.  This time, it was the only NGO in Indonesia to apply.  At that point, World Bank suddenly decided that its regulations did permit sole source sub-contracting, and permitted JMD to be the contractor.
There was a catch, however.  World Bank had decided that the amount and manner in which Agency C and JMD had agreed that JMD would be paid was now, after a year of negotiations, improper.  JMD could only receive $52,000 for all its services for a 6-staff person, 18-month project that involved 5 separate geographic and remote areas.  The livelihood portion of the project totaled $560,000 and some of this, JMD had been assured, could be used for training, transportation, M&E, etc.  No more.
Agency C asked JMD to produce a budget that it could “live with,” and JMD once again re-drafted a work plan and budget.  Two months had passed and the project was now reduced to 16 months. Staff were already on board and being trained.  Fiscal staff from both agencies had been discussing reporting and meeting to go over forms.  No contracts, however, were forthcoming. 
World Bank rejected the revised budget.  Agency C notified JMD that too much time had passed, and that Agency C staff would probably have to implement the livelihoods portion of the grant themselves, unless JMD wanted to prepare an “assessment” report of the villages, for which Agency C would pay one JMD staff person as an individual contractor $5,000.  JMD asked what would happen to the staff who were hired.  Agency C responded that it never encouraged JMD to hire staff before a contract was signed.  JMD asked Agency C if they were quite pleased with themselves for being able to finally shake off the pesky local NGO who had had the nerve to question a sole source contract that was never advertised and then promised a part of that contract only to be eased out of even that by a series of newfound World Bank regulations.  Agency C expressed appropriate indignation and hurt.  It can certainly never be proven, but based on Agency C’s appropriation of JMD’s program model and prior implementation of it with its own staff, it made more sense for the international NGO to keep all the funds and run the project with its own people.  It probably took longer than anticipated for Agency C and World Bank to neutralize JMD, but at last, mission accomplished, and the local agency withdrew, having spent $3,000 and uprooted three young men from their homes and families to take what they thought would be the job of a lifetime.
There is, of course, much more to this story—both of these stories--and it is certain that Agency C and Agency B (and the World Bank representatives involved) would be eager to offer a sincere and detailed explanation of why they did everything they did, and how they went out of their way to assist a local NGO that apparently just couldn’t be assisted.  At the heart of both of these examples, however, is the fact that at no time in any of the planning or implementation of these large and overarching projects did either donor or NGO address what they would do if given the opportunity to assist a local NGO become autonomous and take over the work of what the large NGOs would soon have to surrender.  What is ironic is that in both of these cases, the incredibly important work done by the NGO—improving coffee production, protecting the rainforest—will be eventually completely undermined by the lack of attention paid to the one pillar of sustainability that could have been strengthened—a local community group interested in a long-term success that goes beyond the individual.  Neither of these NGOs has left nor will have left in place a mechanism whereby the individual or group that was served can seek additional support and encouragement.  You’re on your own, folks.
 In 2008 the British Red Cross Assessment of their own work found that one of the key lessons learned was that there had not been enough capacity building of existing local groups and organizations  (A Summary of the British Red Cross Cash Grants For Livelihoods Recovery in Aceh, Indonesia, 2008, by the IDL Group, LLC.)  Using the Sustainable Livelihoods (SL) approach to their cash awards (Mercy Corps had implemented a similar approach in their Cash For Work initiative), and admittedly focused on recovery in the early days, they relied on BRC staff alone to implement the program, but always maintained that the SL approach “ensures relevance to the macro context in which the disaster occurred and to the specific context in villages.” (p.5)
BRC saw recovery as a very long process that did not just end with rebuilding.  SL was key to recovery and beyond, and one of their key “lessons learned” was that “capacity building can be an effective tool to support grant investments even in the short term.  But BCRS needs to ensure that the capacity building interventions can achieve sustainable results within the recovery program timeframe. (p.6, emphasis added).”  Even while acknowledging that local actors need to have the tools necessary to further the SL process, this “lesson” is making it clear that local knowledge and preparedness had better happen within the NGOs’ on-site timeframe. Providing support for something that may happen after the NGO has departed, such as group/agency autonomy, strengthening, trial and error, and the making of independent choices and decisions, is a risky investment.
It can be argued that a far better model for improving the capacity of local sustainable livelihoods organizations is that which was used in the early 1990s by the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) when working with individual states to fund HIV/AIDS prevention outreach programs.  The CDC had already conducted hundreds of controlled studies which had proven that decreases of certain behaviors reduced the spread of HIV/AIDS by specific percentages.  Meanwhile, local street outreach models had proven effective in accessing hard-to reach and at-risk populations.  The CDC recommended that funding be granted to those agencies who disseminated the specific information that their studies had shown was appropriate, and so “success” was achieved when the logic framework used by local agencies indicated that the contact was made, and the information given.  Agencies did not have to wait around to see if the results of their “capacity building” brought down the T-cell count of an already infected drug user, or if it stopped a specific individual from having unprotected sex.  The CDC wisely said that the agency (and the funding source) could assume with confidence that this would be the result. The agency had made appropriate inferences about the long-term value of the immediate intervention, and recommended funding for initiatives accordingly.
This was never done in post-tsunami and post-conflict Aceh.  It would have taken too long for an NGO to reap the rewards (i.e. file the appropriate self-congratulatory exit report) of seeing a trained local staff tackle the business of community renewal by themselves.  If it couldn’t happen within the life of their initiative, they didn’t want to fund it.
 Small local NGOs spend countless hours obeying the conflicting wishes of international donors and large NGOs, only to be kicked to the curb at the last minute with no recourse.  In developing countries where the concept of “volunteerism” and “not-for-profit” is often unheard of and sometimes scorned, the strengthening of civil society should be at the heart of every global assistance package.  Although Aceh is an extreme example of the failure of international organizations to successfully prepare a region’s citizens to administer all its own social service, economic development, health, and education programs, it is quite probably the case that wherever there is conflict or a natural disaster that prompts a global outpouring of resources, there will be developed a method in which everything but the immediate fix departs with the foreign organizations, including the majority of the money, and the knowledge of how to get it back.
There is no way to reverse this trend except to reverse it.  The international donor community must be willing to provide separate awards that identify, evaluate, and train local NGOs to become the partners of record in their own countries.  This involves the provision of international experts who actually train the local staff, as opposed to performing their work for them, no matter how tempting that may be (cf the UN’s “rebuilding” of East Timor’s government institutions from 2000-2003).  This involves sending appropriate expert trainers to local agencies who understand the real meaning of capacity building, and then actually do it, and leave.  This shadowing/training should be conducted with the local agency for a year at minimum.  The agency should then be provided with a year’s worth of operating expenses while it employs all the techniques and tactics it has been given, from grant seeking to policy development to recruitment to Board and Staff development to project development to human resources to fiscal management and accounting. Anything less will result in failure. 
Jembatan Masa Depan works diligently to improve the quality of life of Acehnese citizens, is staffed by individuals who forego comfort and risk their safety daily to provide services to their fellow citizens, is commended by the national and international media, is respected and sought-after by international agencies and government representatives—and all these positive attributes cannot save it.  The international donor community must stop re-active funding to Aceh, and concentrate on its future.  And its future does not lie with anyone or any agency other than those that were established here and who must live here.
1The President of the donor agency Building Bridges to the Future Foundation arrived in Aceh shortly after the tsunami.  She was at the time neither president nor donor, merely a retired banking executive in Jakarta who wanted to understand the extent of the damage in Sumatra.  Horrified by what she witnessed, she quickly set up a private foundation (BBF) and sought out the assistance of a group of like-minded Acehnese citizens to secure shelter and provide basic health and safety needs for as many residents as possible.  The group became Jembatan Masa Depan, and where gaps in resources or assistance developed, JMD consistently sought to fill them.  Between 2005 and 2006, for example, on the west coast of Aceh near the epicenter of the earthquake, JMD designed and built a total of 51 houses, a women’s education/livelihood center, and a sustainable water system, as well as initiating several distinct livelihoods projects, and it did this with $240,000, approximately $150,000 of which was a private donation from the President. The balance of the funds, and the majority of the materials, were coming from international agencies who had received word from their headquarters that they could no longer remain in the province due to either security concerns, economy of scale issues, or lack of sufficient publicity after the tsunami became “old news.”
JMD’s dedication and continued presence in marginalized areas deemed by larger and more well-equipped agencies too “difficult” to appropriately address or made too dangerous due to vestiges of the civil conflict, resulted over time in awards and hand-overs from other international aid agencies to develop a variety of health promotion and sustainable agricultural and livestock livelihood activities including a women’s health clinic, a sub-district market, goat barns, mushroom farms, soy plantations, and land reclamation/clearing, to name just a few initiatives.  JMD scrambled to learn all it could about the projects it was being “given,” and BBF supplied technical assistance and staff training insofar as one small private foundation could adequately provide. 
As JMD became more involved in livestock, agriculture and health/sanitation projects in the province, it found itself in the position of being able to accurately assess, with local partners, the University, and government liaisons, the future needs of the region and the projects that would be most successful.  In 2007 BRA, the governmental agency responsible for the reintegration of conflict effected villages and ex- combatants, began to utilize JMD’s knowledge, willingness to work with local officials, and basic fearlessness to co-develop and initiate projects in remote and difficult to access areas that had been forgotten by large aid agencies but were nevertheless home to communities of hardworking and dedicated families eager to rebuild their lives and to work together to do so. 
At no time, however, did any of JMD’s “benefactors” provide administrative, fiscal, or team building/agency strengthening assistance or additional funding to insure that both the projects and the small agency implementing it would be able to survive.  Even after JMD became that rare entity—an NGO registered in both Indonesia and Aceh province—the funding it received was and will be always limited to direct service, as if the international community believes that non-profit administration, grants management, fiscal competence and national/international marketing are already pre-programmed into the minds of every victim of natural disaster and war.

Building Bridges to the Future Foundation
July 15, 2012

Good Sites to follow for Daily Updates on the Rohingya Crisis

In addition to the twitter feeds on the right of this blog page, I urge everyone to follow for a daily update of activity and commentary regarding the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.

Every day brings a sad surprise.  For example, today’s column was entitled “Myanmar Governor and His Distortion of Words in Broad Daylight,” recounting the Turksin Ambassador’s visit to the refugee camps on August 10th, and the government-provided translator deliberately softening the Rohingya’s statements from “Please help us!” and “We Muslims have been severely oppressed here,” to “We need assistance” for every phrase a Rohingya uttered. (the web page does not allow me to copy the text, so you must all book mark this site:

 Another good daily summary is found in The News, a Pakistan-based online journal which today announced that the UAE has pledged to send $50 million in aid to the Muslim minority in Myanmar . . . still our question remains: to whom do they send it if still no agencies or organizations are allowed in?

I'm going to try and figure out how to post links on this page . . . and then you can all experience this daily piling up of horrors, to which at least the world and the media is finally paying attention.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hurry Up, Please, it's Time . . .

"To become a truly democratic union with a spirit  of  equal rights and mutual respect, I urge all members of parliament to discuss the enactment of the laws needed to protect equal rights of ethnicities."
     -- Aung San Suu Kyi, Member of Parliament, Myanmar

(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
     --Article 14, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Hurry Up Please, It’s Time
     --T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

When is she going to do something?

I’m referring, of course, to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate who was recently elected to Myanmar’s Parliament, after 16 years under house arrest for advocating for human rights for the country’s minorities and marginalized citizens.

The rest of the world joined her fellow countrymen in hoping that she would now be the voice for change for Rohingya. . . but we were all sadly mistaken.

After a jaw-dropping public statement in London last month where she said she did not know if Rohingya were citizens, she has recently been named chair of “a new parliamentary committee that is to monitor and help implement the rule of law under the country’s new government.”

Her appointment to head the “Rule of Law and Tranquility Committee” was announced on Tuesday.  The Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former political prisoner was elected to parliament in April, a development that was hailed as proof of progress in the former military-run country.
The committee consists of 15 lawmakers including at least five from Kachin and Rakhine states and other ethnic areas that have been gripped by conflict.
Suu Kyi’s party platform included three main objectives: to seek an end to ethnic conflicts, to try to achieve peace and rule of law and to amend the country’s constitution. --AP

Okay, I am the first to admit that even though I’ve been reading and amassing information like mad, I do not know the ins and outs of politics and the pressures on a newly-elected official to stay true to her beliefs while insuring she does not go overboard in her first months in office and get booted out, or end up in a ditch somewhere.

But my god.

I just do not know how a Nobel Peace Prize winner can take such an ambiguous stance--especially since this was her primary platform!—and then get appointed to the—what is it?  Tranquility Committee?  Heck, this woman has been locked in her house for 16 years—what has made her qualified, in that time, to make accurate assessments of how to best use her power to stop the Rohingya from being persecuted—or at least open avenues for aid agencies to help those who are starving and injured?

I thought that the reason she elected to stay in her country instead of living in exile was that on that great day when she was released she would spring into action and do something, but instead she gets on a plane goes to London and says “well, these people aren’t one of us—let ‘em starve.”

How do you sleep at night, Ms Nobel Prize winner, when your government is committing genocide? I mean, what exactly did she get the prize for?

I have been told that my rants are sometimes hot-headed, and that perhaps there are many other factors at play, and that Aung San Suu Kyi is carefully strategizing her next actions, which will deftly convince her colleagues in Parliament, and the Rakhine state leaders, military, and police, to acknowledge the rights and citizenship of the Rohingya.

In a pig’s eye.

I’m not alone.  Look at this, which came out on July 25th:

Aung San Suu Kyi facing backlash for silence on abuses
Alex Spillus, The Telegraph

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, is facing a backlash from fellow pro-democracy campaigners who are dismayed at her refusal to speak out against abuses being committed by her country's military.

Activists who supported the world famous symbol of human rights through her years of imprisonment and isolation accuse her of staying silent on the most pressing human rights issue in Burma today – the treatment of the Rohingya, a stateless group identified by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities anywhere.

Critics contend that she has consistently dodged the subject throughout eight weeks of strife in Rakhine state in western Burma, where hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced from their homes. . . . Her refusal to criticise President Thein Sein, a former military general, for endorsing policies that could be seen as recommending ethnic cleansing have caused particular consternation.  . . . .

 “It’s disappointing, she is in a difficult position, but people have been disappointed she hasn’t been more outspoken,” said Anna Roberts, executive director of the Burma Campaign UK.

“She passed up opportunities to say good things on this,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “This was all blowing up when she was travelling in Europe and she didn’t confront it,” he added, referring to her recent foreign tour when the Nobel laureate was feted in London, Dublin, Paris and Oslo. . . . .

“One has to be suspicious or concerned about what her views are,” said Mr Adams. “It’s very hard to know what she thinks.” . . . .Maung Zarni, a Burmese academic who was on a panel with her at the London School of Economics in June, said: “She has been very non-committal on the issue of the Rohingya.” . . . As Ms Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy look ahead to elections in 2015, analysts have said that expressing support for the Muslim minority would be politically calamitous.  Mr Adams and others disagree. “This is an unequivocal issue, it’s something where clarity is needed. She is such an icon, she could bring a lot of public opinion with her if she went after the issue,” he said.

I can only hope that Suu Kyi is working diligently behind the scenes to assist those people for whom she pledged to fight, and that after every Parliamentary meeting she hangs up her robe, picks up the phone, and does the thing that got her the Nobel Prize.

Because if she doesn’t then she is a huge shit.