Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Mercy Corps and Myanmar


By DAVID REINHARD

Here's the good news: Last week Mercy Corps put out a press release that announced the following: One, a barge had departed for the devastated town of Laputta in Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta; it's the first of many boats that will bring emergency supplies to an area accessible only by water. Two, the second of three air shipments of supplies, including 9 tons originating in Portland, would land in the capital city of Yangon.

Yes, it's a month after Cyclone Nargis roared across Myanmar, leaving an estimated 130,000 dead or missing. According to the United Nations, more than a million people remain without adequate food, water and shelter, thanks to the military junta's limits on the relief effort. Some 1.3 million people have been helped, but most of these have received only "inconsistent levels of assistance."

So what's the good news in the latest Mercy Corps media notice? The organization's staff was announcing that more Mercy Corps supplies are on the way to Myanmar instead of defending itself against so-called human-rights groups that fret over just who's contributing to its relief effort there. Mercy Corps' last press release had addressed its decision to accept a $150,000 donation from Chevron Corp.: "The belief was that the donation would provide some benefit to our emergency response effort to help the people of Myanmar," Mercy Corps spokeswoman Susan Laarman said. "Given the immense humanitarian needs in Myanmar, Mercy Corps welcomes resources to be able to help as many people in need as possible."

She was making a reasonable and humane point. The fact that Mercy Corps had to take time out from saving people and raising funds to defend itself is the outrage here.

"Would it be better if they accepted donations from elsewhere instead?" asked Jeremy Woodrum, director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, referring to Mercy Corps and Chevron. "Yes."

Woodrum quickly noted that Mercy Corps isn't at fault here. (Isn't that special.) It's all Chevron.

Marco Simons of EarthRights International, a human-rights and environmental organization, certainly sees it that way. "What we're concerned about," he said, "is that it not be used by Chevron to whitewash their record in Burma."

That record, according to these groups, involves propping up, and profiting from, a regime that brutalizes its people, by virtue of the company's stake in a natural-gas pipeline consortium in Myanmar.

The company denies these allegations and points to its record of providing educational programs and free health care there. It's worth noting, I think, that Chevron's 28 percent interest in the Yadana pipeline project is the result of its 2005 takeover of Unocal. Because of this, Chevron's Myanmar operations don't fall under the 1997 law barring U.S. companies from doing business there. There's also the question of whether Myanmar would become a better place if Chevron and other Western companies pulled out.

The guess here is that it would become even more isolated, impoverished and repressive, but people can disagree about that. The question becomes: So what? Should any of this prompt criticism of Mercy Corps or Chevron's response to Cyclone Nargis?

Good heavens, the cyclone left millions without food, water, and medical care. Mercy Corps was already established in Myanmar and operates independent of the government. It offered (offers) the best hope of getting the aid in the most quickly. That's why Chevron gave Mercy Corps the donation in the first place. Just why would it have been better if the relief charity had "accepted donations from elsewhere instead"? Please. Millions needed (need) help. Should Mercy Corps have to apologize for somehow failing to advance some other organization's political agenda while desperately trying to carry out its humanitarian mission? Not unless you believe the abstract cause of human rights trumps actual flesh-and-blood human beings holding on for dear life.

Question: How many lives have the human-rights activists made better in the cyclone's wake?

Answer No. 1: Not as many as Mercy Corps, and that's being generous. Answer No. 2: Not as many as Chevron, which has given $2 million to Mercy Corps and four other organizations' cyclone relief efforts.

Here's the good news: Last week some of that money helped a barge bring supplies to the ravaged people of the Irrawaddy Delta.

Anybody got a problem with that?




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