YANGON (AlertNet) – Humanitarian assistance to Myanmar is still low despite huge needs and renewed donor interest in Southeast Asia's poorest country since the new government began introducing unprecedented reforms, aid workers say.
Since taking office a year ago, Myanmar's nominally civilian rulers have surprised their people by freeing hundreds of political prisoners jailed by the former junta, holding peace talks with ethnic militias and opening up the economy.
A by-election in April awarded opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi a parliamentary seat. Many of the former Burma's staunchest critics, including the European Union and the United States have since suspended most sanctions.
However, aid officials say humanitarian aid to the country ranked 149 out of 187 countries in the latest U.N. Human Development Index - below Iraq, Kenya and East Timor - has yet to reflect donor interest.
Many of them expressed concern that humanitarian issues may get sidelined in an investor rush to tap Myanmar's domestic market and exploit its natural resources.
"In 2012, we started to see far more interest from donors in general and a lot more positive support and comments," Carlos Veloso, country director for the United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP) told AlertNet.
"It does not mean they've committed in contribution," he added.
The head of Save the Children in Myanmar, Kelland Stevenson, said Myanmar was a “foreign relations success story everyone wants to benefit from”.
"There's a lot of political will or intent by western European countries to support it but obviously they're facing their own constraints," he told AlertNet.
Since the beginning of the year, only two donors have announced extra funding.
The EU said in February it would provide 150 million euros (about $190 million) in aid to Myanmar over the next two years, and Australia announced on Friday it would double its annual aid to A$100 million ($99 million) by 2015.
While an improvement, the amount of aid is a fraction of the $1 billion in aid that donors promised neighbouring Cambodia in 2010 alone, aid workers said.
The money can't come soon enough.
Extremely low levels of government spending combined with donors' fears of propping up the previous military regime through development assistance has left Myanmar’s people in dire conditions.
One third of the country's 60 million people live on less than $1.25 a day, undernutrition is a growing problem and more children under five die in Myanmar than in its neighbours Bangladesh or Laos.
WFP's Veloso said serious concerns exist over access to food in areas such as the northern Rakhine state where some 10,000 or 12,000 landless families are now in the lean or hunger season which typically lasts until November.
Despite the Myanmar government's push to reform, aid workers say the humanitarian community still faces mainly bureaucratic challenges working in the country.
For example, in addition to signing Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs) with individual ministries, NGOs are now required to register formally with the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Save the Children said the process took them seven months to complete.
Travel authorisations, which can take up to a month to obtain and are sometimes granted only on the eve of the trip are still problematic, as are visas.
"In some ways, we're all trying to work this out together," said Save the Children's Stevenson. "It's extraordinary what happened in such a relatively short time and everyone is still catching their breath and trying to catch up."
Other challenges lie in Myanmar's underdeveloped infrastructure.
"To visit two villages in the south of Chin state during the dry season, it took me 19 hours by boat," WFP's Veloso said. "There are no roads and those that are there are impossible to use in the rainy season. We're not blocked from going there. The bottleneck is infrastructure."
World Vision's national director in Myanmar Chris Herink said: "The interest in Myanmar is very high right now ... the important thing is for it to remain high, for the international community to remain engaged, even when the pace of these measures is slowing."