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EXCLUSIVE: Report Slams $100M Aid Effort in Burma, But U.N. Plans to Keep Program Alive

Life in Burma

Aug. 15: A woman makes a bamboo basket in Twantay, about 19 miles south of Rangoon, Burma. (AP)

An independent assessment of a $100 million United Nations Development Program aid effort in Burma calls it “disappointing,” and “unsatisfactory,” and suggests that major portions of the program be discontinued next year. Nonetheless, the director of UNDP intends to keep it alive with as-yet unspecified fixes.

The assessment of the UNDP’s Human Development Initiative suggested there were “modest or only limited differences” between the Burmese villages that got UNDP support and those that didn’t.

Among the areas of negligible impact: health care, education and “food security,” meaning the vital business of whether the poorest were producing and saving enough food to eat in the military-controlled country also known as Myanmar.

CLICK HERE FOR THE ASSESSMENT REPORT

There will be no mention, however, of the wind-down suggestion in a condensed version of the assessment report that will be presented to UNDP’s 36-nation supervisory executive board when it holds a regularly scheduled session in New York City starting Aug. 30. (The U.S. is a board member.)

Instead, the head of UNDP, Helen Clark, suggests in her note to the board that the most criticized parts of the aid effort require a “revision of the program concept and design in order to enhance the impact on poverty.” Clark also holds out the possibility that the “strategic framework” of the programs might require only “modest changes” -- including closer cooperation with local elements of the brutal Burmese regime.

Clark recommends that the board give her the widest latitude to implement changes to the Human Development Initiative “as appropriate.”

CLICK HERE FOR THE ADMINISTRATOR’S NOTE

The issue of aid assistance to Burma -- which has largely cut itself off from the outside world -- is a hot-button issue, especially after the Obama Administration last week announced that it would support an international commission of inquiry to investigate alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Burmese regime. (Among other things, the regime has kept its chief critic, opposition political leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest since 2003.)

At the same time, international concern has been growing about whether the regime has been developing a clandestine nuclear program along the lines of its ally, North Korea, even as international aid agencies of all kinds commit hundreds of millions of dollars worth of aid to the country.

Making sure that UNDP’s funds stay out of government hands in military-dominated Burma was one of the strings attached from the virtual outset to the Human Development Initiative by UNDP’s executive board. Testifying to whether the arms-length distance has been kept is one of the annual tasks assigned to the independent assessors, who also take the opportunity to examine the effectiveness of UNDP efforts in the country.

For years, the assessors have given the program a clean bill of health on the issue of government involvement -- but they have also grown increasingly critical of the effectiveness of much of UNDP’s grass-roots “community development” programming, now under way in some 60 of Burma’s 325 townships -- in part precisely because it lacks greater government involvement.

Last year, the assessors told UNDP that it should be examining the relationship between the length of time the organization had been handing out aid and the impact of the assistance -- which led to this year’s unsettling conclusions that in many cases the impact had been less than significant.

The main focus of assessor skepticism is a double-barreled UNDP program known as the Integrated Community Development Project (ICDP) and a sister program, Community Development in Remote Townships (CDRT), which are administratively joined at the hip.

Ostensibly self-help programs, the community development initiatives have instead, the assessors say, become studies in mission-creep, in which aid-givers have grown their focus of assistance into primary health care, environmental concerns, HIV/AIDS relief, training and education and food security. The assessors quote one senior UNDP official as admitting that the Human Development Initiative is trying to do “everything under the sun.”

UNDP made matters worse, the report says, by expanding the program dramatically, adding to the resource stretch. Yet another complication was 2008’s Cyclone Nargis, which devastated coastal regions of Burma and further diverted aid efforts (though the report notes that with 500 people on the ground in its HDI programs, UNDP was in a good position to pitch in and help with Nargis). Finally, voluntary funding for the HDI effort has been tailing off, largely as a result of the increasingly hard-line behavior of the Burmese regime.

Even while admitting that Burma is a “difficult and unpredictable” environment for HDI, however, the assessors state firmly that UNDP’s own problems with community development programs are the most significant. Among them: lack of clear focus; inability to show that it has accomplished much beyond the delivery of tangible goods, such as fertilizer; lack of staff training; and perhaps most importantly of all, lack of any clear strategy to wean the people they are helping off continued outside assistance.

The U.N.’s fabled bureaucracy also takes a toll: the assessors note that an “inexplicable number” of reports are prepared by UNDP aid-givers each month at the local level, with some technical specialists estimating they spent 20 percent to 30 percent of their time creating paperwork.

Not much of it apparently has to do with how the aid beneficiaries themselves view things: as the assessors delicately put it, “There is presently no adequate mechanism for feedback from beneficiaries within any of the HDI structures.” UNDP, however, told the assessors it is currently working on a pilot project to do that.

Not all of the UNDP efforts in Burma are viewed as critically by the assessors as the organization’s community development work. Its micro-finance projects in Burma get good marks, though the assessors note that the country’s poorest residents are not benefiting.

The assessors also admitted that the UNDP “impact study” upon which its conclusions were based might itself be flawed, through lack of baseline data and other possible failings. But their report underlined that the survey methodology was considered “robust” by a specialist brought in to design the investigation.

In concluding, the independent experts acknowledge that UNDP itself is unlikely to make any changes before its current authorization for the aid program expires next year. But then it says, a “major revision” of the program is called for “to enhance impact on poverty.”

The experts also note, perhaps in tacit acknowledgment of a previous decade of unimpressive results, that UNDP itself “may come to a different conclusion.”

George Russell is executive editor of Fox News.