28 July 2008


28 July 2008
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


Just back from a three-day visit to assess the situation in Myanmar’s cyclone-devastated Ayeyarwady delta region, the top United Nations humanitarian official said today that, while relief and early-recovery operations were progressing and victims being reached, more aid and smoother procedures for granting access were needed to sustain the effort.

“On the whole, I was encouraged by what I saw, what I heard and by the discussions I had with the Government,” said John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, at a Headquarters press conference, emphasizing, however: “At the same time, there is no room for any kind of complacency.  There is still a lot to do to make this operation a lasting success [and] to reach all people with what they need for a sustained period.”

There had been a lot of progress in the last two months, he said, citing major efforts to rebuild homes, repair schools and get health clinics back up and running.  Farming and other agricultural activities were also picking up, in the hope of planting rice before the end of the season, just a few weeks away.  “A degree of normality” was beginning to return in some areas outside the delta region, with many schools functioning and increased traffic on major waterways.

More important, however, was that, since his last visit, there had been important movement on the “big issue” of humanitarian access to the needy delta population, he said, adding that he had met “significant numbers” of international relief workers from United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society, among others.  No humanitarian agencies were being denied entry as they had been in the past, even though permission to enter could take a few days to be approved.

“So we’re in a much better position than we were just a couple of months ago,” he said, underscoring, however, that part of the reason for his visit was to talk with the Government and senior ministers involved in the relief operation about ensuring that the kind of access United Nations and other humanitarian agencies now enjoyed and the cooperative approach with the Government be continued in the future and even extended into other areas, so as to address other pressing humanitarian issues in Myanmar.

Among the remaining challenges was the drop in the number of World Food Programme (WFP) helicopters in the country from as many as 10 in recent weeks down to five, he said.  It was to be hoped that at least some of those five could be kept flying for at least three or four months to ensure that the most remote areas could be reached by aid workers delivering goods and supplies.  The tripartite mechanism –- the United Nations, the Government of Myanmar and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) –- had been able to solve several important problems and tackle issues in a constructive manner.

That cooperative effort had also led to the compilation of a comprehensive “post-Nargis joint assessment report”, he said, stressing that, overall, while the United Nations cold not say with certainty that it had reach 100 per cent of the affected population, it was clear that, with the use of helicopters and improved access, every part of the affected area had been visited.  Virtually everyone had been reached “with something”, whether food or tarpaulin for shelter, but now everyone must be reached with what they needed.

“So the main challenge for the next few months is to ensure a more systematic pipeline of aid, both food and non-food items,” he said, stressing especially the need to reach those in the most remote areas who were difficult to reach because of poor infrastructure.  Systematic aid delivery would be needed for at least six to nine months.  That had been the basis for the most recent revised appeal for some $482 million by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).  Some $200 million had been received so far, and hopefully donors would respond generously.  The revised appeal period runs through April 2009.

On the question of conversion rates -– from dollars to the Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs) issued by the Government to foreign organizations buying goods and services in the country to the local kyat currency –- Mr. Holmes said the market value of an FEC had diverged from that of the dollar so that, while one FEC had nominally been worth $1, it was now worth some 20 per cent less in local currency.  The gap between the currencies had previously been very small, but in 2008 it had widened to some 25 per cent.  It currently stood at more than 20 per cent.

“Clearly this is a significant problem in terms of the loss generated in terms of the dollar and that’s why we’ve raised it with the Government now,” he said, adding that the Government had promised to work with the United Nations to find a practical solution.  “We are pressing them very hard to do that.”  As for the impact on relief efforts, the exchange margin only affected monies spent locally, not imported goods or international staff salaries.  OCHA had calculated that the exchange rate affected perhaps only about one third of total aid expenditure.  With some $200 million dedicated to the relief operation, some 20 per cent was being lost in the exchange -– probably less than $10 million so far.

“So the losses are significant, but not absolutely gigantic […] still, it’s a significant problem that needs to be addressed,” he said, noting that FECs had existed before Cyclone Nargis, so the issue of their devaluation could not necessarily be tied to that disastrous event.

Responding to several questions about who benefited from the fluctuating exchange rates, he said aid agencies dealt with currency traders, not the Government.  Still, the United Nations was trying to investigate the reasons behind the devaluation of the FEC.

One correspondent asked why, with such a large portion of the overall amount being affected by the FEC fluctuations, the issue had not been raised by OCHA during the launch of the revised appeal.  Another sought to know what amount of “runoff” OCHA was willing to accept.

Mr. Holmes responded: “Obviously we would like to have a situation where there was no exchange loss.  The ideal situation would be if we could pay with our dollars and get the market rate back in kyat […] and that is what we’re asking for.”  Whether that could be achieved was another question, especially since any organization working in a country had to operate according to the rules of the host Government.  Those rules had been in place for a long time, but the problem was growing because the spread had widened so much.  “Perhaps we were a bit slow to recognize -- because the spread suddenly widened in June -– how big a problem this was going to become for us.  We have recognized it and are taking it up with the Government.”

Clearly, OCHA’s position was that the current situation was not acceptable “when we’re losing 20 per cent, even if it’s only on some of our expenditures”, he continued.  OCHA was aware that donors were concerned about the matter, so everyone was interested in finding a practical solution.  “This is a complicated issue, which we’ve had some time getting our heads around.”  When OCHA had presented the revised appeal, officials had not been aware of the extent of the loss.  “If we had known it at that time, maybe it would have been better to include it in the appeal.”

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.