Increasing international MSF staff presence essential to delivering more aid, faster in the Myanmar Delta region
Q. Apparently the Myanmar authorities have now declared that all international experts will be allowed in the country. Is this good news?
"Of course, we welcome the news. Since the cyclone struck, three weeks ago, MSF has been trying to get more international aid workers into the Delta, particularly those with expertise in emergency situations.
"The aid assistance that has been brought into Myanmar to date still remains significantly below what is needed for the cyclone survivors. The overall aid effort has been considerably hampered by the lack of international staff on the ground.
"Now, hopefully, MSF will be able to bring more international emergency experts into Myanmar - most urgently to the Delta region, the worst-affected area. However, in the coming few days we will see if this new declaration by the authorities becomes a reality followed by action.
"Normally, in a situation like this, MSF would send in a lot more international staff with experience in emergency response to natural disasters. As a result of the inability to bring all our international staff we needed into the country, three weeks after Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawady Delta, our aid deployment looks like we have only been on the ground for seven days.
"The response would usually happen much faster as our international staff would work with the national staff to respond to needs. However, in Myanmar, because of restrictions that stopped all our international staff getting in, we are having to support the national staff in their relief efforts to help survivors. But these national staff do not have the past experience or expertise of working in emergency situations.
"In addition, the national staff and their own families have also been affected by and are suffering because of the cyclone.
"Despite the huge effort and commitment of our national staff, we clearly lack the expertise and experience of our international teams. Aid could be delivered much faster if they were present.
"(Just) before the declaration, the authorities refused five MSF visas. To date, less than ten MSF international emergency workers have been given permission to work in four locations in the Delta
area. Currently we have more than 20 staff in Yangon waiting to get to the Delta region. These aid workers are needed to accelerate the pace of our relief effort and to support the life-saving work being carried out by the national Myanmar staff over the last three weeks.
Reliance on our national staff
"In the first phase of our aid operations, our sole focus was obviously to get urgent supplies and medical care to those most affected by the cyclone. All the aid MSF has brought into Myanmar is controlled by MSF, from arrival in the country to distribution to the cyclone survivors. To do this we relied, and continue to rely, heavily upon our national staff - most of whom have worked for many years with MSF in Myanmar and many of whom are in senior management positions.
"These national staff have done, and continue to do, vital work. We are confident of the integrity with which our teams have carried out their work to help those affected by the cyclone and of the services these MSF teams managed to supply on the ground.
"We are in constant contact with these MSF teams who tell us of their progress and the challenges they face. Obviously, in a situation like this, the delivery of aid can be complicated.
"We are aware of a couple of instances when we lost partial control over our distributions of aid, but were able to amend this. For instance, in one village the military insisted that they were in charge of distributing the rice. However, a senior MSF Myanmar doctor intervened and the military allowed us to distribute our own rice to those who were in need.
"On another occasion our team was simply not large enough to simultaneously carry out medical consultations, water and sanitation in addition to food distributions. So we gave a number of bags of rice to a local village committee to distribute themselves. Thankfully these instances represent a very small fraction of total aid distributions and local MSF teams were able to correct them."