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Neither a carrot nor a stick

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Stories emanating from Burma (Myanmar) about the refusal of military leaders to allow international aid into the weather-beaten country are enough to make sensible people vomit. Unfortunately, Burma is only the latest in a growing list of countries that thumb their noses at the international community and its acts of humanitarian largesse.Some readers may know that I spent six weeks in Sudan in 2006 to write a story about a shipment of Manitoba wheat that was sent over as humanitarian aid. We were fortunate enough to track the wheat in Sudan, and watched it being distributed in a refugee camp in south-eastern Sudan, very near the border with Eritrea. It was, for the author, a life-changing adventure. It also ensured that I would never look at international aid the same way again.The fact is that at best, many nations accepting international aid are hostile to those trying to help them. That is not true for all nations, but in many of the neediest, aid is viewed with great scepticism and even hostility. In Sudan, the military dominated Islamic republic government has established an enormous bureaucracy to manage and manipulate aid agencies. This bureaucracy is really just an extension of a national secret police agency, and it wields enormous power.When floods ravaged communities along the Red Sea coast in 2006, aid agencies already in Sudan trying to deal with the chronic starvation sprung into action to deliver medical and food. The military refused to allow them into the area, a politically sensitive region that had been a hot bed of anti-government sentiment. To this day, aid agencies are not sure how many people died with aid that could have saved them kept just out of reach. Sudan's government continues to be one of the largest recipients of international aid in the world today. Sudan's leaders accept the aid with the understanding there is no obligation for them to change in any way; aid is apolitical and the agencies that deliver it would never require a quid pro quo.The horrible truth is that International aid is neither a carrot nor a stick when it comes to broader political issues. Most non-governmental aid agencies will not tie aid to any political or human rights goal. So, for example, aid continues to flow into Sudan's Darfur region despite the fact the government is directing a bloody ethnic battle that has displaced millions and killed hundreds of thousands. Bilateral, government-to-government aid, on the other hand sometimes does try to attach demands of democratic or political reform, but with little success.Unfortunately, some of the world's largest donors - okay, really just the United States - have been overly political about their aid. In fact, it was a widely held belief that many U.S. non-governmental agencies had been conscripted to gather intelligence for the U.S. State Department in countries like Sudan that are considered enemies. In this kind of scenario, it is easy to see how some nations, even those ruled by cruel dictators, are reluctant to open the door to aid out of a fear it will lead to a potential overthrow. That is not to say that overthrowing some of these governments wouldn't be a good idea, but only that the threat is enough to convince the worst of the worst to turn their backs on aid even at a time of great need.The only comfort we have at times like this is that despite the better efforts of the military leaders to cut off their afflicted country, the tragedy in Burma will unfold with the international community watching intently and keeping track of the loss of life. We should hope that every person who dies unnecessarily waiting for aid that never arrived will serve as another nail in the coffin of the untenable dictatorship in Burma.-30-

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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.


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