Band Aids

April 15, 2014

Band Aids.

Sole water sourceI have one on the bottom of my foot. I have a hole there big enough to put the tip of my pinky finger into. It’s been a pain in my ass for the last two weeks. A pain in my foot, not my ass, but you get the point.

But that’s not the Band Aid I’m talking about here.

I just finished a late dinner with my Health Program Manager on the veranda of this lush hotel overlooking a pool tastefully lit by underwater lights, coconut palms with the same aesthetically pleasing lighting and the neighboring surf reminding me of the rhythms of this billion year-old earth.

We talked about Band Aids. The kind of Band Aids I feel I’ve been applying my entire career.

The problems that exist here in Myanmar, and the particular ones I’m dealing with in Rakhine, are systemic issues that prevailed decades before I arrived and will endure for decades or more after I leave. My Program Manager and I were listening to the surf and pondering a last plunge in the pool when we received a message from one of our national staff that there was an outbreak of diarrhea in one of the camps my organization manages. Immediate medical assistance was needed. Keep in mind:

1) This is Thingyan and practically no one is working right now; practically everyone is on vacation and partying;

2) The humanitarian community was just attacked in Rakhine and nearly every office, guest house and emergency response infrastructure was destroyed;

3) The government has still not given us full clearance to return to the camps; only limited access has been approved based on location and particular critical “emergency” response;

4) The implementation of our water and sanitation program in one of our camps has always suffered from intimidation and threats from the local community and a government that has not protected our right to carry out our humanitarian program according to international standards.

So I texted our staff Myanmar medical doctor in Yangon (because my phone wouldn’t call) to request he call the Township Medical Officer to go to the camp and provide assistance and medicine. He replied the TMO was unavailable (there’s Thingyan for ya!), but he contacted the Township Administrator who said he would follow-up in the morning. My Program Manager and I sent a slew of other text messages to various people with the hope that there will be an early morning visit to the camp.

Early wake-up tomorrow. More calls. More text messages. More waiting. In the meantime, 50 people – and who knows how many more by tomorrow – are suffering severe diarrhea.

But does the township care?  Does the government care?  Who cares? The Muslim population here is unwanted. Apartheid is advancing. Who cares if 50 or more people are shitting themselves through the night in a camp where there are no lights, uneven, unsafe dirt pathways to the reeking latrines and limited clean water and soap to clean yourself up afterwards. Who cares?


Meanwhile, my Program Manager and I started to debate the hotel we sit at. This place must have cost millions to build. I asked, and was told it’s owned by a Myanmar citizen. Who in Myanmar has this sort of money?  The answer is simple: a crony. A crony is an individual who for years under military rule amassed wealth that would easily put them in the top 1% income bracket in the U.S. He is, or was, a high-ranking official in the military. Military or ex-military officials exist at all levels of this ‘democracy’ today. How do you amass such sums in one of the most impoverished nations in the world?  The irony is that this is a country rich in natural resources. It has the most abundant water supply of any country in Asia. It’s rich in gemstones, natural gas, teak wood, minerals, fish and rice. For the 50+ years the military ruled here these cronies used slave labor, forced labor and child labor to extract these resources. They pushed people and entire villages off land their ancestors had been farming for countless generations. They still do it in this pseudo-democracy. I hate to even utter the word ‘democracy’ in this land. It’s a sham.

This crony no doubt owns a 10,000 square foot mansion or two in Yangon and most likely another one or two in Nay Pyi Taw, Mandalay, or maybe even in Singapore or Macau. The staff at this hotel will take their $100 a month job because that’s all they can get. The hotel dresses them in their clean, finely pressed uniforms and teaches them all the courtesies they’re expected to deliver through word and action. From where I sit it all seems so rehearsed, so forced. Yet I don’t want to take away how absolutely kind, attentive and courteous they all are. I truly believe they’d greet me with the same smiles and politeness outside the walls of this “Neverland”.

Photo Apr 13, 22 42 33

The government supports a health system incapable of responding to the most basic needs of its masses. The education system is developing, but it teaches children what to do, not how to think. My organization currently funds a health program in one of the townships in Rakhine State. We have a six month contract with a Myanmar medical association to provide basic health services, immunizations and child and maternal health. What happens if that six month contract with our donor doesn’t get renewed?  Who fills the gap?  Where’s the sustainability? Don’t expect the government to step in!

We provide Band Aids. That’s what I’ve been providing my entire career, it seems – Band Aids. I come in, there’s a contract from a donor organization that has a specific scope of work and timeframe. In my 30 years in this field I’ve seen little sustainability in much of the work I’ve done. Sure, the right words are always in the contract – capacity-building, sustainability, training, support, local involvement. But why do I keep applying Band Aids to the same problems everywhere I go?

The problems I’m confronting are systemic. They result from greedy governments, complacency, indifference, corruption. Not in all cases, but in many where I’ve worked. It’s definitely the case here. This is a resource-rich country. But the money ends up in the hands of a few while the masses suffer. And if you’re a Muslim in Rakhine, you’re just one step above being  considered human. I may be going too far with that statement given the behavior of so many people in Rakhine State.

I could go on and on and on and on. Our conversation went in circles. We always seemed to come back to the same point – there’s only so much we can do in our roles here. We apply Band Aids. Long-term solutions?  It’s not something I see anyone working on here.

Band Aids.

I’m tired. My foot aches. I need to clean it and apply a Band Aid before I climb into bed. I’ll take it off in the morning, apply a new one and repeat that for hopefully only a few more days. I’m tired of the pain in the bottom of my foot. Pain in my ass!

I’m tired of constantly applying Band Aids.

4 thoughts on “Band Aids

    • Sometimes it’s hard to see through the fog of the years, Bob. There are so many places that need major surgery. But I hear what you’re saying and it causes me to reflect deeper on the help I try so desperately to give. So many times it just seems lost and buried under greed, hatred, corruption… Thank you for your words, my friend!

  1. Ken, I’ll do my best to try from here in Rakhine. Internet’s not as cooperative here as in Yangon, but worth a try. It’s useless once I return to Sittwe, so I need to give it a go while I’m here in Ngapali.

    So glad to hear I can make you chuckle. Helps me adjust my perspective and not take it all so personally. Now you have me laughing. Hope to talk soon. Be well!

    • Ken, I wish I had the internet access to explore the information you sent me. As soon as I return to Yangon I should be able to connect and learn more about what you’ve been working on. Sending my best! Steve

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