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Asia-Pacific

Can Myanmar cope with aid influx?

media Floods in Myanmar last August Care Myanmar

In the two years since Myanmar began democratic reforms, many countries have lifted sanctions against the formerly military-ruled country. International aid and financing are once again flowing into Myanmar. But, as NGOs expand their presence in Mynamar, there are concerns the country may lack the capacity to absorb the sudden influx of money.

It’s a blisteringly hot April afternoon in Yangon, but there's some relief to be had in the air-conditioned offices of one of the largest NGOs operating in Myanmar.

Foreign NGOs have been playing an increasingly important role in Myanmar since it opened to the world, argues

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Brian Agland who has been running development programmes for the international aid organisation, Care international, from Yangon since 2007.

"I think there's been a couple of significant events," he says. "One of which is Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which, despite all the destruction and death that it caused, did change the environment for aid organisations in that we were able to work effectively and efficiently with the government and deliver some very good humanitarian responses.

"The second thing was the election in 2010 where we've seen a more democratically elected government. Many governments, including Australia, the US and EU, have lifted sanctions, which means we are able to work more closely with the government which we weren't able to do in the past."

With sanctions lifted, international funds, both from donor agencies and from foreign direct investment, are pouring into the country.

Japan alone has recently promised around 200 million euros in aid to Myanmar and many countries are following suit.

"In terms of NGOs and donor community, Burma is a newcomer," comments Tow Zaw Latt of the Democratic Voice of Burma, a news agency founded by exiles in Norway with an office in Yangon. "There are lots of things to do with very little capacity."

He says that Myanmar may be unprepared for a sudden influx in international aid.

"There will be more development assistance, more humanitarian assistance, more transitional related issues, more peace and reconciliation issues," he points out. "But it's almost 50 years closed country. How are they going to cope with all this massive amount of humanitarian help?"

As the international NGO sector expands, local NGOs are also taking advantage of new freedoms as Myanmar reforms.

Sigh Nyi Nyi works for an organisation that provides art and music lessons to underprivileged children.

"In the past we had to be very careful with security," he says. "We were under watch by the government, this why we quietly implemented our programs in the monastic school, to protect us and for our safety. Now it is more open to do this project everywhere and we don't need permission to that."

With greater freedom to operate and the promise of an influx of international aid money, NGOs in Myanmar look set to play a defining role as the country's democratic process continues to evolve.

But, as aid money floods in, could it be too much cash, too soon?

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