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Burma Aid Effort Progressing - UN Relief Official

Progress being made on Myanmar aid effort, says UN's top relief official

28 July 2008 - A degree of normality has returned to some areas affected by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, and there are visible signs of progress in reconstruction, the United Nations' top relief official said today after returning from a three-day visit, though he cautioned that there was no room for complacency.

"Quite a lot of progress has been made since I was last there two months ago - a lot of houses have been repaired since we were last there, a lot of work has been done on schools and clinics to try and get them back into better shape, and it was possible to see a lot of activity going on in the fields," John Holmes, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters in New York today.

Mr. Holmes also said that access for international aid workers to the affected areas in the Ayeyarwady Delta was now in place, and that hundreds were currently deployed there.

Stressing that a relief coordination group consisting of the Government of Myanmar, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the UN was working well, Mr. Holmes, who is also the Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that he was pleased that an agreement had been reached on extending the group's collaboration for at least another year.

The Under-Secretary-General said he hoped at least some of the five helicopters currently flown by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Myanmar would continue to operate for another three months to ensure that aid agencies could reach the remote areas.

"We can't say for certain that we've reached 100 per cent of the affected people but... we can say that we have reached virtually everyone with some kind of aid," Mr. Holmes added. "The main challenge for the next few months is to ensure a more systematic pipeline of aid for the next six to nine months because people, particularly in the more remote areas where it's still very hard to reach, will need quite a lot of help for some time to come."

Mr. Holmes said that, out of a UN appeal for $482 million to deal with the effects of the devastating cyclone, about $200 million had been committed so far.

He added that UN agencies, as well as other aid groups, had been affected by fluctuating exchange rates for foreign exchange certificates which the Myanmar Government issues to foreign organizations buying goods and services in the country.

When the certificates are in turn exchanged for local currency with traders, the UN has been making a loss of up to 25 per cent, although the average has been about 15 per cent.

Mr. Holmes explained that about a third of the $200 million so far spent by UN agencies in Myanmar had been used on buying local products and services, which meant that approximately $10 million had been lost on the trades.

"This clearly is a significant problem in terms of the loss that is made on the exchange of the dollar - that's why we've raised it with the Government now. We hope that they will work with us to try to find a practical solution, which is what they said they would do, and we are pressing them very hard to do that."

Overall, Mr. Holmes said he was encouraged by what he saw and by his discussions with the Government, but warned that aid efforts still needed ongoing support.

"It's clear that there's absolutely no room for complacency in this - there's still a lot to do to make the relief operation a lasting success - to reach everybody with all that they need for a sustained period," he said.

ENDS

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