Discussion of International Crisis Group’s controversial December briefing on humanitarian aid in Burma continued this month with a response by the group’s president, Gareth Evans, to a critique issued by Open Society Institute President Aryeh Neier last week.

This ‘presidential’ debate appears to turn on the reasons behind the withdrawal from Burma in 2005 of the Global Fund, which had proposed a US $98 million grant to fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in the country.

ICG blames US-based lobby organizations and others in Washington-particularly Senator Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, Michele Bohana of the Institute for Asian Democracy, Chris Beyerer of Johns Hopkins University and OSI itself-for trying to “restrict and micro-manage aid flows” in an effort that ultimately “undermined sensitive negotiations with the government over operational conditions,” the ICG briefing states.

Neier notes in his critique that the Global Fund official responsible for green-lighting the withdrawal, the then chief of operations Brad Herbert, was not interviewed for the ICG briefing, and indeed contradicted the briefing’s assessment of the reasons behind the withdrawal. Evans acknowledges that “it would-with the benefit of hindsight-have been appropriate to seek out and record directly Herbert’s version of the story” and says that an offer was made privately to OSI to amend the briefing on the ICG Web site.

Evans supports ICG’s claim that Washington attempted to scuttle the Global Fund by proposing “draft legislation [that] threatened to cut almost half of US global funding to the UNDP [UN Development Programme], subject to conditions on ensuring no funding to the government or government-related NGOs that would have been extremely difficult for it to fulfil if it continued as principal recipient of Global Fund funding.”

But having described in actual terms a Congressional threat to funding, Evans later states that “at the relevant time the pressures on the Global Fund and UNDP, including threats to portions of their core funding, were certainly perceived as real by relevant participants.”

Evans’ rebuttal also attempts to broaden the scope of the briefing. “The point…was to warn of threats to the delivery of humanitarian aid.” These threats, “most seriously from the military government,” as the briefing stated, but also from advocacy groups abroad, posed a grave threat because “significant cutbacks on funding for humanitarian projects risk leaving Myanmar in so debilitated a condition that no future government will be able to deliver effective governance.”

Evans also counters another key objection raised by Neier about the use of anonymous quotations in the briefing’s footnotes. Evans defends the document’s sourcing style as standard “where there are interviews with government officials, diplomats and international civil servants who are not authorized to speak on the record, or others who believe their careers or personal security would be jeopardized by so speaking.”

The ICG briefing, as Evans notes, devoted more pages to “Burmese government restrictions on humanitarian space” than on “issues surrounding international actors and the Global Fund. Evans’ response to Neier, however, does the opposite.

“The Global Fund issue is given attention because it has been the most significant withdrawal of an aid funding group from the country and the one which raises most clearly the difficult dilemma of how far legitimately-motivated political pressure should inhibit the delivery of humanitarian assistance,” writes Evans.

He adds later: “In our judgment, the Global Fund withdrew hastily and without making sufficient efforts to resolve the situation.” In Evans’ view, they should have known better. “Given that the Global Fund controls a very significant share of global resources devoted to these diseases, it has a particular responsibility to find flexible ways to work in sensitive situations.”

While Neier defends OSI and other individuals and agencies who feel that securing humanitarian space must never contribute to the government’s ability to prolong and extend its abuse of the Burmese people, Evans counters that a failure to reverse the growing humanitarian crisis will ultimately endanger any government administration in Burma.

What both presidents fail to address directly, however, is the undercurrent of hostility between humanitarians on the ground and the dismissively termed “international actors” abroad.

“It is no coincidence,” the ICG briefing states, “that most agencies working on human rights have had their access and activities seriously curtailed, while more traditional development or humanitarian agencies have been less affected.” It is the result, according to ICG, of a perceived alliance between rights groups and the political agendas of Western governments.

Insisting that oppressive governments be taken to task for creating the humanitarian crisis ICG and Evans-and even those international actors-despair of is not incidental to the issue of aid to Burma. It is essential. Neither is it indicative of collaboration-perceived or otherwise-between international advocates and Western political agendas.

Rather, it is placing responsibility for Burma’s present humanitarian crisis squarely on the shoulders of the only indisputable threat to humanitarian aid in Burma-the generals.