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Not many foreign humanitarian workers have been allowed into Burma in the wake of Nargis, but there was already an aid community in Burma, working quietly on humanitarian, economic development, and health projects. And a few hundred aid workers and journalists have managed to get in. A friend happened to have a visa and is one of them. He’s investigating the role of information in humanitarian assistance in this most difficult of cases, and allowed me to share his posts.

In more open circumstances, projects to provide humanitarian information to victims, support for local journalism and media communities to cover relief and reconstruction efforts, and projects to ensure that the voices and perspectives of victims are heard would be able to openly coordinate and collaborate with all aspects of the relief effort. They’d be working with grassroots and national efforts, with international agencies, and government projects. In Burma, while it’s possible to imagine such projects, the challenge is mostly political – building relationships, coordinating with external government assistance, the UN and other agencies that could provide legitimate access, and debating whether and how to work more informally.

At the same time, in Yangoon, life is picking up again and that odd quiet that follows a disaster seems to have fallen over the city. My friend writes:

It’s a very peculiar place to be, Rangoon, right now, because life feels pretty normal even though you know that just a few km away, there’s terrible death and destruction and yet nothing we can do about it. So the few hundred Westerners who’ve managed to get in to Burma to “help out” hang out in the city’s dozen decent-class hotel bars in the evenings, talking about past disasters and lamenting our uselessness in this one. During the day we all work hard figuring out what we might do if only we were allowed into the disaster area and relating stories about who tried to get in and failed.

Being an ICT junkie, he’s spending his time mulling over Internet and telecoms access in Yangoon – and noticing that despite the disaster, incremental improvement in access continues. Two years ago, for instance, Internet cafes were few, and the atmosphere somewhat hostile. That’s changed, surprisingly, even in the wake of the monk’s protests of 2007. For those interested in the details, he reports:

One of my favorite internet cafes in Yangon is Spider Web, which is buried deep inside the second building up the street from the Park Royal hotel. It’s big, it’s fast (well, relatively), they are happy to help you plug in your own computer (e.g. the cybercafé control software doesn’t require client software to allow access) or circumvent or whatever. It’s also a fun place–full of people generally enjoying themselves–raucous youth gaming (often betting), students looking earnest, mid-aged folks e-mailing or even VoIPing with relatives, tech people congregating to exchange hardware or computing literature, etc.

I attach a picture of their sign which I took in January–it’s now completely gone (presumably because of the cyclone). This time (compared to three months ago), they had a little store attached to it which sells, pretty much exclusively, networking stuff. Among the 12 different models of 802.11x APs they had in stock 5 min ago, the cheapest was MMK70K (USD1 = MMK1100). The cheapest 802.11x NIC was MMK50K.

Unlike three months ago, many of the hotels and internet cafes now have wi-fi, although they don’t always know how to use it well. So, it’s arrived in a major way.

I’ve now had two taxi drivers who, when they see me pull my computer out to work & call on my way between meetings, grin and say “internet!” … so there’s some knowledge diffusion going on … even if they don’t generally use the internet themselves …

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