Did Ban Ki-moon really save half a million lives in Burma?

Faced with criticism of his leadership style last summer, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon repeatedly defended his tenure by claiming credit for opening the door to international aid workers in Burma following Cyclone Nargis and saving more than 500,000 lives. “I have been able to speak and save about half a million civilian population from this ...

By
574567_100112_bankimoon2802.jpg
574567_100112_bankimoon2802.jpg

Faced with criticism of his leadership style last summer, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon repeatedly defended his tenure by claiming credit for opening the door to international aid workers in Burma following Cyclone Nargis and saving more than 500,000 lives.

"I have been able to speak and save about half a million civilian population from this typhoon," he told Charlie Rose last June, though he later shared the credit with the international community (the quote is 25:39 seconds into the recording).

The claim, which has gone largely unchallenged, runs contrary to the findings of the U.N.'s own emergency relief agency, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the most authoritative voice on the U.N.'s response to disasters. The agency's little- noticed December 2008, report -- titled the "Inter Agency Real Time Evaluation of the Response to Cyclone Nargis" -- concluded that "most of the live-saving activities after cyclone Nargis were carried out by national actors prior to the arrival of international agencies."

Faced with criticism of his leadership style last summer, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon repeatedly defended his tenure by claiming credit for opening the door to international aid workers in Burma following Cyclone Nargis and saving more than 500,000 lives.

“I have been able to speak and save about half a million civilian population from this typhoon,” he told Charlie Rose last June, though he later shared the credit with the international community (the quote is 25:39 seconds into the recording).

The claim, which has gone largely unchallenged, runs contrary to the findings of the U.N.’s own emergency relief agency, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the most authoritative voice on the U.N.’s response to disasters. The agency’s little- noticed December 2008, report — titled the “Inter Agency Real Time Evaluation of the Response to Cyclone Nargis” — concluded that “most of the live-saving activities after cyclone Nargis were carried out by national actors prior to the arrival of international agencies.”

The report credits local Burmese civilians, including actors, musicians, religious groups, businessmen, and, according to a source familiar with the assessment, at least one organized crime figure, with rushing to the scene of the some of the worst destruction in the days after the cyclone struck the Irrawaddy Delta.

The U.N. mounted a “relatively good overall humanitarian response” to the cyclone, the report concluded. It notes that the U.N. and its partners avoided the pitfalls of the Tsunami relief effort, where massive numbers of foreign aid organizations supplanted local relief groups, contributing to an often chaotic process of delivering assistance.

As for Ban, he has generally received high marks from international leaders for persuading Burma’s military leader, senior general Than Shwe, to allow greater levels of foreign assistance into the country. But the report provides little evidence to support Ban’s claim and credits the Association of South East Asian Nations, which includes Burma, with negotiating a vital supply bridge for food and medicines flowing in from Thailand.

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.