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Aid is increasingly a placeholder for doing something when nothing else works

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Mukesh Kapila CBE is the former United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan. He is Professor Emeritus of Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs, University of Manchester; and Senior Adviser to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean. He has served in senior positions at the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, United Nations, World Health Organization, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and advised many multilateral institutions including the World Bank, UN agencies, and NGOs. His many awards include a CBE from King Charles III, a Global Citizenship Award of the Institute for Global Leadership, the “I Witness!” award for human rights, and a special resolution of the California State Legislature for “lifetime achievements and meritorious service”. http://mukeshkapila.org/ and Twitter @mukeshkapila

The prevailing tendency of Western foreign policymakers is to co-opt humanitarian aid in projecting soft power, especially when hard power via military or economic coercion fails. Whenever politicians, soldiers, diplomats, and money controllers fail, humanitarians are dispatched.

The Drogheda United football club’s crescent and star emblem is unusual for Catholic Ireland. The story goes that this pays tribute to the Ottoman Empire that sent food aid during devastating 19th-century famines. Was this to embarrass the British Empire that misgoverned the Irish at that time or was it expedient collaboration between Ottoman and British allies in confronting their common adversary, the Russian Tsar?

Why are historians so cynical as to even ask such questions? Why can’t they believe that the kindly Turks were simply moved by the plight of a million starving Irish?

Ambivalence has always accompanied humanitarianism. Whose agenda does it serve and why? That was a central question during the Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union and the West for the hearts and minds of developing countries. Or now with humanitarian relief trickling into Gaza: is this genuine concern for its appalling suffering or a political plaster to make Israel’s war more palatable?

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East crisis news hub

Benefactors and beneficiaries have mixed feelings towards each other. On one hand, all faiths prescribe generosity to qualify for entering the Kingdom of God. But the virtue-seeker is miffed if the recipient does not grovel in gratitude. However, recipients feel humiliated when their distress is blatantly rubbed into their faces. The temptation to bite the hand that feeds you is understandable.

Also, there is a degree of stigma that hangs around the victims of wars and disasters, even as they are pitied. Perhaps they were rash in going down the path of aggression? Or careless towards their environment and invoked the wrath of the gods with floods and other disasters? Or were they too feckless to save during good days for lean times? Thus, even as dribs of humanitarian relief are bestowed, a subconscious cloud of blame and shame hovers overhead.

Such psycho-dynamics — to give is noble, to receive is demeaning — are inherent in human makeup even as we recognise them as unworthy sentiments. Consequently, a huge global humanitarian industry has grown with norms, principles, laws, and institutions to bridge our cognitive dissonance by trying to foster respect and dignity for those who suffer misfortune.

But we face an uphill struggle as testified by daily headlines of frontline humanitarians risking their lives and enduring more and more obstacles to deliver less and less succour.

That is not helped by the prevailing tendency of Western foreign policymakers to co-opt humanitarian aid in projecting soft power. Especially when hard power via military or economic coercion fails. Whenever politicians, soldiers, diplomats, and money controllers fail — which they often do in our multipolar, fractured world — humanitarians are despatched.

Enter the humanitarians

Aid is increasingly, therefore, a placeholder for doing something when nothing else works.

Worse is when humanitarian soft power is deployed alongside hard-power bullying. This is part of the doctrine of many armies who even have dedicated civil affairs battalions. The military views this as force protection through winning community trust in conflict zones by building schools, providing medical care and so on.

The optics of humanitarian work are also useful to warmongering politicians to counter protests by their own appalled publics. Meanwhile, investors and entrepreneurs salivate at the prospect of the lucrative post-war reconstruction bonanza. After all, wars are good business for those who have capital and contacts to exploit the opportunities that flow from destruction.

So they plan and prepare ahead — as earlier in Iraq and now in Ukraine — by getting close to — and possibly subverting or corrupting the aid system.

But receiving populations are quite sophisticated. They recognise self-serving intentions and become suspicious of humanitarians operating alongside actors with different aims.

The post-9/11 Afghanistan debacle with the Nato-commanded International Security Assistance Force is the perfect illustration of the problems of intimate military-civilian cohabitation. The same has happened with multi-mandated UN peace support operations in, for example, DRC, Haiti, Iraq and South Sudan, or earlier with West African military peacekeepers in Liberia. The intervenors quickly outlived their original welcome before themselves becoming part of the problem.

In short, our painful experience is that instrumentalising humanitarian aid in conflict contexts to serve security, economic, or political goals is ineffective. It could even deepen or prolong crises such as Syria or Yemen. It is also immoral to exploit human desperation and suffering for wider leverage.

Donors and agendas

Humanitarians should, therefore, be left alone to pursue their sole objective to save lives and relieve suffering. Those with other goals — however valid — such as countering terrorism or negotiating peace deals, can best help humanitarians by not distracting or co-opting them.

There is a wider geo-political insight. Countries that are relatively un-influential in terms of security, economic, or political clout can boost their image through humanitarian soft power. But only if they wield this with subtlety and integrity. Perhaps that is why Scandinavian donors rank highly in global public perception, although their aid provision is quite small in absolute dollar terms.

That contrasts with much bigger humanitarian contributors like the US and UK who are actively disliked in many quarters. Perhaps because their aid-diplomacy-security nexus is too intertwined and seen to serve their own interests.

The world’s second-biggest donor — the European Union — subjugates its humanitarian generosity to intense domestic pressure for migration control. That involves striking shabby carrot-and-stick deals with southern Mediterranean neighbours.

Conditioning aid in this way undermines the moral leadership that the EU desperately seeks.

Pursuing consistency and coherence to tackle complex world problems such as conflicts, climate change, poverty, suffering, injustice and inequalities is well-intended logic. But, in our world of numerous contradictions, a holistic or comprehensive approach where all problems and solutions are interconnected is inherently risky. It means paralysis to progress where we can because of being held back elsewhere. Especially when divergent national interests are in contention.

Asia influence

As traditional Western donors come to the limits of leveraging humanitarian assistance for political and security ends, what are the newly assertive Asian powers doing? Their enormous clout as the world’s second and fifth biggest economies raises expectations that China and India can contribute much to relieve global suffering.

However, it is early days as their humanitarian budgets are still small and their focus is more on development and trade through, for example, China’s Belt-and-Road initiative or the marketing of India’s IT proficiency and medical products and services.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Biden’s push for revamp of Lobito Corridor may pinch toes of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

The Covid-19 pandemic had a strong influence on their humanitarian policies with China providing protective supplies and India manufacturing vaccines in large quantities.

Both of these great nations seek stronger world influence and their foreign policies explicitly include aid in their toolkits.

However, the Asia-Pacific is dominated by increased securitisation because of its many international disputes. Accordingly, new offensive-defensive alliances have sprung up, also incorporating foreign aid.

Meanwhile, humanitarian assistance has always been militarised as Chinese and Indian forces and logistics have long been first responders to disasters, both at home and abroad.

While emergency humanitarian relief is usually welcomed by those in desperate need, it does not always buy trust. Both China and India must be disappointed in their competitive quest for hearts and minds around the developing world with public opinion surveys, especially in Africa, indicating a mixed picture. Suspicion of motives is the underlying concern, just as it is for Western donors.

Other donors such as UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are analysing the lessons from West and East. They also have strong, interventionist foreign policies with diplomatic and security components, even as they seek influence through generous foreign aid.

Perhaps because this is shaped by their Islamic tradition, it is relatively smart through paralleling — not merging — the hard and soft power tracks, at least in terms of public perception. That does not remove their foreign policy contradictions but it is a right step towards protecting the integrity of humanitarian aid.

The newer donors from the Middle East and Asia must avoid the mistakes of the older Western ones. Not least because their aid-receiving African and other clients are not so naïve and blindly trusting as in the past. They have more choices nowadays on who they want to receive help from, and on which terms.

Therefore, it is wiser for donors from all corners of the world — despite the different geopolitical pressures on them — to always make ethical and moral partnerships that benefit the poor and suffering for their own sake and resist the temptation of gaining leverage from this in the political, security or economic spheres.

That is not just a pious wish. It could be a win-win for all countries to achieve their own legitimate interests as members of our — albeit fractured — community of nations. DM

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  • Chris Brand says:

    The worldwide problem currently is that the Soros Cabal with assistance from the CCP, have corrupted the so-called Western Nations to such an extent, that “Humanitarian Aid” is a big fat lie currently. Especially where the UN, WEF, WHO, Mass Media, “One-World-Order” and their allies are involved. The CCP has noticed that most Western Countries have political leaders that only bows before mammon (Lord of Money and Greed) and is using this to subvert the above stated organizations subtly with donations and so-called “assistance” (especially Africa and South America) to follow the 100 year manifesto of the CCP. The CCP even has the Soros Cabal thinking that their “One World Order” and their 30-year plan, is of their own design (they are just puppets of the CCP). The Political Leaders and their representatives at the stated institutions are but all slaves due to their own inert greed for power and money and disregard of their own populations’ own needs and they forgot that they are supposed to be subservient to their voters. Countries currently very guilty of this (due to their political leaders) are USA, UK, Canada, Venezuela, Belgium, Netherlands (Holland), Ukraine as well as most African Countries. The terrorist Organizations with their donor countries all are all just dancing in alignment of the CCP’s centuries-old agenda. When these corrupt politicians do not get compliance, they either cancel, ban, incarcerate or decline any alternative views.

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