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Piggy banks and unequal partners: Non-Western powers in humanitarian action

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 11 Feb 2013 15:48 GMT
Author: Andras Horvath, GPPi
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At last, non-Western powers pledged to cover more than two-thirds of the $1.5 billion worth United Nations appeal for Syria, the ”largest short-term humanitarian appeal ever”. This sum is directed to meet the soaring humanitarian needs, particularly to assist Syrian refugees whose number is expected to double this year. Is Syria then an example of the new world of humanitarian aid where the West is no longer the only relevant player?

According to the UN’s Financial Tracking Service, BRICS and Gulf countries paid collectively less than $20 million or about 5% of all reported contributions to Syria last year. A closer look reveals, however, that a Saudi fundraising campaign for Syria collected over $117 million by last August. Turkey spent over $225 million for Syrian refugees within its borders. The United Arab Emirates sent 114 tons of relief items to assist Syrian refugees and Russia dispatched 105 tons of emergency supplies. Unsurprisingly, Iran also provided humanitarian aid to Syria.

Emerging powers are heavily involved in humanitarian operations, but often channel aid through intransparent mechanisms and only on occasion report their humanitarian donations to the UN. So far, most of these donors have been reluctant to commit to multilateral funding mechanisms and opted to act outside the Western-dominated humanitarian system.

The recent donor conference for Syria is therefore a remarkable success for the UN and a great relief for fiscally grappling Western donors (granted pledges are fulfilled). Yet, we shouldn’t assume that non-Western powers are now drastically changing their approach, for Syria is but an exception to the rule. Three Gulf countries – Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – were behind the bulk of the pledges for Syria, highlighting the strictly regional motifs for action. Meanwhile, the fundamental qualms about the current humanitarian system that rendered many previous fundraising visits unsuccessful have not been addressed.

Non-Western powers are not keen on becoming piggy banks of a Western dominated humanitarian system. In relevant coordination fora, such as donor support groups, governments buy influence through supporting the UN bureaucracy’s operational costs. Instead of competing with Western donors within multilateral organizations, non-Western powers, such as China, India and Saudi Arabia will continue to provide humanitarian aid bilaterally to the affected countries and thus reap soft power directly.

When governments offer to help, their unconditional support for the plight of suffering civilians unreservedly appeases international and domestic constituencies. Dispatching convoys of trucks dressed in national colors drives home a much stronger message than a non-ceremonial wire transfer to United Nations offices in Geneva, Rome or New York.

Despite the good intentions, these lone wolf operations carry a high risk for causing harm to civilians. Humanitarian organizations time and again dump food, cash and other assistance without assessing how that would affect the lives of locals and the conflict dynamics on the micro level. Way too often, partisan interests and not need determine who receives aid.

This new fragmentation risks undoing the improvements to the humanitarian system that were the hard lessons learned from the tragic mishaps following the Rwandan genocide and the Indian Ocean tsunami. This time around, however, it is the boom of non-Western actors, which ferments operational silos and eludes coordination. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the BRICS and the West don’t talk to each other – and this is not unique to Syria.

To avoid making the same mistake twice, we need to seize their newly found lenience and restructure the humanitarian system with the inclusion of non-Western powers. But unlike before, these efforts need to be strategic. In lieu of dummy piggy banks, it’s time we consider non-Western donors as equal partners.  

There are a few promising signs. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is hosting regional donor meetings in Latin America, Europe and Asia and has recently established a Partnerships and Resource Mobilization Branch. A few government agencies are following suit. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) established the Office of Donor Engagement in 2010 and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) groomed the Emerging Powers Team in 2011.

Rather than formulating clear objectives, donor engagement offices operate with long-term and fuzzy goals, covering a wide range of topics from humanitarian policy to development cooperation. These new bureaucracies exert soft power and bolster good relations. Their impact is difficult to measure, but expanding on their role can bring about a change in the Western-dominated humanitarian system.

At minimum, such offices help shift communication with New Delhi, Beijing or Brasilia on humanitarian issues from monologues to dialogues. Today, the same group of Western countries lectures emerging powers on how to provide development, as well as humanitarian assistance. The new Dialogue on Humanitarian Partnership initiated by Brazil and Sweden is therefore a refreshingly inclusive platform to discuss humanitarian policy. This club of 18 includes, among others, Qatar, Turkey, Brazil, China, Russia, South Africa and India.

There are a number of fundamental questions to mull over. In conflicts, humanitarian principles such as impartiality and neutrality lay at the foundations of nonpolitical humanitarian action. Most Western donors do not even ponder renegotiating these principles and criticize those who are suspect to politicize humanitarian aid and collaborate with armed groups. But, as Médecins sans Frontières has recently exposed, operational realities in the field often demand controversial approaches and taking sides for everyone. Western donors need to stop preaching water and drinking wine.

Sadly, talking to UN ambassadors is not enough, for their interest in humanitarian action is rarely prominent. Western governments and their engagement offices need to address the respective foreign ministries and development agencies directly. All the more so as sustained dialogue will create incentives for emerging powers to establish similar offices with similar effects.

If Western donors are open for dialogue and willing to review how crises are being addressed, strategically engaging emerging powers will result in more coordination and inclusiveness. This is the only way to avert the unnecessary harm to civilians caused by fragmented humanitarian response. On the long run, a more integrated and legitimate humanitarian system will invite bigger contributions for multilateral appeals well beyond Syria.

We should not let the success of the donor conference for Syria fool us into inaction. The humanitarian system needs to be reviewed with an eye on the interests and representation of non-Western actors. For this to materialize, emerging powers need to raise the profile of humanitarian action within their own bureaucracies to become capable and strong partners in dialogue. Western donors, by the same token, should extend talks beyond the UN and start negotiating the reforms needed to mold a truly global humanitarian system. After that, we can afford to muddle through for another decade.

Andras Horvath is a research associate with the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi)

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