Disaster Diplomacy: Foreign Donations to Disaster-hit Areas in the US

From severe flooding in Pakistan to post-tsunami destruction in Southeast Asia, the United States (US) government has used foreign aid as both a gesture of goodwill and a diplomatic tool aimed at bolstering positive perceptions of the country. Using direct financial assistance, human capital, and advanced technological assistance, the US government has used emergency relief funding as a way of stemming negative views of US foreign policy.

Image courtesy of United States Navy, ©2007, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of United States Navy, ©2007, some rights reserved.

The outpouring of US aid, totalling more than $950 million to the littoral countries affected by the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, is illustrative of the large financial commitments by the US government to disaster-hit areas. US aid to the region was not only seen as essential in helping the thousands of coastal communities that were destroyed by the destruction of the tsunami, but was also seen as a diplomatic opportunity by the Bush Administration to truncate increasing global hostility towards the US in light of its decision to go to war in Iraq one year earlier.

Most often than not, this so-called ‘disaster diplomacy’ has been used by Western countries in disaster-hit areas of developing countries. More recently, however, the disaster diplomacy trend has come full circle with emerging countries now offering financial assistance in disaster-hit areas in the US as a way to ameliorate the image of the donor country in the eyes of a sometimes skeptical US public.

Although the US is still the largest provider of foreign aid to impoverished countries, the number of donations by emerging countries such as China, India, and the Persian Gulf states has been steadily increasing. The recipients of these emerging countries’ aid have not only targeted impoverished countries in Africa and central Asia, but have also targeted impoverished and disaster-prone areas in the US.

Take the example of the May 2011 tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri. The mile-wide tornado, which killed 161 people, destroyed most of the city’s infrastructure, including the city’s sole high school and hospital. Two weeks after the disaster, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Ambassador offered to donate millions of dollars to the Joplin public school and health systems.

Over 2,200 MacBook laptops were purchased by the UAE to be given to Joplin high school students for lessons, homework, and online tests. Five million dollars were additionally spent to build a neonatal intensive-care unit at the city’s Mercy Hospital.

Although the US has previously accepted donations from private philanthropic ventures, the donations from the UAE government are illustrative of a growing trend in foreign donations that are given directly from the governments themselves.

Some have linked the UAE’s generous donations to the failed takeover of six US ports by a Dubai-based firm in 2006 after the deal was stymied due to the overwhelming political opposition and misperceptions of the country from the US general public. Although one of the September 11th hijackers was an Emirati citizen, the UAE has been a key US ally in the Gulf region in defence, nuclear non-proliferation, trade, energy policy, and security. The donations are therefore viewed as an effective economic tool to court US public opinion towards a favourable view of the UAE.

Similarly, a few European countries have also begun to donate to disaster-hit areas in the US. Many European countries, themselves huge donors of foreign aid to impoverished regions of the world, have coupled their goodwill intentions with ambitions to create new business ties to reconstruction efforts in disaster-hit areas.

Hurricane Katrina provides another example in the new trend of ‘disaster diplomacy’ being played out in the US. As with the failed US ports takeover by the Dubai-based firm, a few European countries had offered direct assistance in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as both an act of goodwill and a possible stepping-stone to long-term business ventures in the region.

In particular, the Dutch government had sent a naval frigate with humanitarian assistance including food and medical supplies, as well as water pumps and operational experts to New Orleans. The US, in turn, sent a delegation to inspect how water is managed in Holland’s low-lying marsh plains.

Dutch enterprises seized on the goodwill mission as an opportunity to promote their knowledge of water management issues in the hopes of gaining future business contracts in the New Orleans area. As with the Ambassador from the UAE, officials from the Dutch Ministry of Transportation and Water Management, along with the Dutch Crown Prince, offered aid and recommendations to the US government. The diplomatic overtures eventually led to a visit by a New Orleans trade delegation to study the Dutch Delta Works projects involving dams, locks, dikes, and levees, all with the possibility of creating new business contracts.

Without the Dutch government’s initial assistance of food and medical supplies, it might have been more difficult for private Dutch companies to establish transnational trade visits with American delegations; they instead might have been referred to submit their proposals through a tedious bureaucratic bidding process.

Hurricane Sandy, which affected millions of people along the Atlantic seaboard of the US late last year, cut power to millions in the New York City area and caused over 200 deaths. Entire neighbourhoods in the various city boroughs were destroyed and many foreign individuals reached out to donate to those affected by the hurricane. One of the major donors to New York City’s Breezy Point neighbourhood in the city’s Queens Borough was from the Republic of Ireland.

The neighbourhood, which is predominantly Irish-American, received assistance from the Irish Consulate through “Irish Days of Action” in which thousands of volunteers were bussed into the community to help in reconstruction and community support efforts. The Irish government also pledged more than $320,000 in aid to victims throughout the region.

The over 34 million Irish descendants that live in America far surpass the nearly six million inhabitants of both Ireland and Northern Ireland today. Consequently, the Irish government’s efforts to help those affected by Hurricane Sandy is seen not only as an act of goodwill from a long-time American ally, but also serves as an act of diplomacy to reciprocate the help given from the expatriate community during times of past conflict. In addition, the Irish government has heavily invested in luring Irish-American descendants to visit their ancestral homes as a way of boosting the country’s tourism revenue and aid its sluggish economy.

Although the concept of ‘disaster diplomacy’ is nothing new in regards to foreign donations in disaster-hit areas, donations directly from foreign governments to US communities and the acceptance of those donations by the US government is new. It remains to be seen what impact, if any, donations from the Irish or UAE governments will have on the opinions of Americans living outside of the disaster-stricken areas. It is hoped, however, that foreign donations to the US will provide not only greater international business ties, but will also aid in averting any future diplomatic storms of their own.