In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, aid is once more on the forefront of the global agenda. The category 5 super typhoon devastated Southeast Asia, with a majority of its destruction centred on the Philippines. The death toll has surpassed 5,600 and millions have been displaced. The need for food, medical attention, and infrastructure redevelopment is immense, and international bodies like the United Nations have emphasised the necessity of foreign assistance to promote rehabilitation. While the moral responsibility of aiding suffering human beings should be enough motivation for nations to respond, committing aid is a highly politicised process that goes beyond its ethical roots.
Globalisation has brought domestic affairs to the international platform, subjecting the decisions of political leaders to criticisms from the entirety of the foreign public. Due to the newfound notion of the global citizen, the “responsibility to protect” outlined in the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty is viewed as an expectation. Even though it may not be in a state’s national interest to get involved in certain regions of conflict or disaster, leaders often choose to do so to further their reputation along with that of the state. The act of giving aid thereby becomes a soft power tool driven by self-interest rather than the responsibility to protect.
Despite appearing as a leader in the region, China has been highly criticised for its lacklustre response to Haiyan. The Asian superpower initially pledged only 100,000 USD in humanitarian aid, later augmenting the sum to 1.6 million USD. The donation of the world’s second largest economy was outdone by Swedish furniture giant Ikea, which offered 2.7 million USD to the cause. China’s reluctance is linked to territorial disputes with the Philippines in the South China Sea.
Allowing political rifts to interfere with a nation’s moral obligation to help victims of disaster is highly unethical. The millions of people affected by Haiyan are in need of help and should not be held responsible for China and the Philippine’s disagreement. China’s responsibility to protect should take precedence over politics, and the nation’s inability to do this has garnered a great deal of international attention.
Media globalisation has led to outlets reporting on nearly every move leaders make, therefore a nation’s actions in regards to giving aid will naturally have ramifications for its image. While China’s inadequate response has been deemed a terrible public diplomacy move and has been met with significant international criticism, the United States’ 20 million USD pledge and offered military support to Haiyan victims has greatly extended its soft power in the region. Though this is not necessarily the case with the US’s response, leaders often respond to aid pleas that do not particularly serve their national interest with the primary intention of satisfying their constituents and positively improving their global image. President Obama’s 2011 decision to send troops to Uganda to protect citizens from the ruthless Lord’s Resistance Army can be seen as a product of such politicisation of aid.
The question then arises: does it matter if a nation’s aid-related actions are politically motivated? One can argue that as long as nations are providing aid to regions that desperately need them, the politics that instigated the actions are irrelevant. After all, if the international community had been politically motivated to act in humanitarian crises like the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, countless lives could have been saved.
In reality, the politicisation of aid is a dangerous game. When nations are working to serve their own endgame instead of being focused on genuinely helping their fellow global citizens, they can seriously marginalise less well-off regions. This is exemplified in China’s relationship with Africa and its exploitation of the continent’s natural resources. As a way to secure energy in the long-run, China has been helping African countries develop their oil sectors and has been simultaneously benefiting from advantageous oil trade agreements. Sino-African trade is a multi-billion USD process, but China is heavily criticised for its policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of Africa.
The Sudanese government cleared the Merowe region of the Nile Valley in exchange for oil concessions so the Chinese could build a dam. Though the Merowe Dam doubled the amount of electricity Sudan generated, the Sudanese government forcibly displaced more than 50,000 individuals to carry out the project. Those individuals who refused to leave their homes were flushed out with the use of a reservoir, causing the UN Rapporteur on Housing Rights to convey great concern about the human rights violations associated with the dam. The Beijing government claimed they had no right to intervene in the matter, despite the source of the violence stemming from their nation’s project.
Instead of bringing stability to Africa through the promotion of growth, China is choosing to ignore the negative impact its oil interests are having in the region and is indirectly promoting conflict. When this is coupled with the nation’s lack of response to the devastating Typhoon Haiyan, it is evident that China’s self-centred attempts at aid marginalise the underlying human needs that warrant the aid in the first place. If the nation wants to continue to garner respect in the international community, it must learn to give importance to the global citizen over national interests.
Providing aid and assistance to nations in need is a responsibility of able states of the international community. So-called policies of non-interference are not applicable in today’s globalised world. There is a responsibility to protect peoples of all nations, regardless of the political ramifications for the state providing the aid. Though states sometimes use these ramifications as an incentive to act, they should not let selfishness get in the way of properly aiding. The moral obligation to humankind should supersede the realm of politics.