Beware of falling into the dependency trap
How much is enough?
One may argue that charity is always in abundance after a serious calamity, but can relief alone solve the many problems faced by disaster-hit countries? These nations are often among the poorest and, so, can one-off acts of charity be translated into more sustainable care for the less fortunate?
Immediate relief, whether in cash or in kind, is no doubt welcome by victims. But a critical factor is how to ensure that it is distributed quickly. Apart from poor transport and bureaucratic red tape, disaster relief is frequently hampered by corruption and other forms of pillage. In many cases, natural impediments to development are made worse by poor governance and internal strife.
Humanitarian relief must come with a broader strategy of economic and governmental reforms. Destroyed infrastructure has to be rebuilt, as do dysfunctional political and institutional architecture. But there are major dilemmas in the politics of aid.
Rich countries extending aid to poorer nations always attach conditions, imposing economic-policy or public-administration requirements that render recipients at the mercy of the donor's ideological and political preferences. Donor governments and world bodies may argue that material relief alone, without institutional change, will not bring countries out of dependency. But, equally, it may be said that the necessity to conform to imposed growth models may lead to an alternative dependency.
Rich countries are also selective in disaster relief. As some have already pointed out, the Asian tsunami, although devastating, is not the worst in recent times in terms of the death toll and other statistics. Cyclones in the Indian Ocean frequently cause hundreds of thousands of deaths in the subcontinent. The Philippines is annually plagued by tropical typhoons. This time though, the disaster affected several countries at the same time, and there were western casualties, not just among the local population.
Relief operations can be a matter of big power diplomacy. The US government is not being fair handed when to comes to providing aid - those countries of greater strategic importance, but not necessarily more destitute or in greater need, are granted lavish sums. US aid to low-income countries represents only one-quarter of total overseas aid, compared to more than half in the case of Japan. However, one may also argue that overseas economic aid is an important means of diplomacy available to Japan, given its lack of military power. Some may equally see China's prominence in the current tsunami relief as an attempt to cultivate goodwill in the region. There is no overseas relief without a strategic or diplomatic motive. A realistic view would be that one can never separate relief from foreign policy, or economics from politics. Aided countries should beware of what lies behind relief diplomacy and work harder to avoid falling into long-term dependency traps or having to toe particular lines in international politics just to keep receiving aid. Self-sustainability must be a priority.
Thus, any initiatives from rich nations, should be welcome, no matter what the motives. Donor governments may well have their agendas, but the nations receiving the aid may also have theirs. Relief measures of all forms help buy time which is so critical to turning a vicious cycle of disaster-driven economic loss, developmental setback and institutional failures into a virtuous cycle of economic and institutional reconstruction. The politics of relief should not be seen merely in zero-sum terms.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is a professor of public administration at City University of Hong Kong and chairman of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank