Side Views

Aid as altruism and realpolitik — Venessa Lee

AUG 18 — Last week, United States political spouse Jill Biden visited a refugee camp in East Africa. For the tens of thousands of famine victims who trek along Somalia’s “roads of death”, such camps in Kenya, Ethiopia and the Somali capital of Mogadishu, which are already dangerously overcrowded, represent hope that their search for food and safety is over.

One mother, having walked weeks to access medical care, realised when she lifted her child off her back that the baby had died, Bloomberg reported. Some Somali parents left some of their children behind on the road because they could no longer walk. They wanted to save at least some of their family members, because if they had to wait, then all of them would have starved, the BBC reported.

Mrs Biden, wife of US Vice-President Joe Biden, said she wanted to raise awareness and persuade donors, Americans and “the global community, the human family” to give more aid.

The US has contributed US$580 million (RM1,740 million) towards humanitarian efforts in the Horn of Africa in the east of the continent, which is buckling under a drought and its worst famine in 60 years.

More than 29,000 children under the age of five have died in the last 90 days in the south of Somalia, the worst-hit nation. More than 12 million people in the region need food aid, the United Nations estimates.

This is one of the biggest questions of all: whose responsibility is it to save Africa’s starving, if Africa cannot apparently help itself? (Militants controlling south and central Somalia have actively prevented aid from reaching refugees.)

And why does it often seem as if the bulk of the responsibility rests on international aid agencies and Western governments like the US and United Kingdom? What role can Asian countries, including Singapore, play in such humanitarian crises?

In many humanitarian crises in the past, “the weight of responsibility fell on the West as economically developed countries ... In Asia, many countries saw themselves as being poor and unable to assist,” said Joel Ng, a senior analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

The situation is changing, however, with Japan and, more recently, South Korea becoming more prominent in humanitarian efforts worldwide, said Ng, whose research interests include Asia-Africa relations and the politics of humanitarian intervention.

Humanitarian intervention is not only a question of resources.

“Asian countries tend to see things in a utilitarian way,” said Ng, adding that “assisting just for the sake of assisting” has not yet entered the public discourse in Asian countries, unlike in many developed Western countries.

The unavoidable fact is that proximity matters in calculations of humanitarian aid.

Africa is in Europe’s backyard and countries like the UK and France are former colonial powers, noted Dr J. Jackson Ewing, a post-doctoral fellow at RSIS’ Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies.

In contrast, Somalia’s piracy problem — a consequence of having no functioning government for 20 years, a contributing factor to the famine — is probably the only major strategic concern for Singapore.

The general lack of public engagement here regarding the Horn of Africa famine “is not a lack of feeling but a lack of prioritisation of African issues”, said Ewing, whose research interests include food security. “Hypothetically, if the famine occurred in India or Myanmar, for example, the response would be different.”

But in crises such as the African famine, aid can be both humanitarian and strategic, a blend of altruism and realpolitik. “You can see aid as a self-interested game and you don’t have to be cynical about it. It can be a win-win situation,” said Ng. “It’s about building good relations in a globalised world.”

China, which will be giving aid totalling 90 million yuan (RM41 million) towards the African crisis, has been extending aid to resource-rich African countries for decades. Sometimes, Ng noted, it is “very visible” how Chinese aid or peacekeeping efforts are used to secure the resources it needs for its turbo-growth.

The road leading to an oil field, for instance, might be kept in good condition compared to the surrounding areas, as can be observed in countries such as Sudan and Nigeria, said Ng, adding that the French pursued a similar approach in terms of tying African aid to economic interests in the past.

Dispensing aid brings you friends who may be of strategic importance in the future.

“It’s a matter of widening your calculus, if you need a lot of support ... these friends could open these markets,” said Ng.

Africa will eventually replace Asia as the world’s great food producer, an important factor in view of rising global food prices, he said.

“Japan is growing rice in Africa, they’ve got an interest in doing that, to ensure a stable supply that would keep global rice prices down.”

As for Singapore, foreign assistance, often in the form of sharing of expertise, has been “expanding”, for instance with Singapore personnel being sent to help with reconstruction in Afghanistan recently, said Ng.

“The more Singaporeans travel overseas, the more they see the world as being their backyard.”

Issues such as climate change and the recent Japanese quake and tsunami require responses from the global community — a term that embraces not only state actors and other groups, but also ordinary individuals.

So too does Somalia, “the worst humanitarian disaster in the world”, as described by Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In our increasingly globalised world, the neighbour who needs our help could reside half a world away. — Today

* Venessa Lee is a correspondent with Today.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.

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