How rising powers are changing humanitarian assistance

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As emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil gain greater influence on the international political stage, they are generally expected to seek a place at the high table which allows them to turn into agenda-setters in the global discourse. For example, India and Brazil are keen to become permanent members of the UN Security Council, largely because this provides them with the status and capacity to influence global affairs.

Yet emerging actors are not always as eager to embrace existing structures of global governance. In some cases, they may seek to become global agenda-setters by avoiding existing structures, which complicates the global conversation about how to tackle pressing challenges, and reduce the capacity to find solutions. While the UN Security Council is, despite its anachronistic composition, still recognized as a legitimate decision-making platform, this may not apply to other institutions or regimes. The international humanitarian system, for example, largely excludes non-Western donors, as a current research project by the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) shows. The study's authors point out that as emerging donors of humanitarian aid are not included in existing institutions (such as the OECD's Development Assistance Committee (DAC), systematic knowledge about them is scarce. This limits potential for cooperation, which can have serious consequences in times of disaster.

Up to now, the most important non-Western humanitarian donors are found on the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE). As a fascinating research paper (part of the same GPPi series) by Khalid Al-Yahya and Nathalie Fustier shows, extremely little is known about Saudi Arabia as a humanitarian donor, reducing potential synergies between them and Western donors, which operate within a tightly regulated system. At the same time, some agencies such as UNHCR and the World Food Program (WFP) are successfully cooperating with Arab providers of humanitarian assistance. Attempts to integrate China, India and Brazil into existing structures of the humanitarian system have had much more limited success. This is either because established powers fear that including new actors reduces their status (the quest of status is a zero-sum game, as Randy Schweller once argued), or because emerging powers prefer to work outside of the established structures.

From a Western point of view, understanding emerging humanitarian aid donor's motivations and strategies is thus necessary in order to think about how to engage  rising humanitarian donors. Yet the rhetoric remains paternalistic: Rather than framing the goal in the context of mutual learning, Western agencies are often inflexible and unwilling to learn from potentially more effective non-Western approaches. Western actors still define the social identity of a “good donor” as one working according to internationally accepted principles - an argument often rejected by emerging powers that do not agree with many of the established principles.

Brazil, for example, has turned into a significant humanitarian actor, and while its strategy remains understudied, it becomes increasingly obvious that Brazil's approach is likely to enrich the debate about how to make humanitarian aid: Brazil is keen to avoid a "donor hierarchy", and it increasingly seeks to create strong links between relief and development, for example by purchasing food aid locally. Yet many questions remain unanswered, for example about how Brazil's regional leadership ambitions, its role as both a developing country and its focus on South-South cooperation impact its humanitarian strategy. India has long turned into an important humanitarian actor, something the US-American public realized when, in 2005, an Indian army aircraft landed on a United States Air Force base in Little Rock, Arkansas, carrying 25 tons of relief supplies to the victims of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

The 'rise of the rest' is set to fundamentally change the way we think about humanitarian assistance and their approach will force established actors to question several of their long-held beliefs and convictions. Yet only by learning more about emerging humanitarian and approaching them as equal actors can Western governments identify common interests, room for cooperation and mutual learning.

Read also:

Should India still receive development aid?

Brazil in Africa: Bridging the Atlantic?

As Brazil turns into 6th largest economy, unfamiliar challenges loom

Photo credit: Ji Chunpeng/Xinhua