Home / Opinion / National interest and international disaster relief efforts

The earthquake that hit Nepal in April is one of the worst natural disasters to affect the Indian sub-continent in the last decade. The motives and norms behind international humanitarian assistance were questioned at various points during the relief and rescue operations—is international humanitarian assistance really altruistic in nature? What guides the intervention of a state in aid efforts beyond its borders? How should India respond to disasters abroad?

Initially, both China’s President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi were quick off the blocks to offer condolences and commit resources from their own countries in relief and rescue efforts. However, the winds changed direction as the Chinese government expressed its reservations over Indian rescue aircraft flying too close to the Nepal-Tibetan border. In another instance, the Nepal government rejected Taiwan’s offer to send a search and rescue team, reportedly on cue from Beijing. Such instances provoked angry reactions online and in print media, decrying the entry of geopolitics and falling moral standards even before the dust had settled.

Such reactions display a lack of understanding of international relations. Humanitarian aid is carried out by countries, voluntary organizations, private individuals, companies and multilateral organizations alike. Altruism can be the motivation for several private players involved, but it is wrong to assume that altruism drives aid by sovereign countries. The notion that humanitarian assistance is sullied by self-interest is also misguided.

The morality of a country is backed by the writ of its constitution, in the sense that it is the duty of the government to respond to natural disasters, and provide relief to its own citizens and residents. On the other hand, the rules of the game that apply to international affairs are completely different. There is no constitution or written code of conduct here. There is no sovereign authority that can impose itself on all the nations of the world. Even international law is based on prior consent of nations.

In such a world of amoral international affairs, countries must maximize their power and project their interests abroad, to secure the prosperity of their people. Altruism towards the residents of a foreign country can be costly and difficult to justify.

Humanitarian assistance needs a certain minimum amount of military and economic power. How taxpayer rupees are spent must be questioned, especially when they do not directly benefit a country’s own residents—and this becomes particularly complicated when the same disaster spills over into the donor country as well. The Nepal earthquake also ravaged parts of some Indian states, forcing the Union government to make a trade-off: with its limited resources, should it focus on the recovery of its citizens or go beyond and help people of other countries?

India intervened in Nepal not just because of altruism, but because it was in its interests to help its neighbour.

Nepal is an important Indian partner, and it does not help India to have a struggling country on its border. It is important for India to not lose the goodwill of Nepalis either. Inaction in India’s neighbourhood would be ceding strategic space to China, which is likely to intervene more in the region going ahead. Moreover, India should throw its might behind helping any government that is friendly to it.

When confronted over trade-offs, countries need to think about the costs of not intervening, and those are clearly quite high for India in this case.

While humanitarian aid needs national power, it also reinforces this power in many ways. The benevolent conduct of countries in such crisis situations is a strong signaling mechanism that improves their credibility in international fora. Indeed, India’s ministry of external affairs created a separate budget line for international disaster relief in 2008, allocating $10-30 million a year on such efforts since then. Deployment of armed forces for disaster relief can also be a potent signal of power projection capabilities. The Indian Navy gained public credibility when it was effectively deployed for relief and rescue operations abroad following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

All said, international norms have slowly evolved over the last half century or so, which makes complete international apathy unimaginable. Countries are expected to do a certain minimum amount of international disaster relief, be it unilaterally, or through contributions to charities. This minimal assistance has increasingly acquired characteristics of altruism. Many animals give out distress calls for the benefit of the herd and at possible cost to itself. Similarly, international disaster relief is a slowly becoming a norm that is obeyed without explicit rewards except that of building an atmosphere of cooperation.

We rarely acknowledge that India punches above its weight when it comes to international humanitarian assistance. Apart from disaster relief, India also provides development aid and helps resolve conflicts under the UN Peacekeeping Operations banner. After the 2004 tsunami, the Indian Navy helped in Maldives, Sri Lanka and Indonesia—all of whom have higher per capita incomes compared to India. This bucks conventional wisdom around international aid and assistance.

India’s contributions to humanitarian assistance will continue to depend on its national power. This means that we need economic growth, military strength, diplomacy and pluralism. In terms of prioritizing its humanitarian commitments, India would do well to act generously and quickly in its neighbourhood.

Pranay Kotasthane and Pavan Srinath are researchers with the Takshashila Institution, an independent think-tank and school of public policy, based in Bengaluru.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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