Disaster Relief Politics

Original Presentation: “Disaster Relief: Politics, Security Implications and Foreign Policy,” 4th Berlin Conference on Asian Security 2009, 28-30 October 2009, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP, Berlin).


This essay highlights some key characteristics of disaster relief operations in Asia, with a particular focus on the southern Asian region. The thrust of the paper is not so much at the mechanics of disaster relief as at the politics of disaster relief. That there is clearly politics – foreign policy interests and domestic factors of both donor and recipient nations – involved in humanitarian relief and assistance has been well documented.[1] In Asia certainly, as important as the aid itself is, is who provides it and how. As a continent of mostly developing countries it is inevitable that disaster-struck nations often find themselves short of the capacity required to deal with the aftermath. What capacity exists is usually state capacity, often acting through the agent of military forces rather than adequate civilian response. Often, there is foreign military support required as also the resources and capabilities of international NGOs (INGOs).

Beginning with a brief exercise in defining what constitutes disasters, the essay draws attention to three key factors affecting disaster relief operation in Asia – prestige or image issues, security implications and foreign policy goals.

Defining Disasters in Asia

Asia already has a high incidence of natural disasters and records the highest number of fatalities in the world from such disasters. Natural disasters as most commonly understood refer to sudden and massive impact events like earthquakes, cyclones and floods but the Asian continent also suffers from several slow onset, long-term maladies like droughts. There are other disasters too, that Asia is affected by such as technological disasters and what are called complex humanitarian emergencies (CHE), such as those induced by armed conflict, displacement or disease.[2] While technological disasters in Asia have remained few and far between (a prominent exception being India’s Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984), these are only likely to grow in frequency in countries such as China and India characterized by breakneck economic growth without accompanying growth in technological and environmental safety mechanisms. Indeed, China’s huge air, water, and soil pollution problem might be characterized as a technological and environmental disaster in the making. Still more important are the multitude of CHEs that exist in Asia but which do not garner as much attention as do natural disasters that cause immediate and large-scale destruction.

Against a backdrop of frequent natural disasters, and enough trouble dealing with these, it would seem unnecessary to complicate issues any further by the addition CHEs to the list and indeed, the focus of this paper is largely on natural disasters rather than disasters induced or compounded by political factors and governance deficits. However, it is important to lay out a position here about CHEs in Asia, given that accompanying the ‘rise’ of the continent or that of its major powers, is the tendency also to deflect criticism by emphasizing a sort of Asian uniqueness or Asian way of doing things, and by referring to Asia as still being comprised of largely poor and developing countries. However, genocide, mass starvation, or suffering engendered by deliberate government policies of exclusion and apathy, too, need to be characterized as disasters with consequences for Asia and the world at large. Disaster relief operations whether in Asia, deal not just with the effects of the natural calamity itself but also to a significant extent with the effects of government apathy, callousness and inefficiency.

Meanwhile, part of the business of defining disasters, also has to do with the political salience of the event from the standpoint of a donor country’s foreign policy interests or from the coverage in its national media.[3] The US might be less constrained to react to every disaster in South Asia than India is, given the latter’s more vital foreign policy interests in its immediate neighbourhood. Further, whether within a country or among countries, quite apart from the severity of a disaster or the number of casualties, there might be a difference in the coverage and importance given to different disasters. For example, the Kashmir quake of 2005 attracted far more attention within Pakistan than the several quakes that have struck Baluchistan over the years. Similarly, it can be argued that Bangladesh’s regular cyclones are less newsworthy today than in the past[4] and that its Cyclone Sidr in November 2007 did not capture as much world attention as did the May 2008 Cyclone Nargis in its neighbour, Myanmar. However, it is important not to overemphasize the point about coverage in the Asian media – where Asian governments are concerned, the media coverage of an international disaster is not likely to be as important a yardstick for allocation of disaster aid, as it is for Western governments.[5]

Pride and Prejudice in Disaster Relief

Pride – or in other words, regime legitimacy and survival – plays a big part in the donation, acceptance and subsequent allocation of relief aid. One early example is the case of Ethiopian famine of the 1970s and 1980s, when successive American administrations faced the problem of providing aid without in the process also shoring up the hostile communist regime in Addis Ababa. Equally serious was the Ethiopian government’s reluctance to accept aid on American terms because it would have meant a loss of political face to be seen as accepting aid from a government it was politically opposed to and had criticized.[6]

Cut to the present in Asia, Pakistan consistently refused Indian aid in the wake of the 2005 Kashmir quake which affected its side of the disputed territory to a greater degree, when clearly, the proximity, quality and quantum of Indian resources would have certainly have saved lives  in the hundreds, if not more. India was prepared to provide aid and relief material through the Line of Control (LoC) and offer aerial support but Pakistan balked at both proposals. Aid that Pakistan received subsequently from international agencies came as too little, too late.

Similarly, the Myanmarese junta did not initially accept American aid and waited several days before allowing the first supplies of international aid from India into the country. The primary consideration for Myanmar’s generals has been maintaining their preeminence among the population as signified by such acts banning news items of relief efforts by local NGOs and INGOs and articles criticizing the government.[7] Also, it does not seem to matter to the junta that even a year after Cyclone Nargis, relief and rehabilitation efforts remain extremely poor focused as it is on taming the various ethnic armies around the country in the run-up to what are clearly likely to be rigged general elections in 2010. The ASEAN, meanwhile, has decided to convene a post-Nargis Assistance Conference (PONAC) to raise over US$100 million in funds to meet the needs of Cyclone Nargis survivors.[8] While this is not to say that relief and rehabilitation efforts in the case of other countries do not suffer from inefficiencies, there Myanmar is clearly a case apart in that it is clearly the case that junta values its own survival above the interests of its people.

While pride, understood in the sense of saving face, played a part in Pakistan rejecting relief aid from India, China seems to have matured in this respect, to such an extent that the very act of receiving foreign disaster relief in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake turned out to be a foreign policy achievement for it. Despite initial reluctance, China eventually allowed foreign rescue teams into the country and of special significance was the fact that for the first time since the end of World War II, China even received a Japanese military vessel to its shores that carried relief material.[9] Given the long history of Western disaster relief aid to China before 1949[10] and the massive cover-up that followed the devastating 1976 Tangshan earthquake, this is an extremely noteworthy development.

In the same vein, might be interpreted the performance of the government of a country like Bangladesh in times of disaster. During the 1998 floods, the most devastating in the country’s history, the government was politically motivated to ensure effective disaster relief operations and aid distribution not only to prevent opposition parties from turning the situation to their advantage but also because of the accountability demanded by international donors.[11]

At the other end of the scale is the fact that prejudice too, affects disaster relief operations. Four years on from the Kashmir quake, reconstruction and rehabilitation in POK are still far from complete with urban development plans for most towns, including the capital, Muzaffarabad and other important towns such as Bagh and Rawalakot yet to be implemented.[12] Rehabilitation efforts following the earthquake of late October 2008 in Ziarat in Baluchistan, are in a similar state.[13] In Pakistan, the existence of the POK outside the constitutional structure (until August 2009) and the lack of voice for the Baluchis in the Punjabi-dominated political system, have clearly induced state apathy as to relief and rehabilitation efforts. Similarly, despite the fact that the tsunami of 2004 had caused maximum damage to the Tamil-dominated northeast of Sri Lanka, government authorities were reluctant to focus relief efforts on the region. This might mostly have had to do with the fact that the region was then under the control of the rebel LTTE (see below), but it might be contended that the ethnic element was a factor, too.[14]

Meanwhile, returning to Pakistan, Islamabad seems insistent on sticking to Chinese aid in POK, despite the high costs associated with it. While the Chinese government pledged a soft loan with a low 1.5 per cent interest rate for the reconstruction of Muzaffarabad, it was not until 2007 that the first MoUs were signed with Chinese companies to commence construction activities. A disagreement soon followed, however, with the Chinese companies demanding exorbitant overhead charges that would in effect substantially reduce the quantum of ‘assistance’ the Chinese were providing. While work has finally started Pakistani observers expect fresh problems to crop up when the companies begin submitting their invoices.[15]

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[1] A Cooper Drury, Richard Stuart Olson, Douglas A Van Belle, “The Politics of Humanitarian Aid: U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, 1964-1995,” Journal of Politics, Vol. 67, No. 2 (May, 2005), pp. 454-473; D Suba Chandran et al, “India’s Disaster Relief Diplomacy,” Indian Foreign Affairs Journal (New Delhi), Vol. 4, No. 2, April-June 2009, pp. 63-80.

[2] For more on CHEs see Juha Auvinen and E Wayne Nafziger, “The Sources of Humanitarian Emergencies,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Jun., 1999), pp. 267-290.

[3] A Cooper Drury, Richard Stuart Olson, Douglas A Van Belle, “The Politics of Humanitarian Aid: U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, 1964-1995,” Journal of Politics, Vol. 67, No. 2 (May, 2005), pp. 458-459.

[4] Of course, this has, plenty to do with the fact that casualties have been limited by the country’s constantly improving disaster warning and response system. Casualties from Cyclone Sidr were just under 3,500 according to official sources compared to Cyclone Nargis’ death toll which stood at 22,000 according to official government figures – in both instances, figures from international agencies marked the casualties several times higher – even though both storms were of nearly comparable intensity by the time they made landfall.

[5] One article in the New York Times about an international disaster, has been found to be worth more in terms of US disaster aid than 1,500 casualties. See A Cooper Drury, Richard Stuart Olson, Douglas A Van Belle, “The Politics of Humanitarian Aid: U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, 1964-1995,” Journal of Politics, Vol. 67, No. 2 (May, 2005), p. 470.

[6] Edward Kissi, “Beneath International Famine Relief in Ethiopia: The United States, Ethiopia, and the Debate over Relief Aid, Development Assistance, and Human Rights,” African Studies Review, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Sep., 2005), pp. 111-132

[7] D Suba Chandran et al, “India’s Disaster Relief Diplomacy,” Indian Foreign Affairs Journal (New Delhi), Vol. 4, No. 2, April-June 2009, pp. 63-80.

[8] Usa Pichai, “ASEAN to raise US$ 103 million for post-Nargis activities,” Mizzima News, 2 October 2009. http://www.bnionline.net/news/mizzima/7155-asean-to-raise-us-103-million-for-post-nargis-activities.html.

[9]D Suba Chandran et al, “India’s Disaster Relief Diplomacy,” Indian Foreign Affairs Journal (New Delhi), Vol. 4, No. 2, April-June 2009, pp. 63-80.

[10] The history of this aid goes back to the early 19th century when time Christian missionaries first began operating in the country in large numbers. See Lennig Sweet, “American Cooperation in Disaster Relief in China,” Far Eastern Survey, Vol. 12, No. 9 (May 3, 1943), p. 92.

[11] Bimal Kanti Paul, “Relief Assistance to 1998 Flood Victims: A Comparison of the Performance of the Government and NGOs,” Geographical Journal, Vol. 169, No. 1 (Mar., 2003), pp. 86-87.

[14] R Hariharan, “Tsunami: Politics of Relief In Sri Lanka,” Paper No. 1226, South Asia Analysis Group, 21 January 2005. http://www.saag.org/common/uploaded_files/paper1226.html.

[15] The Chinese have apparently demanded Pakistani Rs.270 million for a one-kilometre-long strip of road in Muzaffarabad when the highest per kilometre cost of any road project in the PoK, so far has been Pakistani Rs.40 million. Tariq Naqash, “False promises,” Dawn, 8 October 2009. http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/provinces/03-false-promises-ss-02.


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