Humanitarian Aid in the Time of the Virus

The holiday season around Christmas and New Year is a time for family get-togethers, the sharing of gifts and sending cards. It is a particular moment of friendship and solidarity. Traditionally, it has also been a propitious time for fundraising by charitable organizations. How will this appeal resonate at a time of pandemic and general economic hardship?

The United Nation’s emergency relief head recently appealed for $35 billion to help the world’s “most vulnerable and fragile” in 2021. Mr. Mark Lowcock’s arguments for donations, presented in the Global Humanitarian Overview (GHO), were well documented. Describing the situation as “desperate,” he pointed to a record 235 million people who will need humanitarian assistance in 2021, an increase of 40% from 2020 due to Covid-19 as well as continuing conflicts, a record number of people displaced and climate change shocks. According to the report, “Extreme poverty has risen for the first time in 22 years…By the end of 2020, the number of acutely food insecure people could be 270 million.”

Other UN officials echoed his call. In a recorded message for the launch of the GHO, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that “conflict, climate change and COVID-19 have created the greatest humanitarian challenge since the Second World War…. The humanitarian system again proved its worth in 2020, delivering food, medicine, shelter, education and other essentials to tens of millions of people. But the crisis is far from over. Humanitarian aid budgets face dire shortfalls as the impact of the global pandemic continues to worsen.”

“…richer countries need to help poorer countries survive this crisis and recover better,” demanded Michel Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in a statement on recent celebrations of Human Rights Day. “Repairing the frayed system of multilateralism will be essential to manage the recovery. The work must begin at home, but leaders in powerful countries need to once again recognize that, more than ever, our world can only meet global challenges through global cooperation.”

No one can deny that the pandemic, displaced persons from continuing conflicts, and climate change shocks have caused increased humanitarian crises. The numbers are self-evident. Nor can one also argue against the call for international cooperation to alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable in fifty-six countries. Rich countries have invested some $10 trillion to stave off economic collapse from the pandemic in their countries, according to Lowcock. Why can’t they come to the aid of those in the poorest countries?

The first response is quite simple. Countries have turned inward. While one might have thought that a global pandemic would have led to multilateral cooperation, the exact opposite has taken place. Nationalism has undermined global cooperation. The World Health Organization, for example, has lost its official leadership role in the pandemic to the most powerful countries.

And economically, it is certainly an intuitive stretch to ask countries to use their limited budgets to help people overseas when they need all their resources to stimulate their own economies. With millions unemployed in the richest countries, especially in the North, it would be political suicide for elected leaders to take scarce resources benefitting citizens to help non-citizens outside the borders.

What are our obligations to the most vulnerable foreigners? What are our duties to those beyond our borders? Stanley Hoffman, the eminent international relation specialist, asked this very question in a classic book Duties Beyond Borders, examining the limits and possibilities of ethical politics.

Neither a wide-eyed utopian or hard-nosed realist, Hoffmann tried to find a space between narrow national interest and universal obligations. “…unless we lower the barrier and move towards the acceptance of restraints and of positive obligations beyond the borders,” he argued, “the world is doomed to remain a jungle…”

The book was published in 1981, well before the idealism of Barack Obama’s audacity of hope had disappeared and the reactionary realism of Donald Trump’s “America First” came to the fore. The space for an ethical foreign policy by governments has narrowed with the pandemic and crisis fatigue. This narrowing is not just true in the United States. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that he will merge the Department for International Development (DFID) with the Foreign Office, moving one of the world’s leading aid agencies into the political sphere. DFID’s £15 billion budget, 0.7% of GDP, will be cut to 0.5%, as domestic needs cry out for greater resources.

The pandemic has caused immeasurable hardships across the globe. It has radically exacerbated inequalities. To ask the richest countries to contribute to help the most vulnerable beyond their borders when their own citizens are suffering is a formidable demand. On the other hand, in the season of giving gifts and solidarity, if those who have the most don’t help those who have the least – wherever they may be – who will?

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.