A Friend in Need

Can disaster aid actually win hearts and minds?
November 2, 2011 |
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On Tuesday last week, Turkey reversed its previous stand and decided to accept aid from Israel to help deal with the tragic earthquake that had stricken the country's east. Shipments of portable housing units began the next day. Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was quick to emphasize that accepting aid did not signal an improvement in diplomatic relations between the two countries, strained ever since Israel's raid of a Turkish aid flotilla bound for Gaza in 2010 -- likely a response to the perception that aid can buy off recipient governments, even if it can't change popular attitudes. The irony is that the humanitarian assistance that responds to disasters -- unlike the majority of aid that goes to long-term development projects -- might be the one case where that logic is sometimes reversed.

At a time when the United States' aid budget is confronted by an army of hatchet-wielding deficit hawks among the Republican Party's congressional majority and presidential candidates, some aid proponents are making the case that development and humanitarian assistance are powerful tools to buy friends and influence people. And it is true that aid has long been used to grease the often-rusty wheels of diplomacy. The Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel were cemented with the help of an aid package worth an average of $2 billion a year to Egypt. Since 1985, U.S. law has mandated that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) take account of would-be aid recipients' voting patterns at the United Nations -- rewarding larger aid packages to those who vote with America. Political Scientists David Carter at Pennsylvania State and Randall Stone at the University of Rochester note that this kind of carrot-minded approach has been successful, influencing countries' votes on decisions that the U.S. State Department declares as politically important.

Twisting politicians' arms is one thing, but changing popular attitudes is another matter entirely. Look again at Egypt: Despite being one of the largest recipients of USAID financing over the past 30 years, Pew surveys suggest only 20 percent of Egyptians have a favorable view of the United States -- considerably less than half of the U.S. favorability rating in former Cold War foe Russia. Popular opinion in Egypt is driven by other factors, not least broader U.S. foreign policy in the region. (A propensity to invade neighboring countries doesn't help.) And development assistance just isn't a major factor in the financial fortunes of the average citizen. Maybe that was true back in 1990, when net overseas development assistance to the country equaled 36 percent of government expenditures. But by 2008, that figure was just 3 percent -- only a little more one-tenth the value of tourism and one-seventh that of manufacturing exports.

Aid's limited impact on public opinion usually applies even when the aid is specifically focused on winning converts. A study by consultant Michael Kleinman and Mark Bradbury, a director at the Rift Valley Institute, looked at U.S. military aid for small projects in Kenya designed to improve popular support for the U.S. military presence there, and found that it didn't. Attitudes were shaped by faith, the relationship between target populations and the Kenyan state, U.S. foreign policy, and events in Somalia -- not by a U.S.-financed well or asphalt road. A German aid agency-financed 2010 study, using repeated surveys in Afghanistan's Takhar and Kunduz provinces, found that in a comparatively peaceful period between 2005 and 2007, development aid did have a small, short-lived positive impact on the general attitudes of Afghan respondents towards foreign peace-building operations in their backyard. But this impact disappeared as threat perceptions rose between 2007 and 2009. Not surprisingly, other factors -- in this case, how many people were getting shot -- were just more important than who was cutting the checks.

But there is evidence of an exception to the rule that money can't buy love, and it involves disaster assistance. Four years after a 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, economists Tahir Andrabi of Pomona College and Jishnu Das of the World Bank surveyed attitudes towards foreigners in the region. They found trust in foreigners was significantly higher in areas where humanitarian aid had been concentrated than in other areas -- dropping off by six percentage points for each 10 kilometers of distance from the fault line.

Why might recipients react differently and more positively to disaster relief assistance than they do to other forms of aid? In part it is surely related to the simple gratitude felt by people who have just lost much of what they had in a flood or earthquake. But it is also more plausible that such aid is given without a broader political motive. Although U.S. food aid flows according to the size of the surplus domestic crop as much as recipient need, using humanitarian relief to reward or punish countries for U.N. voting records or other diplomatic policies presents a practical challenge -- you can't schedule a disaster. Recipients appear to understand that, and are more likely to view such aid as given in good faith. In the Pakistan case, for example, Andrabi and Das note that the positive impact on attitudes was related to a significant on-the-ground presence of foreigners who were assumed to have purely humanitarian motivations -- aid distribution was not perceived to be (and wasn't) linked to war-fighting efforts.

Aid is likely to be a more effective foreign policy tool when it comes to persuading governments to do things that lack popular support. Creating that popular support in the first place is much harder. Perhaps Turkey's Davutoglu is right to say that even government relations won't improve in the case of Israeli disaster aid -- after all, U.S. humanitarian support in the aftermath of Iran's Bam earthquake only temporarily thawed diplomatic tensions. On the other hand, maybe the assistance can play a small role in improving popular opinion towards Israel in Turkey. For good or ill, that's one more reason for governments to respond with open hearts and open checkbooks whenever disaster strikes worldwide.

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