India’s growing global humanitarian role: Is it enough?

March 27, 2013

India is increasingly seen as an important player when it comes to supporting nations hit by disasters or conflict, as well as for development, but given its size and influence, is it really doing enough to help resolve global crises?

Many, like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), think not, especially when it comes to addressing humanitarian issues at an international level.

“I am of the very strong opinion that India – which has an enormous influence due to its population, economic growth and history – will have to play a more assertive role in the world,” Yves Daccord, ICRC director general, told AlertNet recently.

Daccord, who was in India earlier this month to boost relations with New Delhi and seek ways to engage the government more in hot spots such as Afghanistan and Myanmar, said it was imperative that India be much more active.

It’s not that India is doing nothing. It has been active, at least in terms of doling out aid.

Although the country remains a major recipient of foreign aid – receiving $2.8 billion in 2010 – India’s role as a donor has risen, alongside that of its counterparts: Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa – collectively known as the BRICS.

A report last year by Global Health Strategies Initiatives said that aid flowing out of India – though still very small compared to western countries – grew 10.8 percent annually between 2005 and 2010.


When you look at the actual figures, admittedly it is not very much. The country provided $639 million in foreign assistance in 2010, against China’s $2 billion, says the Global Humanitarian Assistance think tank.

Of course India has a multitude of its own human development challenges to deal with. Around one third India’s 1.2 billion people are living on less than $1.25 a day, while four out of 10 Indian children under 5 years old are malnourished.

India is also highly vulnerable to its own humanitarian crises, ranging from insurgencies in its northeast and central states, to earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, droughts and cyclones. Yet it rarely accepts disaster aid from overseas.

What is indisputable is that the country’s foreign aid will continue to grow. An indicative sign is the establishment of a new agency called the Development Partnership Administration (DPA, which is akin to Britain’s Department for International Development) to oversee India’s foreign aid programme.

According to some reports, the DPA, which is under the foreign ministry, will have $15 billion to give out over the next five years.


Much of that aid will be tied to India’s foreign policy, which has in recent times favoured its neighbours in South Asia – post-war reconstruction programmes in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, as well as its more traditional recipients Bhutan and Nepal.

However, ICRC’s Daccord was really asking India to use its “soft power” in another way – to help resolve humanitarian challenges through diplomatic channels in international fora such as the United Nations.

“I think that there is a real lack on international convergence to deal with conflict. The issue is that today it’s difficult for the international community to find a minimum of agreement in dealing with conflict due to various interests,” said Daccord, citing the conflict in Syria as an example.

He said India could play a key role in its region, in Afghanistan, after international forces withdraw by the end 2014.

Experts agree.

“It makes sense to engage India and to actively seek New Delhi’s view on regional disasters and contexts. Multilateral and non-governmental organisations should seek Indian cooperation, particularly for Afghanistan,” said a report by the Global Public Policy Institute.

“India is one of the few humanitarian-assistance providers who – together with Switzerland – are not at the same time party to the conflict, a potential advantage for the perception of international humanitarian assistance.”

New Delhi has been criticised in the past for demanding a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, yet not using its regional weight to resolve previous conflicts and human rights abuses in neighbouring countries such as Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

Humanitarians say “sitting on the fence” was a possible option for New Delhi before, but now, given India’s rise and international ambitions, it has to be more assertive and define clear policies.

“I don’t think it’s about keeping quiet or speaking up. What is important is that they have a take, and then they can choose their policy,” says Daccord. “It could be quiet diplomacy as long as you make the point.”

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