Political Implications: When the Donor is also the Victim

I was commissioned by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 2011 to draft a white paper entitled Investigating the Political Implications of Disasters Requiring International Assistance (http://bit.ly/1L3Ad2v). In this piece I explain how offers of bilateral disaster assistance, and the decisions to accept (or refuse) them, are each influenced as much by foreign and domestic policy outcomes as they are by potential benefits. While this paper’s conclusions still apply broadly across the greater humanitarian experience, at the time I had not considered a situation wherein the donor nation is sustaining direct and ongoing impacts from events transpiring fully within the recipient's sovereign territory. But it is this exact scenario that the island nation Singapore finds itself in today.

International media have grasped upon the environmental disaster unfolding in Indonesia, referencing in particular that country’s inability to wrestle the situation under control. Illegal brush fires intentionally set by palm oil farmers and other similar operations have subsequently ignited peat bogs. Once alight, peat burns below the surface and is extremely difficult to extinguish. As of writing, there are upwards of one thousand such fires that are together blanketing southern Sumatra, western Borneo, Singapore, and the Malay Peninsula in a thick white smoke.

Despite a variety of efforts to extinguish these fires - inclusive of weather manipulation through cloud seeding, deployment of thousands of troops equipped with firefighting equipment, and the pursuit of legal action against suspected perpetrators - the haze has only worsened. El Niño-driven climate effects, typified by hotter and drier conditions in Southeast Asia, have exacerbated a problem that has become an annual harbinger of summer’s end in the region.

Since the present year’s fires began, Singapore has thrice offered its neighbor assistance in bringing the now-raging emergency to an end. These multiple gestures have offered data and imagery, specialized fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, and supplemental firefighting personnel. And in all three cases, Indonesia’s government has politely declined with the justification that it already possesses sufficient capacity and resources to tackle the problem unaided.

For Singaporeans, the stakes of failure are high. In addition to obscuring the island’s aesthetic blue skies and architectural skyline, the haze (as it is locally referred) has resulted in public health, social, and economic impacts. All educational and childcare facilities have curtailed regular outdoor activities, and on at least one occasion a nationwide closure was required. Businesses whose employees work outdoors, such as those involved in landscaping, construction, or security, have had to adapt staffing schedules and provide personal protective equipment such as respirators. There are too many cancelled or postponed community activities to count, which include charity fundraisers, concerts, social gatherings, and others which together support the nation's social fabric. The impact on respiratory and cardiovascular health resulting from an almost complete cessation of outdoor exercise may never be known. Haze is the dominant topic of conversation, and many Singaporeans find themselves impulsively checking pollutant concentrations on one of the many smartphone apps developed for that very purpose.

In light of these conditions, Indonesia’s repeated refusal to accept bilateral assistance from its neighbor might seem callous or cavalier to Singaporeans - especially in light of the fact that Indonesia’s economy will assuredly benefit from the ongoing expansion of agricultural activities. Moreover, it is notable that in statistical terms the rural Sumatran communities affected are but a fraction of Indonesia’s populace as compared to the absolute impact sustained by Singapore’s five million citizens. It’s no wonder this issue has become a source of passionate discontent.

But as the 2011 white paper highlights, Indonesia’s refusal is more likely the result of the underlying political ramifications (or perceptions thereof) tied to its acceptance of foreign assistance than it does with its actual or perceived disaster management capacity. And Singapore’s motivations to assist are likewise the result of both both disaster-focused and politically-minded (albeit domestic) goals. The decision-making process for both parties is thus as clouded as the afternoon skies.

Where this situation differs from the aforementioned paper’s analytical context is that Singapore, as a donor, is also a victim. Its government finds itself managing the direct impacts of the event, yet remains legally powerless to launch and effective response to its cause. And as such, the stakes of Indonesia's acceptance or refusal are great for both donor and recipient in this case.

Yes, acceptance might give rise to the impression that Indonesia is incapable of managing its own disasters, and perhaps in the eyes of its citizens, this might represent a tangible notion of weakness. Or perhaps a measure of command and control authority may have to be relinquished to a foreign power, given the manner in which civil-military cooperation transpires during bilateral humanitarian efforts - at the expense of national pride.

But what of the positive implications? Bilateral collaboration in pursuit of extinguishing these fires in the short term, and regional cooperation on longer-term regulatory measures to control the actions that caused them, would assuredly serve as a best-practice in climate change adaptation at a time when such issues dominate the global discourse. Moreover, disasters are perhaps the best ‘live-fire’ exercise [pun intended] through which bilateral military cooperation is built, and greater regional stability is a likely byproduct of such endeavors.

But most importantly, as global climate change is perhaps the greatest transnational threat we are facing today – given both the impacts already realized and the potential effects to come – there has never been a greater motivation for two nations to transcend the political implications of assistance and jointly work towards regional and global risk reduction goals. In the spirit of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction signed in March of this year, and forthcoming COP21 climate change conference in Paris where a binding agreement is sought, Indonesia and Singapore both have much to gain.

References:

Chan, Francis. 2015. Offer to Help Indonesia Fight Haze ‘Still Stands’. The Straights Times. September 30. Page A1.

Channel News Asia. 2015. Singapore Reiterates Offer of Assistance to Indonesia to Fight Forest Fires. CNA. September 14. http://bit.ly/1Vr2aCK.

Clifford, Mark. 2015. Indonesia’s Forest Fires Choke Malaysia, Singapore: ‘Burning Land…Just for Fun’. Forbes Asia. September 10. http://onforb.es/1WxdShC.

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