The Global South’s fight against Ebola

The south is not just a recipient of humanitarian aid. It also has a strong tradition of giving, says Oheneba Boateng.
By: /
October 21, 2014
Doctoral Fellow at the Free University of Berlin

If you are monitoring international responses to the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, you most likely know that the United States announced plans to deploy up to 4,000 troops, Canada promised $2.5 million worth of protective equipment (with an additional $30 millionpromised over the weekend) Australia earmarked $16 million, or that the European Union has already spent around $15 million (with over $1 billion expected) on the hardest-hit countries of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. The latest donation to land headlines is the $25 million coming from couple Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan.

But we may not know that South Africa is mobilising $22.5 million, Nigeria has donated $3.5 million, Ghana has offered its capital as coordinating center for United Nations Mission for Emergency Ebola Response, or that Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, has given $1 million to the fight. The African Development Bank has also earmarked $150 million, and Cuba has started dispatching a 300-member medical team to the affected countries where an estimated 4,500 have died from the virus.

This lopsided coverage — on display again in Monday’s Independent with a graphic listing mostly Western donors, from the U.K. to the Gates Foundation — highlights contemporary humanitarianism as not inclusive and lacking proper coordination. During crises in any part of the Global South we are more likely to be informed about what wealthy countries are doing for the South, than what the South is doing for itself.

Researchers within the South-South humanitarianism perspective argue that Southern humanitarian donors are missing from mainstream discourse because of our obsession with formally institutionalized humanitarianism of the North. Such bias automatically keeps donors from the South, generally not wealthy and without formal humanitarian institutions, off our radar. So there has been the tendency to assume that developing and underdeveloped countries lack the capacity to help others.

In cases where states from the South have given humanitarian aid to crises-hit countries, scholars and policymakers do not hesitate to ask whether the volumes are substantial, in other words, whether it matches up to what is given by developed countries.

But we need to understand how global humanitarianism really works, not just for its sake, but in order to build more inclusive and well-coordinated response systems.

As a first step, we should understand what political scientist Michael Barnett described as “a world of humanitarianisms, not humanitarianism” — in essence, there are various humanitarian efforts and philosophies being applied at once, all over the globe.

The Global Humanitarian Assistance Group reports that humanitarian crises are becoming more frequent and more complex in causal, social, political, and economic dimensions. These crises will require responses that can surmount such complexity.

International response to the Ebola outbreak has lacked speed and proper coordination, and if we have any lesson from this crisis, it is that no one ‘humanitarianism’ can fight crises alone. We have to consider what each actor from the North and South can do to abate human suffering.

Barnett would say we have to look out for other ‘humanitarianisms.’

One such humanitarian tradition is South-South humanitarianism which has only recently received some attention. Research within the field examines humanitarian practices that exist among countries in the Global South.

The phenomenon dates back to anticolonial politics of mid-20th century, but the humanitarian crisis created after the Haitian earthquake of 2010, to which many states in the South donated, brought South-South humanitarianism to global attention.

Research by Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute has examined the humanitarian programs of Brazil, India, China, and Saudi Arabia. Scholars from Oxford University’s Refugees Studies Centre have studied the programs of Cuba, Qatar, and Syria (the latter before it slipped into its current crisis). The South African Institute of International Affairs has also traced that country’s aid-giving program.

Like all research from South-South humanitarian perspective, these studies argue that rather than being net recipients, states from the South can also be donors when conditions permit.

In the case of the Ebola crisis, several Southern actors are already giving: Nigeria has donated $3.5 million to emergency relief efforts, and Ghana is using its capital as the coordinating centre for UNMEER. Cuba, under its medical internationalism, has dispatched to West Africa a 167-member medical team out of the planned 300. South Africa is mobilizing around $24 million from the private sector into an Ebola Emergency Fund for the affected countries. Brazil has supplied medical equipment and other treatment facilities. China, which initially donated $4.9 million, has also sent medical teams to West Africa, just as The Philippines did.

In the past few years, Southern donations have gone to crises in several African countries, Haiti, Chile, the Palestinian Authority, and recently, the Philippines.

And, defying the framework of South-South humanitarianism, some states have donated to crises in wealthy countries. For instance, in 2005, some of the world’s poorest states donated to relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina, and in 2011, South Africa sent teams to help rescue mission after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

So it must be understood that when conditions permit, states from the South offer emergency help to crises in both poor and wealthy countries. Of course not all countries in the South have offered aid, but the actions of the donors suggest that it takes more than developed states to respond to humanitarian crises.

A different philosophy or dynamic?

However, it is important to understand South-South humanitarianism in its own context.

Donors are motivated by a combination of historical (even sentimental) and normative factors that may differ by country. It is also practiced by countries that operate under severe economic constraints. The relatively wealthy BICS (Brazil, India, China, and South Africa — Russia geographically not part of the Global South) and others from the Middle East may be described as the top tier of Southern donors. However, many Southern donors have weak economies, and in many cases, are recipients of economic aid. This is true for most states in Africa. Also, Cuba, for instance, a country that has suffered economic hardship for decades, announced its Ebola contingent to West Africa just days after it received $31 million in economic aid from South Africa. Again, with the exception of BICS, some Middle East states, and Cuba’s medical internationalism, most states in the South practice humanitarianism without (formal) institutions, though lack of coherence and preparedness may be weaknesses here. But it means that as constrained donors, Southern states cannot neither donate the same volumes of aid nor operate in the same manner as wealthy states.

Also worth noting, as responses to the Ebola crisis suggests, donors from the South may not be totally altruistic. Cuba for instance, which has over 50,000 doctors and nurses serving in 44 countries, expects $8 billion in revenue this year from its medical internationalism, though its latest mission to West Africa is defined solely on humanitarian grounds. And with major investments in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, it is in the interest of South Africa to help stop Ebola. Nigeria, Africa’s richest country, risks shaming if it doesn’t do something, and Ghana must provide leadership as Chair of ECOWAS.

So fundamentally, humanitarian acts from the South, like those from wealthy states, may be interest-based. However, unlike wealthy states (China a possible exception), because Southern humanitarian acts are generally not backed by significant economic aid, they do not replicate relationships of dependency that exists between North and South.

Ultimately, the Ebola crisis, like previous disasters, has shown that it takes both developed and developing countries, working together, to provide emergency relief. (Earlier this month, the Guardian published perhaps the most comprehensive list of those doing so already.)

With humanitarian crises projected to increase in intensity and frequency, it will be in the interest of both wealthy and poor countries to build an inclusive, rapidly responsive, and well-coordinated humanitarian system. As a first step, scholars from Berlin’s GPPi and Oxford have suggested dialogue between Northern and Southern donors.

But regardless of how dialogue goes, there are obvious policy implications of South-South humanitarianism. States in the Global South would have to formally institutionalize humanitarian response systems. With generally weak economies, this may not be possible at the national level, but it must be a priority at the regional levels, for instance, by the African Union.

Though South-South humanitarianism has shown that formal institutions are not a precondition for humanitarian acts, creating them will help bring coherence and preparedness, necessary conditions for effective responses in the South where more humanitarian crises occur. The BICS and Northern donors must help build the institutional and resource capacity of regional organizations by subcontracting part of their humanitarian duties to the South.

Our international response to the Ebola outbreak has been inadequate — as Oxfam emphasized this past weekend — but as a lesson, we must build an inclusive humanitarian response system that involves the North and South, and all their humanitarianisms.