According to the World Health Organization, the Asia-Pacific region is one of the highest risk areas for the emergence of new infectious diseases. Factors such as dense rural populations living in close proximity to animals and dense urban housing are found throughout the region. Existing national and regional capacity to prevent or deal with disease outbreaks is uneven, ranging from more adequate systems in Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand to countries with minimal health-care infrastructure such as the Solomon Islands, Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea.
In June 2007, the revised International Health Regulations (IHR) of the World Health Organization became official after a 12-year revision process. The new IHR emphasizes prevention of disease outbreaks and spread rather than reaction. Each member state of the WHO has five years to fulfill the seven key obligations. While richer countries will not face a serious problem in implementation, developing country members will find it difficult if not impossible to meet the obligations by the deadline. They require an advanced health-care infrastructure including well-trained medical professionals and scientists, diagnostic laboratories, surveillance systems, and health care services far beyond their economic means.
In an article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs, Adam Kamradt-Scott, Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, reviews the challenges to the developing countries in the region of meeting the IHR obligations. He then considers the role of Australian aid in helping developing countries. Most recent AusAID funds have supported general development goals such as improving economic infrastructure and local employment with smaller amounts of funding targeted to strengthen health care infrastructure.
Kamradt-Scott finds this pattern regrettable since more emphasis on health care investment would have two “spin-off benefits:” improving the capacity for early identification of disease outbreaks and strategic building on the investments Australia has already made in enhancing pandemic preparedness in the region. Both, in turn, will benefit Australia in protecting the health of its own people.
A final benefit the author mentions, drawn from a AusAID document, is that such aid from Australia to regional LDCs will “bolster, and potentially extend, its existing sphere of influence” and help Australia achieve “other foreign policy objectives such as promoting regional stability and governance reform.” Refreshingly direct, isn’t it.
Cultural anthropologists have defined many categories of gift-giving and exchange including the “free gift” for which there is no thought of a return of any kind at any time. A “free gift” is the logical opposite of theft in which someone takes something from someone else with no intention to ever return it to the owner. In between is reciprocity (which has subcategories such as generalized or balanced) in which two people exchange items of roughly equivalent value over time with no exact date specified for the return. Kula trading in the Trobriand Islands is a classic example of reciprocity. And then there is market exchange in which a seller seeks to make a profit through a sale in which a buyer agrees to transfer a specified payment by a specified date.
Development aid explicitly to expand influence poses a challenge to anthropological categories of giving and exchange. Unlike a pure gift, there is a sense on the part of the giver that a return is expected. Unlike reciprocity as in the kula, identifiably similar goods are not exchanged between roughly equal-status trading partners. Unlike market exchange, there is no sale involved, no buyer and seller. It’s not theft. It’s a gift given with the knowledge that its benefits will come back to the giver. It’s boomerang aid.
I don’t mean to point the finger of blame at Australia alone since many other countries, my own included, direct most of their aid to serve their own political or business interests. Readers: do you know of any recent studies that have compared bilateral aid organizations in terms of how much of their aid is self-interested and how much is more altruistic?
Photo, “long distance”, from Flickr, Creative Commons.