Populism: A Threat To Humanitarian Aid?


There has been a rise of populism, highlighted by President Donald Trump’s election in the U.S. and the UK’s vote for Brexit. As such, the word “populism” has been more widely used but in very different contexts. For instance, President Trump advocates the deportation of undocumented immigrants whereas the Spanish party Podemos supports voting rights for immigrants. Despite such differences in beliefs, both have been described as populist. According to Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist, populism refers more to a “thin ideology” that appeals to the “common people” against the “corrupt elite.” It scorns the current political establishment. Due to the inward-looking policies of the populist ideology, it has posed a concerning threat against humanitarian aid.

President Trump is an exemplary illustration of a recent populist leader. He has vociferously advocated for “America First” policies, which focus on maintaining resources within the country and rejecting foreign involvement. They include increasing military spending, building a wall on the Mexican border and eliminating funding for various agencies. President Trump embodies populism because he claims to act for the “forgotten men and women of our country,” or, as Mudde observes, to serve as “the vehicle of the people.” He presented himself as part of the “common people” and convinced the American voters that he holds the same value as them.

Now as the President of United States of America, Trump is spearheading various changes that drastically hamper humanitarian aid. Last month, he submitted the 2018 U.S. fiscal report in which he announced that funding for international organizations will decrease by 31%. This includes decreasing aid to UN peacekeeping by more than 50%. A UN representative commented that such major cuts from the primary contributor “would simply make it impossible for the UN to continue all of its essential work advancing peace, development, human rights and humanitarian assistance.” Worse still, President Trump declared that financial support for UNICEF and UNFPA, which chiefly provide support for children and safe pregnancy respectively, will be eliminated. It is without question that various international organizations and humanitarian aid, in general, will be severely hindered.

Brexit is another primary example of the current rise in populism. In the referendum on 23 June 2016, the United Kingdom voted for the withdrawal from the EU. The people scorned the status quo and rejected the establishment, thereby replacing it with uncertainty. Though Article 50 has been triggered and the UK is undergoing formal processes of exiting the EU, the process, its outcomes and its details are still unclear.

In terms of humanitarian aid, Brexit can affect both the funding provided by the EU and the UK. The European Parliament presented three different scenarios that the UK may adopt: nationalist, realist and cosmopolitan. In the nationalist case, the UK will decrease its humanitarian aid funding by 30% which consequently decreases global aid by 3%. In the other two scenarios, the UK contribution to humanitarian aid is maintained but only the distribution channels altered in the realist scenario. Currently, the UK annually funds $2 billion to foreign aid through the EU which represents approximately 15% of the EU contribution. The UK can either become completely independent from the EU (realist) or from a certain degree of collaboration with the Union (cosmopolitan). In either scenario, the contribution will be voluntary and not legally binding. Hence, there is no guarantee that the current level of foreign aid will be provided. There are significant uncertainties in all of the outcomes and it is too early to definitively conclude how foreign aid is affected by the Brexit voting. Nevertheless, the rise of populism in Europe has imposed the risk of humanitarian aid being curtailed.

Examples here focused on President Trump and Brexit since they are the height of populism with global impact. The majority of the humanitarian aid is provided by the more developed countries and the propagation of the populist ideologies in these regions have either significantly threatened humanitarian aid of international organizations or jeopardized the current funding schemes which are respectively illustrated by the decisions made by President Trump and Brexit.

Andras Derzi-Horvath, the project manager at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, notes that these two events can “threaten the humanitarian system as we know it.” Primarily, the potential risk of decreasing humanitarian aid is imminent. The U.S. and UK together constitute more than 40% of the global humanitarian aid. As such, a decrease in aid spending by these two nations impends serious consequences. There is already a $7.8 billion gap in the total funding that is required and what is being provided. In other words, only 60.2% of the total required funding is currently being provided.

In the best scenario, other nations will increase their humanitarian aid support and thereby maintain the absolute amount provided for aid. Unfortunately, due to national interests and limited resources especially in current uncertain times, this is highly unlikely.

The more realistic scenario is where organizations handling humanitarian aid become more efficient. However, Atul Khare, the UN undersecretary-general for peacekeeping support, said that this is already being addressed. Khare explained that “…the cost of UN peacekeeping to member states today is 17% lower in 2016-17 than it was in 2008-09 when measured as cost per capita of deployed uniformed personnel.” Though similar improvements can be made, the data shows that the quoted improvement occurred gradually and took 10 years. Hence, though the increase in efficiency can improve how the limited aid is spent, it is likely to take time.

Consequently, it will take time for organizations to adapt to the scarcity of aid.  During this time, nations can potentially abuse humanitarian aid for their own interests. For instance, a fundamental aspect of the current humanitarian aid system is that it is impartial and provided without political interests. However, as the U.S. and UK contributions decrease, the relative contributions from other countries that do not stringently uphold these values increase. They will have a greater influence in how the aid is distributed and may request how certain humanitarian aid is spent. In 2016, Saudi Arabia did ask international organizations to refrain from aiding certain regions of Yemen that it was bombing. Though the request was rejected by the UN, the decreasing contributions from the U.S. and the UK can strengthen the weight of such requests and imposes a potential risk that could have otherwise been avoided.

In conclusion, the rise in populism, especially in wealthier nations such as the U.S. and the UK resulted in decreased global aid. Because the gap in funding cannot be expected to be filled by other nations, the burden increases on international organizations to increase their efficiency. Unfortunately, it is a slow process that cannot be immediately adopted in the midst of the sudden, rapid changes in the sector. As such, consequences may arise where countries abuse humanitarian aid and utilize it in their nationalistic interests. If these series of events were to occur, then it threatens what we currently view as “humanitarian aid.” If there are conditions attached to the support provided, then humanitarian aid no longer holds an accurate definition. If populism born from nationalistic fervour continues to manifest, it can indeed threaten the roots of the current global aid.

Min Ji Kim

Undergraduate student studying Biochemistry at University of Oxford