Global Health Security – COVID-19 Crisis: Timely Reminder for Climate Change

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Authors: Margareth Sembiring
Research Themes:
Environmental security and climate change
Health security
Type: Commentaries
17 April 2020



The COVID-19 outbreak disrupted our daily lives and impacted national economies. Amidst the virus turmoil, our natural surroundings have benefited from the slowdown. The global community needs to make a concerted effort to rethink our approach to economic growth to avert a climate crisis.


THE RESPONSES to the COVID-19 outbreak are unprecedented. Among the various measures that governments have introduced, there is one distinct characteristic that is visibly different from the usual policymaking processes. It is their readiness to relegate the economy’s timeless supremacy in place of a pressing public health crisis.

The extent to which the economy is pushed to yield differs across countries. Although some segments in society may have more resources to better healthcare services, the fact that the infection risk pays no regard to social economic status makes curbing its spread everybody’s business. It thus gives legitimacy to bold and swift interventions regardless of the inconvenience, discomfort, and disruptions to normal day-to-day activities, and even if they disproportionately affect some socio-economic groups more than others.

Environmental Silver Lining

The resulting economic slowdown has cleared up skies and rivers in many parts of the world. This phenomenon shows that the economy and the environment are still standing on opposing sides. It therefore suggests that the current approaches to economic growth needs to be rethought to avert a climate crisis.

The environmental reprieve brought about by such interventions is hardly surprising. Government interventions essentially force people to self-isolate, and this has brought down carbon emissions and pollution levels.

In China, carbon emissions reduced by 25% in the four weeks following the Lunar New Year. India’s Ganga River has got cleaner and became suitable for bathing. In northern Italy and other major cities in the world, the levels of nitrogen dioxide, a major air pollutant closely associated with factory and vehicle emissions, have visibly reduced since COVID-19 began to restrict economic activities in these places.

Considering the scale of fear and human suffering associated with the virus, the environmental benefits are not a cause of celebration. After all, the winding down of the economy is not completely voluntary, and the environmental repercussions are not intentional. They are a side-effect of otherwise unlikely interventions under normal circumstances.

Environment Breathes, When Economy Gives Way

Regardless, the phenomenon serves as a powerful reminder that economic activities in particular are responsible for environmental degradation and climate change. A similar experience in emission drop was observed during the 2008-2009 economic crisis.

These suggest that the environment can only breathe when the economy gives way. It thus calls into question whether the current vision for unlimited economic growth can truly stand side by side with the care for the planet.

Governments’ willingness to loosen their grip on the economy is needed to fight climate issues. This determination, however, will be a challenge. First, COVID-19 creates an immediate sense of danger. It activates a survival instinct that places human life over all other considerations.

On the other hand, climate change does not project the same sense of urgency. Despite numerous projections and plausible catastrophic scenarios that have been made over the years, climate change evolves relatively slowly. Additionally, the perceptions on climate threats vary across countries because of their rather localised impacts so far.

Lessons for Climate Change

The COVID-19 experience provides invaluable lessons for climate change responses. When the outbreak just started to make news headlines in late 2019, there was a general impression that the virus would only be a problem in China. Outside China, there was little sense of urgency.

Not much was done to get healthcare systems ready and systematically prepare the people for the eventual arrival and spread of the virus locally. The perceived government complacency could have been driven by other factors; but it is closely reminiscent of the general attitude towards climate change.

The scale of disasters that COVID-19 brings is still largely unknown. However, it has now become clear that it painfully stretches healthcare systems in many countries including in advanced economies.

Similarly, while climate change may impact countries and societies differently depending on their geographical characteristics, resources, and resilience, the eventual scale of catastrophes remains a mystery. The stresses they may exert on the existing systems thus cannot be underestimated.

Although the novelty of the virus caught the world by surprise and can partly explain what seems like clumsy responses across the globe, climate change impacts are known. Unlike coronavirus, the warnings about climate change have been foretold for decades.

The lack of bold and urgent action on it is therefore ironic. If the new coronavirus has proven that not even the rich and the powerful can be immune to the infection, even if they have access to first class healthcare services, climate disasters could be just as far-reaching and chaotic despite the technologies, infrastructure and resources put in place to protect people.

Sustainable Recovery

The window to avert climate calamities is fast closing. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that global warming may reach the 1.5 degree Celsius mark within a decade. The coronavirus situation may force human and economic activities to halt temporarily, but at the same time, it shows that things can be done differently. The stay home arrangement and the closing down of most businesses compel people to get in touch with what is the most essential. Cutting down on air travel, fine dining, shopping delights and other habits of consumerism may be inconvenient, but it certainly does not kill. That is what the current COVID-19 measures are showing us.

When the coronavirus crisis is eventually over, countries will get their economies rolling again. In view of the climate crisis, governments need to seriously consider recovery packages that support climate goals. Additionally, the consumption-driven economic growth model needs rethinking since sustainable development, despite its noble vision, has thus far proven ineffective in clamping down on carbon emissions.

The COVID-19 experience shows that the economy may need to make way for the environment to prevent climate disasters. A concerted global effort is imperative to move away from the current practice of using natural resources unabatedly in a bid to achieve unlimited economic growth. If the international community can work together to control COVID-19, this should also be possible for climate change.

About the Author

Margareth Sembiring is an Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. This is part of a series.

Global Health Security – Impact of COVID-19: Can Irregular Migrants Cope?

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Authors: S. Nanthini
Research Themes:
Health security
Irregular migration and the movements of people
Type: Commentaries
16 April 2020



Irregular migrants already struggling with poverty, displacement and discrimination, will be one of the hardest hit communities by the COVID-19 pandemic. Facing stigmatisation and a lack of resources, they are often overlooked in policy conversations despite their especially high vulnerability to the virus.


AS OF 15 APRIL 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has reached a grim milestone  ̶  over 2 million people have now been confirmed to be infected, with the death toll exceeding 134,000. The next ‘wave’ of the virus, after the original wave in China and East Asia, is hitting developing countries hard.

More than 80% of irregular migrants, from refugees to internally-displaced people and asylum-seekers, live in developing countries. Many of them are found in urban areas working in the informal economy. They are an especially vulnerable community that faces inadequate access to healthcare, community stigmatisation and limited humanitarian resources.

Access to Healthcare in Urban Centres

A key issue facing irregular migrants is their access to healthcare. Drawn to urban centres in search of jobs, most irregular migrants in urban areas live in overcrowded facilities with poor sanitation, making them vulnerable to disease.

However, they face significant challenges when needing access to healthcare. These challenges include cost, potential language barriers as well as fears of arrest and deportation if they have a precarious legal status. This is especially dangerous during the current COVID-19 outbreak as it increases the risk of potential carriers going around undetected and untreated among the community.

To combat these risks, governments in South Korea and Malaysia have encouraged people to get tested by covering the cost of these tests for everyone in the country, not only their own citizens. To also encourage migrants with precarious legal status to voluntarily come forward to be tested, South Korea’s Justice Ministry has confirmed that information will not be collected by the immigration authorities.

Other countries should also take decisive steps to put in place measures to support their irregular migrant communities by removing barriers that hinder access to healthcare.

Community Stigmatisation

Irregular migrants also likely face increased stigmatisation from their host communities as the COVID-19 outbreak intensifies. They are already being used as scapegoats for outbreaks, such as in Italy with the far-right former interior minister, Matteo Salvini, blaming African migrants for the COVID-19 outbreak in the country.

This is only being reinforced by discriminatory restrictions. In Lebanon, several municipalities have introduced restrictions that affect only Syrian refugees. Although there have so far been no reported COVID-19 cases among the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, the restrictions on them go beyond government-regulated restrictions.

For example, in the Brital municipality, Syrian refugees are only allowed to move around between 9 am and 1 pm, unlike the government curfew of between 7pm and 5am. Out of fear of further stigmatisation and potential “legal measures”, these discriminatory measures are likely to act as a deterrant to refugees seeking medical care, rather than preventing spread of the virus.

A more inclusive public health agenda may be far more useful in preventing spread of COVID-19. For example, Portugal has temporarily granted full citizenship rights to all migrants and asylum seekers with ongoing residency requests at least until 1 July 2020. By granting them access to national benefits such as healthcare, welfare and bank accounts, this policy is far more likely to prevent the spread by encouraging them to seek help without fear of discrimination.

Stretched Humanitarian Resources

With both developing and developed countries needing humanitarian assistance, resources are also being stretched in all areas. Even international NGOs such as MSF and EMERGENCY that are more used to deploying in developing countries have been asked to also deploy to the current epicentre in Europe. MSF has already expanded its activities to countries such as France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.

Moreover, the increasing number of government-mandated border closures, lockdowns and the evacuation of non-essential international staff by aid groups has meant that resources on the ground are becoming increasingly limited. This shortage of resources is already affecting current and future humanitarian programmes.

For example, Bangladeshi authorities have ordered the suspension of all relief work, apart from essential services like health and nutrition in the refugee camps. They have also asked humanitarian aid groups to limit travel from Cox’s Bazar to the camps.

Makeshift schools and child-friendly spaces in the Rohingya refugee camps have been closed with some possibly repurposed for medical use. In-camp schemes such as the long-awaited formal schooling programme based on the Myanmar curriculum and set to begin this month, have also been suspended.

Current Global Response

Although the number of reported COVID-19 cases among irregular migrants remain low as of now, this is unlikely to continue. Urgent support is needed from the international community for countries affected by COVID-19, particularly developing countries with lower preparedness to deal with the outbreak.

In order to help these countries, international organisations have started releasing relief funds and appealing for more money. For example, the UN recently launched its US$2 billion “COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan” appeal on 25 March 2020.

Coordinated by the UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA) and implemented by UN agencies with NGO consortia, this response plan will support the delivery of medical aid, installation of water, sanitation and hygiene equipment, as well as establish airbridges and hubs to streamline the movement of humanitarian aid.

However, it is essential to keep in mind that resources should not just be diverted to these COVID-19 appeals from other humanitarian projects. While recent global attention has understandably been on COVID-19-related activities, resources must also be available to sustain other vital lifesaving programmes.

As the world sees increased efforts to fight COVID-19, the primary focus of those coordinating the responses to the current pandemic must be the preservation of all life, regardless of who they are or where they come from. COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, and neither must the world.

About the Author

S. Nanthini is a Research Analyst with the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) Programme at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. This is part of a series.

Global Health Security – COVID-19 and School Closures: Why Education Sector Needs Protecting

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Authors: Tamara Nair
Research Themes:
Health security
Type: Commentaries
8 April 2020



Around 90 percent of the world’s students are currently out of school as a result of the global pandemic. How prepared are we to face the fallout of having schools closed for this long?


SCHOOLS ARE where socialisation is encouraged and rightfully so. They are microcosms of the societies within which students will ultimately be embedded to live their lives. But schools are also more than that. They are places, for many students in this world, where access to food, water, safety and well-being is guaranteed for at least as long as the school day.

Understandably, schools can also be hotbeds of infection given the close proximity of so many over a number of hours each day. And the young and very young are hard to convince when one speaks of social distancing. As of the end of March this year, 185 nations have country-wide school closures and that accounts for 89.4 percent of enrolled students globally, from pre-primary, primary, lower and upper secondary as well as tertiary levels of education. This situation cannot be without repercussions and will not be an easy scenario to walk back from.

Schools: Provide and Protect

The speed and scale of the current disruption is unparalleled in modern history. There are compelling reasons why keeping students away from schools, at least for this long, may not be ideal and in fact can be detrimental not only to the students of today but also the security of nations in the future. This points to the importance of preparing educational institutions for large-scale disruptions by strategic planning and dedication of resources to keeping them open for as long as possible.

Schools are not only educational institutions, in many parts of the world, they are also kitchens that provide the only form of nutrition to many school-going children. Schools’ feeding programmes are sometimes the only meal of the day that many children in the world have access to. At the moment, 300 million children are missing school meals as a result of the virus.

The realisation of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger is often through schools as well. School feeding programmes in countries like Timor Leste help with food and nutritional insecurities faced by children.

Similar to Timor Leste, the World Food Programme has feeding programmes in the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Laos – all countries with serious rates of child malnourishment. Children could lose access to a daily nutritious meal if schools were to remain closed for long periods of time.

For many children, schools also equate to safety from physical harm and exploitation. When children are not in schools they become easy targets. They can be abused, set to work, exploited in other ways and even recruited into unsavoury groups or organisations. In fact, schools are also places where abused and exploited children are often identified.

This is not to say that nothing bad ever happens to students in schools. But for many students around the world, schools and the social networks and support they provide often create a sanctuary away from whatever trauma or terror they might be exposed to at home or in the streets, every day.

Schools as Support Structures

Schools are support structures for nations. Not only do they educate, they are a micro-economy unto themselves – from transport services to bookshops, to printers and publishers, to laboratory and media equipment, to coffeehouses and canteens and restaurants and fast-food chains; school closures affect all of these.

Schools also allow a fighting chance for all to have equal economic opportunities in the future. They can also be spaces where gender discrimination can be reduced, especially with programmes that encourage the enrolment of girls since female students are the ones that often stop or postpone their education to go out to work to support families. This will happen if the economic situation worsens and we see years of work in reducing the gender gap in education being slowly dismantled.

Ultimately, educational institutions get the next generation of labour ready. A trained labour force powers economies; accelerates their growth and development. Even a short period of closure can have implications on the economic security of nations.

Preparing Educational Institutions

The experience of countries that have had to shut down schools should bring to our attention the need to include them in pandemic preparedness. Countries like Sweden and Australia have kept their schools open.

Increased precautionary measures, and here Singapore schools stand out as an excellent example: staggering breaks, temperature monitoring, reminders to wash their hands, cancelling mass assemblies, after-school activities and inter school competitions, have all made schools one of the safer places to be in. But Singapore too has recently had to shut schools for a month.

A global health crisis like COVID-19 is a classic non-traditional security challenge. True to the latter’s definition, it has involved large populations and has traversed across state boundaries requiring an ‘all-of-society’ approach to overcome.

That translates into many actors at many levels of governance stepping up coordination and cooperation. But if we are to learn anything from this pandemic it is that the lines of communication between those that need and those that give should be open and clear.

Learning in Uncharted Times

Investments in education in the Global South henceforth may have to take a different form from just building infrastructure and feeding programmes. If anything, this pandemic has taught us the importance of bridging digital divides and increasing connectivity in countries that lag behind now.

Such infrastructure can help students to continue to learn even in the event of serious disruptions. Humanitarian assistance may also include educational technology or infrastructure that can be brought in. This together with other strategies must help delay school closures for as long as possible in crises situations.

Prolonged forced absence from educational institutions is a dangerous path to be on for any country. Schools serve social and economic functions. As the global economy tries to fix itself in the aftermath of this pandemic, it will need the skills and training of a prepared workforce ready to move in. Will we see this happen? The answer lies in what we do today to try and keep our students learning in unchartered times.

About the Author

Tamara Nair is Research Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre) in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. This is part of a series.

Striking a Balance: Emerging Technologies, Humanitarian Needs, and Other Public Goods

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Authors: Martin Searle
Research Themes:
Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief
Type: Policy Reports
28 January 2019


Executive Summary

In December 2017 the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) identified four policy balances that must be struck when using emerging technologies in humanitarian operations. This report specifically explores how to balance humanitarian uses of emerging technologies and other public goods. It presents two principal findings. First, inhabitants of less regulated, often less developed locations, shoulder a greater burden of the risk from experimenting with emerging technologies for humanitarian use. Second, humanitarians’ regulation of their own innovation efforts may produce sub-optimal, even perverse, results. The paper gives several policy recommendations in light of these findings.

NTS Bulletin January 2019

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Research Themes:
Other NTS Issues
Type: Newsletters
23 January 2019


Tracking Progress of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

By The Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre)
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)
Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore

It has been more than three years since the historic 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by the 193 member states of the United Nations in September 2015. The adoption of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was hailed as an ambitious and bold vision for sustainable development given its 17-part agenda—much more than the goals set by its predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), that was concluded in 2015.

The aim of the expanded SDG agendas was to build on the momentum of what the MDGs have achieved and go beyond the goals of eradicating poverty and hunger, improving health and achieving clean environment in order to address crosscutting challenges brought on by climate change, rapid urbanisation, demands for clean and sustainable energy, agriculture, and building resilient infrastructure, safe cities and human settlements. Significantly, the SDGs were also aimed at addressing rising inequality, promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, and increasing access to justice.  As noted in the statement of the UN General Assembly Resolution 70/1 that adopted the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, the global goals were ‘unprecedented in scope and significance…setting out a supremely ambitious and transformational vision.’

Since its adoption, annual reviews have been conducted and led by the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development which is convened by the UN’s Economic and Social Council. The Forum, which is held in New York, brings together representatives from governments, the UN System, civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders.  It provides the platform for these representatives to exchange ideas and information on the progress of achieving the SDGs.  Progress is measured based on a set of indicators and measures for each goal which in turn helps to assess what works and what does not in the implementation of the Goals.  In further advancing work on tracking progress of the Goals, the HLPF has encouraged member states to conduct their own voluntary reviews at the national and sub-national levels.  These national reviews then serve as the basis for the regular reviews done by the HLPF and provide a platform for building partnerships, including through the participation of major groups and other relevant stakeholders.  It is useful to note that the latest report of the HLPF presented by the UN Secretary General in May 2018, noted that while there is moving progress in the implementation of the SDGs, much more work needs to be done to ensure commitments of all parties and in ensuring that no one is left behind.

Aside from the UN, the monitoring of progress of SDGs on countries and regions has also been done by international organisations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which recently released a report on “ASEAN Progress Towards Sustainable Development Goals and the Role of the IMF” in October 2018.  Similarly, CSR-Asia also brought out its report, “The Sustainable Development Goals and ASEAN 2025: A Guide for Business”, in March 2018. The two reports had noted significant progress made by ASEAN countries in reducing poverty, improving income and expanding economic opportunities. But the reports also flagged the need for ASEAN countries to reduce inequality within and between countries and address the gaps in sustainable development and the challenges of climate change.

A shared yet specific recommendation pointed out in the two reports and other studies in moving implementation of SDGs forward is noteworthy. That is that more efforts should be done by ASEAN countries to fully integrate the SDGs in their national development plans.  Moreover, given that the 2030 SDG goals are highly complementary with the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, more efforts should be made in finding ways to enhance regional cooperation in achieving the SDGs.  This means finding a coherent way to link global goals with regional/national programmes through targeted intra-regional programmes in issues like infrastructure development, cooperation in water and energy, and in managing migration. Thus, aligning the implementation of SDGs with the goals of a prosperous and peaceful ASEAN Community would allow for more efficient way in tracking progress of shared development goals.


Striking a Balance: Disaster Responders’ and Affected Communities’ Interests in New Technologies

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Authors: Martin Searle
Research Themes:
Conflict and community security
Type: Policy Reports
29 January 2019


Executive Summary

In December 2017 the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) identified four policy balances that must be struck when using emerging technologies in humanitarian operations. This report specifically explores how to balance the needs of disaster responders with those of the disaster-affected when innovating. It presents three principal findings. First, innovators must do more to confirm if their innovations actually bring benefits. Second, local innovators may be more open to unforeseen uses of their ideas, resulting in more locally beneficial outcomes. Third, start-up companies are uniquely situated to co-innovate productively with local communities; however, this brings additional risks that need mitigating. The paper gives several policy recommendations in light of these findings.

MN34 | Resilience in the Face of Disruptions

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Authors: Mely Caballero-Anthony, Margareth Sembiring
Research Themes:
Other NTS Issues
Type: Monographs
19 February 2019


Monograph No. 34

Against a rapidly changing global environment, societies are now having to deal with a host of challenges to their security and way of life. Many of these challenges had a significant disruptive impact on human security. In the 21st century, how societies respond to disruption(s) and manage their transformative effects would largely be defined by the extent to which they are able to comprehend the complex consequences of such disruption on their social, economic and political institutions that shape their everyday lives.

A key element in dealing with disruption is building resilience. This was the key theme of the 3rd Annual Conference of the Consortium of Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies in Asia, held on 27-28 March 2018, in Singapore. This monograph compiles the papers presented by members of the Consortium. They examine the kinds of human insecurities and uncertainties brought on by disruptions, analyse the current responses by states and other actors, and point to specific recommendations on how societal resilience can be built in the face of disruptions.

NTS Bulletin February 2019

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Research Themes:
Poverty and economic security
Type: Newsletters
20 February 2019


Regional economic integration towards the ASEAN Economic Community has led to a more than five-fold increase in the size of regional GDP of ASEAN member states since they first set off on this path. This began with the ASEAN Free Trade Area in 1992, and the increase has been from approximately USD 500 Billion in 1995 to USD 2.7 Trillion by 2017 (in current US dollars). If these trends continue, it could allow for reducing regional poverty and potentially contribute to the global 2030 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of ‘ending poverty’.

However, since the first year when the SDGs were institutionalized (2016), there have been waves of protectionist sentiment in international trade, which present an important uncertainty that could disrupt the previous pattern of trade-enabled growth and development. This sentiment, mostly through twitter posts on social media, was actualized in January 2017, when the United States officially backed out of a landmark trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It was followed by the ongoing trade-war between the United States and China.

The theory has been that freer trade in goods, through trade facilitation and reduction of tariff- and non-tariff barriers, allows countries to specialise in commodities which they can produce more efficiently than others. As a result of more efficient distribution of roles on who-produces-what, the size of the economic pie increases, ideally to the benefit of all who take part in baking it. As such, trade-wars and less trade cooperation can potentially reduce GDP growth.

So far, ASEAN has not yet been significantly affected, if one looks at its economic output. For instance, 2017 did not see a decline in ASEAN GDP, even in constant US dollar terms. Based on latest available year-end data from 2016 to 2017, the region’s GDP grew 4.8 per cent, which was faster than its annualized growth rate of 4.3 per cent from 2010 to 2016 (both in constant US dollars; in current US dollars, the increase was even steeper, from 5.4 percent to 6.7 per cent). These reflect to some extent the robustness of ASEAN’s economic community, as a result of prior integration efforts.

Nonetheless, the risk remains, when one speculates on potential behaviours of countries beyond the region. At the 2018 ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in Singapore, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad warned that US protectionist behaviour could set a precedence, and trigger a ‘domino effect’. Populist sentiment in developed countries may, for instance, lead them to also apply or increase trade barriers on products exported by developing countries, including ASEAN countries.

Remaining Resilient

For ASEAN to continue to be robust against the threat of trade protectionism, it will need to sustain its progress in developing the ASEAN Economic Community, such as by developing its infrastructure; building up its small and medium enterprises; improving digital and transport connectivity; and appropriately leveraging technologies in the Fourth Industrial Revolution that are slowly transforming jobs and businesses.

Apart from trade, financial robustness will be a continuing safeguard moving forward. Trade and financial integration go hand-in-hand, as increased intra-regional trade means net exporting countries can accumulate more capital, such as through cross-border trade financing. However, during trade wars, a sudden decline in demand for products of net exporting countries can lead to financial instability (as less capital goes to the exporting country) coupled with exchange rate volatility. To prevent these, the ASEAN+3 Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization provides reserves that ailing countries can tap when they are running low on capital. It needs improvement, though, as a timely and reliable source of capital in times of crisis. For example, 70 per cent of the fund can only be tapped by countries with ongoing programmes with the International Monetary Fund (IMF); yet, not all countries agree with reforms imposed by the IMF as pre-requisites for IMF loans.

Looking forward, there is also room to explore ways for the region to fund their own infrastructure and connectivity efforts. If these initiatives are expected to have vast positive economic impacts, allowing for new cross-border transactions that boost the productivity of their businesses, then there is potential for these to become viable investment opportunities, even for the private sector.

CO19042 | International Humanitarian Assistance: What Must Change

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Authors: Dr Catherine Bragg
Research Themes:
Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief
Type: Commentaries
11 March 2019



For decades, international humanitarian assistance has been a supply-driven enterprise of rich countries funding multilateral and international organisations to distribute aid in poor and fragile states. To be more demand-driven, we should develop modalities that enable crisis-affected people to access the help they need.


LAST DECEMBER, at a Mass in Dublin, congregants were asked to pray for the victims of the Anak Krakatau tsunami in Indonesia and for countries to be generous in coming to their aid. As someone who has observed the humanitarian scene for two decades, I knew the second part would not be necessary.

The disaster was of a scale well within Indonesia’s ability to cope. Besides, even when confronted with a greatly more devastating earthquake in Sulawesi a few months earlier, Indonesia accepted only very limited and targeted assistance. What then is the place of international humanitarian assistance in today’s world?

International Humanitarian Assistance Today

Increasingly, middle income countries have developed national structures and capacity to lead and address (primarily natural) disasters response. In 2016, against a backdrop of an estimated 100 million significantly food-insecure people, amongst whom are also part of the estimated 65 million involuntarily displaced persons, nations committed to increasing “localisation” of humanitarian action at the World Humanitarian Summit.

“Localisation” has come to denote aid as provided by those closest to the people in need. Multilateral and international humanitarian organisations have translated it to mean engaging more local partners. Donors take it to mean shortening the funding pathway to the front line. Governments, especially in Asia and for natural disasters, prefer a model of “national lead-regional organisations back-up international support”.

A recent major report by Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance (ALNAP), The State of the Humanitarian System (2018 ed.) indicates that there have been only slight movements towards “localisation” amongst donors and agencies. They seem to be still caught in a post-Cold War model of rich countries funding multilateral and international humanitarian organisations to work in poor and fragile states.

As reported, in many conflict situations, governments have become good at thwarting international assistance. Alongside the multilateral and international agencies, there is now a plethora of “non-traditional” actors in the humanitarian sphere − private sector entities, faith-based charities, etc. The report’s lead author laments that the current international humanitarian system is less than the sum of its parts.

Aid Should Be Demand-Driven

In an era of rising antipathy towards multilateralism, international law and international cooperation, an understandable tendency is to pivot to a “small-is-better” and “national-trumps-international” mindset. I think focusing on changing the aid providers is looking in the wrong place.

Studies after studies show that crisis-affected people are not helpless victims, but people with their own agency. If they need help, they turn first and foremost to family, friends and neighbours, long before outside intervention kicks in. As someone said succinctly, today’s disaster “victims” do not sit around waiting for aid agencies to come with bags of rice. They take out their cell phones and text their cousins in Miami, Amsterdam or Dubai and say, “send money”.

International humanitarian assistance cannot continue to be an enterprise of aid suppliers. Aid must be demand driven. In the 21st Century, we need to turn “assistance” from aid provision to the enabling of those affected by disasters to access the help they need.

Enabled Access as Aid

Even as there still is a place for provisions to be made available when they are scarce, international agencies should not start with that as a first premise. They need to acknowledge the presence and capabilities of the myriad of parties present, whether governmental or non-governmental, personal or commercial, and work to maximise the chances of those in need getting help.

There have been two recent positive developments beneficial to enabling − agencies’ use of cash transfer programmes and investments in information/communications/technology (ICT). Their full potential, though, has been limited by agencies viewing them as efficiency-improvement measures and not as people-enabling ones.

For example, cash is still seen as substitution for agency-mandated commodities distribution (e.g. World Food Programme for food distribution) with little willingness to combine forces for cross-sectoral cash transfers. Agencies develop ICT to facilitate their own work and their communication with recipients, without encouraging them to use the telecommunications means to reach the full range of humanitarian actors and programmes in theatre.

Future of Aid in Integrating Access

An observation from a recent earthquake response is where there is in-country strong disaster management capacity, the added-value of international intervention is not more capacity for emergency response or addressing basic human needs. Disaster response might benefit from more qualitative, principled intervention, in collaboration with local actors, in the areas such as gender, community inclusion or protection.

The international community may see these as values-driven programming, but in fact, they are enabling programming to ensure needs are met with more equitable access especially for the most vulnerable.

End-users are best served when they have integrated access. Just look at the integration of movies, television and videos. The current vibrant entertainment scene did not come about because Hollywood decided to make better movies. It came about because of technology-driven integrated access and viewers demand.

The future of international humanitarian assistance is in continuing to search for more and better ways to integrated access for crisis-affected people.

About the Author

Dr Catherine Bragg, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, was Visiting Senior Fellow in the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Programme, NTS Centre, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. She is Adjunct Full Professor in the Centre for Humanitarian Action, University College Dublin, and a Governor of the University of Toronto.

Resource Sharing and Joint Development in the South China Sea: Exploring Avenues of Cooperation

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Authors: Julius Cesar Imperial Trajano
Research Themes:
Water security
Type: Working Papers
11 March 2019



The Philippines and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in Cooperation on Oil and Gas Development, demonstrating their willingness to explore joint development as a pathway to collaboration, notwithstanding their territorial disputes. Recent commentaries on joint development are mostly framed on legal challenges, South China Sea (SCS) rows, geopolitics, and state-centric security issues. However, there have been no extensive discussions on the potential contributions from non-state stakeholders that can make joint development agreements environmentally sound, sustainable, and less political. These stakeholders are the oil companies, fishermen and coastal communities. In this regard, this NTS Insight explores potential roles of these stakeholders in promoting joint initiatives to share and develop resources in the SCS. It argues that the engagement and participation of non-state stakeholders in resource sharing and joint management must be pursued to address key non-traditional security challenges in the SCS. It also examines mechanisms to integrate marine environmental protection and sustainable fishing management into joint development agreements.