Haiti, Humanitarian Assistance, and Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation: Why an International Law of Humaniatarian Assistance Would Reduce Foreign Aid

Right now, thousands of individuals from at least a score of nations are in Haiti, having been rapidly deployed there to offer assistance to the millions of Haitians now homeless, injured, or worse, as a result of the recent earthquake. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been pledged in aid, with more donations pouring in every day.

In Haiti, as has been the case in the wake of many other recent natural disasters, the state practice of rendering aid to the devastated region is widespread and pervasive. However, as far as I am aware, not a single nation has announced that it is sending aid to Haiti because it believes international law requires that it do so. There is no opinio juris, but merely states acting on the basis of their own independent motivations. And yet, it seems that every state that can offer assistance is doing so — not to mention so is every international organization, NGO, and corporation out there. Sub-state entities are offering help, too; a search and rescue team from Fairfax, Virginia, has been sent down to Haiti to help victims trapped in the rubble. Hell, even tiny little Togo has offered aid, along with a number of other developing nations. For a more complete account of who is doing what, a very detailed listing can be found at Relief Web. The list is as impressive as it is diverse.

Although human rights play a very large role in today’s international law jurisprudence, I suspect that, at least in cases involving high profile natural disasters, placing an affirmative duty on states to provide humanitarian assistance would ultimately reduce the amount of aid rendered.

Simply put, there just is not a need to give such a principle the force of law. For many reasons, among them moral duty and political posturing, states are already adequately motivated to supply aid in times of humanitarian crisis.
Aid — in the form of money, food and water supplies, search and rescue teams, infrastructure support, medical personnel, and much more — was immediate and widespread. The difficulty in getting aid to Haitian citizens has nothing to do with foreign states failing to act in support and everything to do with the horrendous conditions on the ground.

But if rendering humanitarian assistance were made to be an affirmative duty under international law, all the reasons for which states now offer foreign aid would be vastly diminished, and the total amount of aid given would almost certainly decrease.

“Crowding out” — otherwise known as the motivation crowding effect, to distinguish it from other kinds of crowding out — holds that offering external rewards or punishments to encourage someone to perform a task can, somewhat counter-intuitively, actually reduce people’s incentives to act, as the extrinsic reward undermines their intrinsic motivation. Developed both by economists and psychologists, the motivation crowding effect theory is a widespread phenomenon that appears in many different situations: [PDF]

The basic idea that rewards, and in particular monetary rewards, may crowd out intrinsic motivation emanates from two quite different branches of literature in the social sciences. Thirty years ago in his book The Gift Relationship Titmuss (1970) argued that paying for blood undermines cherished social values and would therefore reduce or totally destroy people’s willingness to donate blood. Though he was unable to come up with any serious empirical evidence his thesis attracted much attention. A second literature stems from psychology. A group of cognitive social psychologists have identified that under particular conditions monetary (external) rewards undermine intrinsic motivation. The application of rewards for undertaking an activity thus has indirect negative consequences, provided intrinsic motivation is considered to be beneficial

[T]here exists indeed compelling empirical evidence for the existence of crowding out and crowding in. This conclusion is based on circumstantial evidence, laboratory evidence by both psychologists and economists as well as field evidence by econometric studies. The evidence refers to a wide variety of areas of the economy and society: children’s learning behavior; patients’ readiness to take prescribed medication; monetary and symbolic rewards for undertaking various laboratory tasks; the tendency to reciprocate in the laboratory setting reflecting work conditions in a firm; the amount of trust exhibited in a laboratory situation of incomplete contracts; the reaction of managers to various forms of supervision by their superiors; the preparedness to offer voluntary work; the observation of time schedules in daycare centers; the on-time flight performance in the airline industry; the readiness to accept nuclear waste repositories (and other locally unwanted sites); and the amount of civic virtue exhibited, in particular with respect to fulfilling one’s tax obligations (tax morale).

If offering humanitarian assistance to foreign nationals struck by disasters became a legally mandated duty, either as a part of customary international law or enshrined in treaties, I see little reason to believe that there would be any increase in the amount of aid rendered. In the wake of disasters, the citizens of states who were now obligated to send money to foreign countries would feel resentment, not generosity, towards those in need of aid. States could no longer compete for moral brownie points with one another, or use aid as a means of obtaining soft power to support their political agendas. All of these motivating factors are far more compelling reasons for states to give aid than would be international law, which is a notoriously flimsy motivator of state action.

States would likely still give aid, of course, if they believed they were required to by law. But they would give only enough to satisfy whatever their duty was, and would use clever lawyers to reduce the amount they were required to give, or to explain why a “humanitarian disaster” was not really a humanitarian disaster and therefore no duty to render aid existed.


2 thoughts on “Haiti, Humanitarian Assistance, and Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation: Why an International Law of Humaniatarian Assistance Would Reduce Foreign Aid

  1. This is essentially the same “private charity vs. government nannyism” debate that we have in the domestic sphere, right? Or am I misreading it?

    • Different in that there is no argument on the international plane that state foreign aid is detrimental to private aid. Also, given the nature of foreign aid, pretty much only state actors can hope to be effective; private charities just don’t operate on that scale.

      Also different in that it’s a question of the same actor under two different scenarios. It’s not a question of state giving vs. private giving; it’s a question of whether a state would still carry out an action it voluntarily undertakes now, if instead that action were mandated by international law.

      On a different level, I’m thinking of how this effect might apply to international law in other situations. Torture, for instance. If the prohibition on torture were a purely moral issue, would we see a greater or lesser level of “heightened interrogation”? When there is a legal ban on torture, the natural result is the John Yoos of the world, and a situation where states press the boundaries of the (legal) prohibition to their limits. A state can then excuse their possible misbehavior as the result of good faith disagreements about legal interpretation, rather than as an issue with a moral dimension.

      In many situations, it is clear that the best solution to coordinating state behavior is through international legal instruments, such as for defining where the open seas begin and agreeing that no one should use landmines in war. I think I’d even place environmental law in this category — it’s just another way to try and halt the free riders.

      But in other cases — humanitarian law, pretty much, and the fluffier human rights treaties — I wonder if the efforts to codify the norms into binding legal obligations might actually backfire, and result in more human rights abuses in the long run.

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