Why nations rush to help India

Gratitude for India’s assistance to other countries over the past year is behind much of the aid to end its coronavirus crisis.

A shipment of medical supplies from the United Kingdom arrives in New Delhi, India, April 27.

Now the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, India has received extraordinary offers of aid from other countries. Even archrival Pakistan made a goodwill gesture to help relieve its neighbor’s unprecedented health crisis. Some aid is being given for political or strategic reasons. After all, the world’s largest democracy, with 1.3 billion people and the fifth-largest economy, is difficult to ignore. Yet look closer and you’ll see another motive at work: an appreciation for India’s past generosity.

As for its aid, the U.S. says it is simply being grateful. “Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need,” President Joe Biden said in a tweet (India also sent aid after Hurricane Katrina in 2005).

Since the coronavirus crisis began last year, India has assisted more than 100 vulnerable countries with supplies and training. Its open heart has opened the hearts of others. “It’s time for the world to extend aid & support to India,” tweeted Volkan Bozkir, president of the United Nations General Assembl. For his part, Secretary-General António Guterres said the U.N. was “extremely grateful” to India.

It was not always thus for India.

Only in the past two decades has it warmed up to being one of the world’s “donor” countries, helping mitigate the impact of foreign disasters and health emergencies. The more it has seen itself as a major power, the more India has embraced a moral obligation to assist other countries, especially as a first responder in food supplies, evacuations, and equipment.

Indian officials cite a spiritual basis for such aid in a Hindu term, daan, translated as “charity without motive.” In a speech in mid-April, the external affairs minister of India, Dr. S. Jaishankar, said, “Even before the pandemic, India has been providing humanitarian assistance, disaster resistance to all. We have demonstrated in a practical manner, our belief that the world is a family.”

Perhaps the turning point for India was its response to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Its navy sent relief to coastal states hit by the tragedy, such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka. In 2015, it launched a large aid effort to Nepal after an earthquake. It has also assisted Iran during a locust attack, sent food supplies to South Sudan, and given flood relief to Cambodia and Vietnam.

Like other major donor nations, India sometimes withholds aid for strategic reasons or dispenses it as a display of soft power. But says Dr. Jaishankar, “We work ... on facing disasters together.”

No wonder so many countries now want to assist India. It has graciously accepted much of the aid, with little regard for whether it comes from friend or foe. Such giving is more than a type of mutual-aid society. When done out of gratitude, it also points to a greater good available to all, with no expectation of reciprocity or credit.

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