American Charitable Giving for Natural Disasters Drops – Why?
In today’s Washington Post, a front page article titled, “Multitude of Forces Drains the Spirit of Giving,” by staff writer Philip Rucker. Compared with the tsunami of 2004 and Katrina, the natural disasters of Burma and China have not produced anywhere near the outpouring of American charitable aid donations:
In the weeks since a cyclone laid waste to Burma’s delta region and an earthquake devastated a central Chinese province — catastrophes that collectively left 184,000 people dead or missing and displaced millions — Americans have donated an estimated $57 million to disaster relief charities as of yesterday.
Compare that with the $207 million that Americans donated in the first five days after an Indian Ocean tsunami struck southern Asia in 2004. Or the $226 million raised in five days after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast.
How to account for this? Rucker suggests, as the title says, multiple reasons. They include an uncertain domestic economy and $4 a gallon gas, but also a distrust of where the aid will go and what it will actually do. The article quotes several aid agency executives noting that people learned something from the earlier crises and whether all that money could actually be spent effectively:
Overall totals are unlikely to reach the levels of giving seen after the tsunami and Katrina, but some charity leaders said these are unfair comparisons because Katrina occurred on domestic soil and the tsunami was an unusual global phenomenon.
The tsunami “had so many factors that cried out, that were of immediate interest to people around the world,” said Mike Kiernan, a spokesman for Save the Children. “It hit 12 countries, it took place the day after Christmas . . . and there were individual stories focused on survival and loss that involved Americans and Europeans.”
Some donors have lost confidence in disaster relief charities after some agencies’ fumbled responses to Katrina and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said Eric Kessler, managing director of District-based Arabella Philanthropic Investment Advisors.
“I think a lot of people cringe when the check is written because there is not a lot of confidence in how the money is being used and overseen,” Kessler said.
He said many clients are asking sophisticated questions about the impact of their dollars as they consider whether to give.
“They want to see a recovery plan,” Kessler said. “They want to know how the money is being used and what impact it is having.”
Are people behaving badly in holding back their donations? David Rieff suggested, in an opinion piece I linked a few days ago, that aid agencies have cried wolf so often where the affected populations turned out to be much more resilient in the disaster, or in which aid obviously was wasted, siphoned off, etc., that the general public has taken a lesson.
In the Burma and China cases, the hesitation seems to me quite rational and morally appropriate. In Burma, the issue is not the availability of funds, it is getting aid to where it needs to go: the issue is not overall levels of funds, but the wickedness of the Burmese junta. More money will not solve the geopolitical problem. In the case of China, the regime has behaved admirably, especially coming on its appalling actions in Tibet. But in an immediate crisis like the earthquake, overall amounts of aid are not the issue; the exact condition of the mountain road and how quickly heavy machinery can reach the affected zone is. Aid for long term rebuilding involves very different questions and priorities and tradeoffs than immediate aid for the immediate crisis – and this also seems to be a lesson that the general public has absorbed. China’s own citizens have mobilized a truly impressive nearly $200 million in a country with no tradition of national private giving or NGO structure.
One lesson that many ordinary Americans took away from the earlier crises is that aid agencies use any crisis as a way of raising money that will not be used for the immediate disaster – in many cases because it isn’t needed and can’t be used that way – so it simply turns into fundraising for the organization as such. It is not irrational to factor that in when deciding what and how much to give – the correct question to ask oneself, in that case, is not, “How can I help Burma?” but instead “Do I want to give money as a general matter to Catholic Relief Services or [fill in the blank]?” And finally, as the article notes, holding back giving by ordinary Americans is something that the aid agencies themselves are doing – and for precisely the same reasons:
“I think it’s very wise for a lot of donors to be holding back and waiting until there’s an opportunity to really get the resources to do the most good,” said Melissa A. Berman, president of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.
That’s what the American experts are thinking, and the American public as well. They’re not wrong about that.