Monday, May 19, 2008

"Disaster Fatigue"

In 2004, the South East Asia Tsunami killed around 225,000 people; Americans responded by donating 1.92 billion dollars in aid. In the last month, the cyclone in Myanmar (130,000 dead or missing) and the earthquake in China (60,000 dead or missing) have combined to kill nearly 200,000 people; Americans have responded by donating… 12.1 million dollars:

Charities know this as "donor fatigue," but it might be more accurately described as disaster fatigue — the sense that these events are never-ending, uncontrollable and overwhelming....

Compared with disasters like the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, those in China and Myanmar have generated just a trickle of aid. As of Friday, Americans had given about $12.1 million to charities for Myanmar, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. The group said on Monday that it was too soon to count contributions to China....

This problem came up after the 2004 Asian tsunami, an event that brought an avalanche of $1.92 billion in charity from the United States, according to the Giving USA Foundation. Hurricane Katrina eight months later generated even more, $5.3 billion.

But then fatigue seemed to set in. The earthquake in Pakistan that killed nearly 80,000 people generated just $150 million from Americans. And the Guatemala mudslide shortly thereafter that killed at least 800 was virtually forgotten.

If one disaster can be galvanizing, several in a row can be paralyzing.

I don't want this to be a guilt trip, and I know money is tight for everyone right now, but please consider giving anything you can (for instance, through World Vision); we can do a lot better than this.


Alex Fear said...

The problem is, and I don't mean to purposely sound pessimistic, that there is always some kind of disaster happening in the world- which may or may not be natural.

Consider despots such as Mugabe in Africa who continues to get away with brutal murder and torture of opposition, or the subprime meltdown, brought on by corruption and mismanagement between governments and business.

Perhaps, to combat disaster fatigue charities need to focus on getting people into the routine of donating a small amount monthly as opposed to large drives. That would ensure there is lasting support based on principle, rather than depending on large one off donations based on guilt or sympathy (both of which are relative).

All disaster is relative. I am reminded of a quote and I can't remember who said this but "a scratch in your new car paintwork will affect you more than a hurricane disaster happening 1000 miles away".

Ken Brown said...

Hey Alex,
All the points you make are good (in fact, I make many of the same ones here), but some needs truly are more pressing and immediate than others.

When an earthquake suddenly leaves 4.8 million people homeless, quick action is not only essential, but can have a direct, tangible, and vital impact. In contrast, many human caused disasters (you mentioned Mugabe) are much less impacted by simply giving money, though certainly no less in need of resolution.

Super Churchlady said...

Ken - I understand disaster fatigue.

Definition of desensitized: to make emotionally insensitive or callous; specifically : to extinguish an emotional response (as of fear, anxiety, or guilt) to stimuli that formerly induced it.

When I realize that I've just heard of some tragedy half a world away where people died numbering in the hundreds of thousands, I feel that I should "feel" more than I do.

I try to trick my brain into visualizing, for example, our entire little city -- all gone, all dead -- in an earthquake. I think..."Maybe this will make me realize the enormity of the tragedy." Often, it still doesn't do the trick.

Then, I wonder what my heart must look like to God. So calloused. I've asked God to forgive me because I want to feel more sympathy for these people. I really do. I know that He does. So...shouldn't I?

Alex Fear said...

Ken, I agree about immediacy, however I question the geography.

There are people in the UK and the US who have lost their homes in floods. I know people suffering here in the UK, on my doorstep through financial difficulties and it's not related to to a disaster.

I believe it is a right and good thing for there the be agencies trying to deal with these things, for people to feel called to go and help. However there is also a call on us to help our neighbours, our immediate neighbours.

I even question the whole concept of missions these days when there are so many unbelievers on our doorsteps.

@super churchlady

I really wonder if our brains are capable (outside of Gods spirit) of imagining suffering happening so far away that we've never experienced. But I guarantee if you look around you, you will find people suffering wherever you are.

One thing people don't consider is that of foreign governments in disaster areas practical reliance on the international community to jump in and do something, but not making any effective decisions or changes to make sure that they avert the next disaster.

A lot of the aid money doesn't even reach the ground by the time all the organisations involved have taken their cut- including the very government of the people who they are trying to help.

Ken Brown said...

You are, of course, correct that there is suffering everywhere, and I don't wish to imply that foreign disasters are inherently more deserving of response than the smaller, daily needs of those around us - poverty and despair cross all boundaries. But on the one hand, I think that we already pay far more attention to needs in our own backyard than we do to those elsewhere. On the other hand, our compassion in general does seem to fade rather quickly. As Super Churchlady notes, we do very easily lack sympathy, not just for those on the other side of the world, but even for those in our own towns.

As for the effectiveness of giving to foreign disasters: I purposely linked to World Vision as an option because they maintain a relatively low overhead (14%), but you're right that foreign governments can often pose a serious hindrance to the proper distribution of goods, and can become dependent upon international aid. But that doesn't change the fact that lives can, quite literally, be saved by quick action, nor are the lives of foreigners less deserving of saving just because their governments are corrupt.

Please don't think I'm implying that we should stop giving to local needs and just focus on "big" disasters, nor even that we all need to give to the same things. We all must make choices about where to give, and it's good if we make different choices than each other - the important thing is to continue to give to those in need, wherever God leads you to do so.

Alex Fear said...

Well, I think we can both agree that the important thing is to give.

I wasn't necessarily saying that we shouldn't give to foreign people because their governments are corrupt, I guess what I'm trying to say is that giving should be intelligent too.

Also, I don't think giving should be brought out of guilt, but out of compassion.

Ken Brown said...