In the past few days, one of the biggest stories of the Pakistan flood crisis has been about donations--or the lack thereof. Indeed, donations from the Western world have been slow in coming so far--much slower than they were for the earthquake in Haiti earlier this year, or the Indian Earthquake tsunami in 2004.
Some have blamed prejudice against Muslim countries for the slowness of donations thus far. Others have pointed to fears of corruption, or people's associations of Pakistan with the war on terror.
We shouldn't count out these factors entirely. But the disconnect between the amount people donate to disasters and the extent of devastation is nothing new. For all their compassion and generosity, individual donors are unreliable, uninformed, often illogical, and have short attention spans to boot.
Rather than corresponding to the severity of the disaster, the amount of money donated to disaster relief tends to correspond highly to the amount of media coverage. And unfortunately, the amount of media coverage doesn't typically correspond to the severity of the disaster.
In fact, less than 10% of the variance in U.S. media coverage of foreign disasters can be attributed to the severity of the disaster itself (as measured by people killed, which itself is less than ideal as an indicator of severity). Instead, a third of the variation depends on how many US tourists visit the country.
This isn't actually that surprising--people tend to feel a closer connection to places they've visited or have imagined visiting. And most American tourists visit places that they already feel a social and cultural affinity for--so more Americans visit Western Europe than Asia. (It will be interesting to see if, and how, international disaster coverage and donations change as the percentage of Asian Americans continues to grow.)
Media coverage also depends on what else is going on at the time. Even severe disasters are likely to be pushed out of the news cycle by high-profile events like the Olympics or the O.J. Simpson trial. And the type of disaster sometimes matters more than the extent of the damage it causes. Dramatic disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis get more attention--and more donations--than slower-paced, often longer-lasting events like floods and droughts.
But even media coverage isn't enough to spur adequate donations. As Randy Strash, strategy director for emergency response at the aid organization World Vision, has pointed out, people tend to gauge the extent of a disaster by the number of dead--which, although not a completely inaccurate measure, doesn't always accurately indicate how many people are in need of assistance. The Pakistan floods, for example, have thus far resulted in a relatively low death toll--at least compared to the Haiti earthquake--but they've affected an estimated 20 million people, more than the Haiti earthquake, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and 2005 Pakistan earthquake combined. Paradoxically, the result can be an increased death toll as a "second wave" of deaths result from lack of food, water, or medical care.
And even when there is a great deal of media coverage around a given event, the media's attention is almost certain to turn elsewhere long before a country's recovery is complete--and donations tend to drop off accordingly. So despite the tremendous coverage of the Haiti earthquake in the weeks immediately following the disaster, the country has had trouble getting donors to actually give the money they pledged.
All of which goes to show that individual donors aren't very good at disaster response, not because they aren't well-meaning or generous, but because they don't have the expertise or the facts to make informed decisions.
Meanwhile, the US government tends to allocate aid based on strategic interests, though there's little evidence to suggest this type of giving is actually effective at "winning hearts and minds." Genuine humanitarian aid, given without regard for strategic considerations, would arguably go further towards building goodwill towards the U.S.
However flawed, though, the processes by which governments give are more systematic than those of all but the most well-resourced individuals. Government agencies like USAID and the State Department are staffed by experts whose job it is to understand what resources crisis situations require and allocate funds accordingly.
So while we should try to maximize individual contributions to disaster relief, governments should make humanitarian aid commitments based on what's needed and not what they expect private donors to give. It's heartening to see that the U.S. and E.U. have substantially increased donations after reevaluating the situation, though much more is still needed.
And of course, we shouldn't discount private donors altogether: they may not be consistent, but when they do give, they can be a tremendous force. You can try to make yourself a better donor by reading aid blog Good Intentions are Not Enough's excellent set of guidelines to consider when making disaster donations. If you'd like to make a donation, the Global Giving, Tonic, and Interaction websites all have suggestions for reliable, effective organizations who can put your donation to good use.