Donors prone to blaming the victims of man-made humanitarian disasters

Future World Giving, humanitarian aid, crisis, victim blame

Ordinary people in extra-ordinary circumstances always deserve help. Image of Syrian refugee family by CAFOD via Flickr

Boxing Day marked the 10th anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Millions of people around the world watched the rolling footage in horror and disbelief. Many of those people reacted in the same, distinctly human way to those images; by giving money to support the humanitarian response. But 10 years on, the charitable response to the horrific events of December 26th, 2004 represent an awkward high water mark for humanitarian giving in a world where people seem more willing to help the victims of “Acts of God” than the equally innocent victims of more complex but equally deadly human caused disasters.


In December I was interviewed by The Observer, a British newspaper, about some research that we at the Charities Aid Foundation had undertaken on humanitarian Aid appeals in the United Kingdom.  Whilst I encourage you to read the article, which I think covers the findings in an interesting and accessible way, I thought it worthwhile to drill down into some of the detail here.


The Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) has been working with the Disaster Emergency Committee – a union of major British humanitarian NGOs – in commissioning our own surveys in order to understand donor behaviour and perceptions on a number of its appeals including Burma 2008, Asia Pacific 2009, Haiti 2010, East Africa 2011, Philippines 2013 and the recent Ebola crisis.


Though CAF did not conduct surveys in relation to the Syria or Gaza appeals, we have noted that DEC calculates that the Syria appeal raised £27 million. Given that as the conflict enters its fourth year, over 100,000 civilians have been killed and more than 2.5 million Syrians are now refugees, this does not compare favourably to “natural” disaster appeals. The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami killed approximately 280,000 people but raised £392 million in the UK (£1400 per casualty) and the Haiti earthquake killed approximately 160,000 and raised £107 million (£669 per casualty). By contrast, the Syria appeal raised just £270 per casualty.


The Indian Ocean Tsunami 10 Years On a recent report by Oxfam looking back at lessons learned from the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster response – highlights the inequality in funding of appeals. It states that “ there are significant differences in the level and speed of funding for different crises” and explains that “in a typical year between 2004 and 2013, the highest-funded UN appeals had four times the percentage of need met than the lowest-funded appeals”. The report sums up the impact of such unpredictable funding by stating that “delays in funding and inadequate levels of funding can have a huge human cost, including an increase in preventable deaths and the large-scale disruption of lives and livelihoods.”


Future World Giving, Humanitarian, charity, disaster appeal

Graph showing % of appeal target reached is taken from “The Indian Ocean Tsunami, 10 Years On: Lessons from the response and ongoing humanitarian funding challenges” – a report by Oxfam.

Whilst the majority (about two thirds) of global humanitarian aid comes from government sources, Oxfam highlight the significance of private funding which is largely channelled through NGOs, that rely on private funds for approximately 50 percent of their humanitarian income. To this extent, understanding what causes donors to give to one cause above another is important in the challenge to ensure adequate funding.


To understand what factors might be influencing such fluctuations in donor generosity to humanitarian appeals, we have asked some additional questions in our recent survey looking at donor behaviour in relation to the recent Ebola appeal. A particular interest of ours was to understand what might be motivating lower levels of giving for what we have termed “human caused” disasters.


data, victim blaming, humanitarian disasters, Syria

Victim blaming in human caused disasters

It seems that the humanitarian principle, that we have a duty to help everyone regardless of the circumstances and causes of a given crisis, does not have universal public support. Indeed, only 28% agree that they are likely to give to help people in need, regardless of the cause of their plight. Perhaps people feel that human causes of need are more complicated to solve so their money will be less effective. Perhaps they feel that there are dangers of unintended consequences (such as the money getting into the wrong hands). Perhaps they feel that the people of nations that are suffering from conflict are somehow complicit in their own situation and are therefore less deserving. As unpalatable as this idea might seem, there is evidence that this latter explanation might have some validity.


An academic study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology in 2010 found that when they changed the cause of a hypothetical flood by introducing a human contribution to its causation (a failed dam), people made significantly smaller donations. The report found evidence of “systematic bias against victims of humanly caused disasters” and suggested that “victim blame” in such instances could be contrasted against a presumption of “self help” and innocence amongst victims of “natural” disasters.


Our survey found that 43% of people agree that “Humanitarian need caused by conflict or war should be resolved by the governments of those countries involved, rather than through charitable giving or international aid”. Indeed, over a third of respondents thought that the governments of crisis hit nations should deal with the situation alone with 39% agreeing that “Humanitarian need, regardless of the cause, should be resolved by the governments of those countries involved, rather than through charitable giving or international aid”.


Future World Giving, Humanitarain aid, disaster, appeal, charity

There is some, but surprisingly little difference in the way people respond to the above questions regardless of social class, income, gender, education or wealth even though one might expect a greater exposure to information would bring about a more rounded understanding of the plight and general innocence of people in conflict affect countries. However, age seems to play a very significant part with people aged over 65 being more than twice as likely (58%) to agree than 18-24 year-olds (30%) that “Humanitarian need caused by conflict or war should be resolved by the governments of those countries involved, rather than through charitable giving or international  aid” and almost twice as likely (49%) as 18-24 year-olds (27%) to agree that “Humanitarian need, regardless of the cause, should be resolved by the governments of those countries involved, rather than through charitable giving or international aid”. If age solidifies anything it seems to be a sense of confidence in conviction with just 3% of over 65s responding with “don’t know” compared to 18% of 18-24s in relation to giving aid regardless of the cause of a disaster.


Future World Giving, charity

A part of the problem might be the way that disaster appeals are presented to the public. As the chart above shows, the influence of traditional media on donations to humanitarian appeals has been eroded in recent years. However, Television was still listed by 60% of respondents to our survey on the Ebola appeal as their primary source of information (it had been 75% in the 2010 Haiti appeal. Though television appeals are extremely effective at reaching a captive audience, they offer only very limited time to put any context around the circumstances of the crisis at hand. Nevertheless, knowing that donors are somewhat cynical about human caused disasters, perhaps we should work harder to talk about the nature of conflict and government misgovernance. Perhaps we ought to remind donors that at some point in history, their countries have been in similar positions and ordinary citizens were no more complicit than the victims of current calamities. Most rich nations can recall some human caused disaster, be it the extreme poverty caused by the financial crisis of the 1930s or the mass barbarism of the First World War that led to the professionalization of the Red Cross movement in Europe. Unfortunately, as these disasters recede in our cultural memories there is a danger that we are starting to believe that it couldn’t happen to us. We should not be so complacent.



Adam Pickering




3 responses to “Donors prone to blaming the victims of man-made humanitarian disasters

  1. Pingback: Somewhere else, part 202 | Freakonometrics·

  2. You have written, “It seems that the humanitarian principle, that we have a duty to help everyone regardless of the circumstances and causes of a given crisis, does not have universal public support.”

    You’re quite correct. According to traditional Judeo-Christian-Muslim belief, there are two types of needy people: the worthy and the unworthy. While it is a religious requirement to help the worthy-needy (i.e.: a suddenly widowed woman with young children), it is considered a sin to assist the unworthy-needy (i.e.: someone who is able but unwilling to work). So, the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition does not accept that we have “a duty to help everyone regardless of circumstances.” This might be reflected in the data you shared.

    Furthermore, people have limited resources. So, they prioritize their philanthropy. Donors want to give to those most deserving, those in greatest need, and where it will make a difference. In many cases, I suspect that donors believe that giving after a so-called man-made disaster would do little good in the long run; this might be particularly true where the disaster is on-going such as the case of civil war.

    In part, the solution to the problem is helping prospective donors to understand the innocence of the victims and to show the lasting impact a donation will have.


  3. Pingback: The 0.7% commitment is a triumph for civil society, not a party political gimmick | Future World Giving·

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