As World Disasters Multiply, Philanthropic Fatigue May Be Setting In

May 20, 2008 12:53 PM
by Josh Katz
Many Americans are donating less money to disaster relief for Myanmar and China than they have for past events, possibly due to “disaster fatigue.”

30-Second Summary

The death tolls just keep climbing. Tropical cyclone Nargis, which pounded Myanmar on May 2 and 3, has left 78,000 dead so far, with 56,000 are still missing. Just over a week later, a powerful earthquake devastated Sichuan province in China, killing over 40,000, and injuring more than 247,000.

But American private donations for aid have not been as robust as they have been for other calamities. Charities call this occurrence “donor fatigue”; the Associated Press thinks “disaster fatigue” is a more appropriate term.

In his Freakonomics blog for The New York Times, Stephen J. Dubner lays out the numbers. For the Dec. 2004 Asian tsunami that killed 220,000 people, Americans gave $1.92 billion. The donations jumped to $5.3 billion for Hurricane Katrina, which occurred in Aug. 2005 and killed 1,577 people. Americans gave $150 million after the Oct. 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, which left 73,000 dead.

But the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University estimates that Americans had donated a mere $12.1 million in aid to Mynamar as of May 16. The Center has not finished counting the numbers for China.

Many factors can affect the lower donation totals
. Currently, the United States is in the midst of an economic downturn. Americans may also be turned off by news stories about the ruling junta in Myanmar preventing aid from going to those who need it most. 

But in 1991, Newsweek also raised the question of donor fatigue
. A cyclone ravaged Bangladesh at the same time that the Persian Gulf War displaced more than a million Kurds and war and famine came to a boil in Africa. As the disasters mounted, donations slowed.

Headline Link: ‘Disaster fatigue’

Background: Too many disasters take a toll on donations

The Myanmar cyclone and the Chinese earthquake
Donor fatigue past and present

Opinion & Analysis: ‘How Pure Is Your Altruism?’

Related Topics: Giving is healthy; celebrities and philanthropy

Reference: Web Guide to Philanthropy and Nonprofits


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