Blame game influences charitable giving

Thursday, May 19, 2011

BANGKOK, 19 May 2011 (IRIN) - Why has Save the Children's US$40 million global appeal for conflict-affected Côte d'Ivoire only brought in $225,000, when its campaign for those affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan raised $25 million, exceeding the $20 million target? It could be that individual donors are placing blame, new research says.

Traditionally, the decisions of individuals responding to emergency appeals have been linked to variables such as media coverage and geographical preferences, but the perceived cause of a disaster can also influence giving patterns, according to Hanna Zagefka, a researcher with the department of psychology at Royal Holloway University of London.

People are quick to assume and accuse and, thus less likely to favour man-made crises, she told IRIN.

The study suggested that a famine perceived to be caused by drought would lead people to donate more than one caused by the misuse of land or government corruption. At the same time, a tsunami or other natural disaster would likely attract stronger levels of assistance than a crisis such as Darfur, which typically would be understood as man-made.

"The irony is that the recovery from natural disasters is much faster than from man-made disasters, so the biggest resources are going to the least needy situations," said Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion: Why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it (2007), and a professor at Oxford University's Centre for the Study of African Economics. "The people who do the suffering in man-made disasters are not the people who caused them."

Zagefka's research paper, published online before publication in the European Journal of Social Psychology, attributed the findings to a deeply rooted tendency for people to want to think suffering happens for a reason. "Potential donors are motivated to blame the victims when given the slightest chance in order to defend their belief of the world as just," the study stated. In other research this has been labelled the "just world hypothesis".

"One of the things that motivates us is the warm glow we get when helping someone," said Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and president of the Division Research Group, a non-profit organization investigating human judgement. "You feel good if you help someone, but it is likely you don't feel good if you feel you helped someone who is to blame."

Furthermore, such factors in donor behaviour even extend to including children in the blame. "You would think children obviously wouldn't be blamed for conflict, but we are not looking at objective biases," Zagefka said.

Stark contrast

The disparity does not surprise Dawn Nunn, senior director of Save the Children's resource development services. She has witnessed the philanthropic penchant for natural disasters for 16 years.

"This giving pattern is difficult to deal with when we know the needs of children in conflict are so great," Nunn said.

Though children in conflict need education, food, shelter and emotional support just as much, if not more so, than children in the middle of a flood, for example, funds almost never reflect this reality, experts say.

"We are not dealing with a wholly rational process here. We are dealing with people's instinctive reactions," said Brendan Paddy, a spokesman for the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) [ www.dec.org.uk ], which groups the largest organizations in the UK to raise private donations. He said it was hardest to raise funds for humanitarian responses to conflict.

NGOs described a hierarchy of donor preference within natural disasters as well, with sudden-onset disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes raising much more money than slow-onset disasters, such as drought.

Shaping perceptions

Fundraising in an emergency is about capturing people's attention with some drama, making a connection with the donor and keeping it, experts say.

In terms of forming such connections and perceptions, media coverage, geography and familiarity play a crucial role in determining who gets the biggest slice, said regional director of the World Food Programme in Bangkok, Kenro Oshidari.

"A connection is important. People assist when they have a common understanding of what others are going through. And if the media does not pick it up, then it becomes a sort of silent emergency," Oshidari said.

But Zagefka's paper calls into question the typical portrayal of people in need. She found private citizens are happier to give to those who are not only perceived to be free of blame, but also who appear to be proactive in their plight.

"Maybe it is counter-intuitive, but it is an interesting point, especially when you look at how often victims are portrayed as passive, presumably in an attempt to display their neediness. It is a fine line," she said.

According to the UN's Financial Tracking Service (FTS), of the $6.2 billion contributed to natural disasters in 2010, about $1.6 billion was categorized as private donations, with the earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan attracting the most donations.

Conversely, of the $7.4 billion contributed to conflict situations, about $64 million came from private donors, with crises in Sudan and DRC receiving the most aid.

Finally, $4.5 million of reported donations from private individuals and organizations in FTS was not earmarked for a country or cause.