Mar 30, 2011

Disaster donating: Why it may not be such a good idea

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The gospel of Luke recounts the incident of a Jewish traveller beaten, robbed and left half dead along the road. A Levite and a priest passed by and ignored him, finally the socially-scorned Samaritan aided him. The story tells of a man who enthusiastically came to the aid of a foreigner in need; he helped one who was not generally considered his ‘neighbour’.

In the days following the recent earthquake in Japan, scores of people worldwide have pledged donations to aid the relief work. What drives someone to sacrifice for people who are strangers and far away? More importantly, does this phenomenon have implications for the needy closer to home? An often overlooked aspect of Adam Smith’s work may provide some answers.

To Smith, acts of perceived altruism are crucially dependant on the benefactor’s degree of familiarity and social proximity with the beneficiary. To bring home the point, Smith claims that a person would be more distressed if he were to get a cut on his little finger than if he knew that millions in China had died from a dreadful calamity. However, today, a disaster in China is no longer far away. It is played out right in front of us, on computer and television screens.

The ubiquity of visual media has made it almost impossible for us to ignore major disasters.

Billions worldwide cannot help but empathize with disaster victims as they watch in horror as tsunami waves sweep onshore or read about 50 brave men who place their lives on the line in a desperate attempt to prevent nuclear catastrophe.

However, viewing suffering on screen is wholly different from actually experiencing it in person. More often than not, the feelings of sympathy evoked from television images are short-lived. This is especially so when the mass media exhausts coverage on one disaster and then quickly moves on to the next.

Yet the ephemeral outpouring of sympathy is all that’s needed to bring in large donations.

Usually the kind donors then carry on with their lives, oblivious to the subsequent years of rebuilding.

Usually the kind donors then carry on with their lives, oblivious to the subsequent years of rebuilding.

The result of this transient compassion is a market failure in charitable giving. Smith viewed sympathy as stemming from instantaneous sentiments towards immediate events, pursued for the sake of one’s self and not to advance social welfare. The deluge of donations into Japan bears testament to this, as has been the case following dramatic, telegenic emergencies in many other nations in recent years.

Many donors have no idea what their donations will be used for. Meanwhile, charitable organizations that deal with ongoing human suffering due to hunger, disease and conflict take a back seat, and can only envy the ease and speed with which disaster funding is obtained.

The fact remains that many charitable organizations are underfunded, and will continue to be, as their cause fails to capture the attention of the worldwide public. While one can take comfort in the fact that the world is now a global village and aid is offered from all corners of the world, it doesn’t necessarily result in the advancement of social welfare. In fact, if people become desensitized by a constant media onslaught, apathy might set in and those in need who are just around the corner might die of hunger.


Zhihao studies finance in NUS and tutors economics. He enjoys playing football and spending time with his beloved ps3.

Darius reads finance and religion at NUS. He dreams of writing poetry for a living.