Why do people donate to victims of natural disasters, but not of wars?

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Why do people donate to victims of natural disasters but not of wars?

by Resham Khiani


A young Syrian refugee getting water at Zataari camp in Jordan (© Sacha Petryszyn/MdMand)

Imagine you’re watching TV and you see a fundraising appeal for Syria. There are terrible images of men, women and children with serious needs. But you don’t give money. You do not feel as emotional as when you saw the appeal for the tsunami victims in 2004.

When the Indian Ocean Tsunami destroyed thousands of lives, hundreds of thousands of people gave money. Britons gave £392 million. And after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Britons gave £107 million. But at the worst time of the Darfur war in 2007, they only gave £13.6 million. And the recent Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Syria raised £19 million.

It seems that people are happy to give for natural disasters, but not for man-made disasters. But suffering is suffering, natural or man-made, so why are people not so happy to donate to war victims?

Dr Hanna Zagefka and her team at Royal Holloway, University of London have researched this. They have shown that one reason that tsunamis, famines and earthquakes make us want to give money is because we think the victims are not so responsible.

In an experiment, Dr Zagefka’s psychology team invented disaster scenarios: they told half the people that a famine (no food) was caused by a drought (no rain / water), and the other half that 'military' action stopped food supplies. The researchers found that people were much more likely to give money to the victims of the natural disaster.

So it seems that people have less sympathy for victims of war. They see these victims as more responsible for their suffering, even though they were not actively involved in the war. Dr Zagefka says this idea reflects the 'Just World Belief'. This is that many people believe that the world is just and that people get what they deserve. Because people want to believe that the world is fair, they try to explain injustices – even by blaming the victim.

Unconsciously, this is one of the psychological reasons that affect donations. Researchers believe that by asking people to help, not 'give money now', could change the way charities work with the public. This could help charities to design appeals for help that bring in more money.

Dr Zagefka explains: 'Charity appeals for disasters caused by humans could explain clearly that, although there is a war, the victims are not involved and did not start the fighting. And appeals could show that victims are making an effort to help themselves'. Some people say that this approach is a better picture of the real situation.

'Partly because of the success Live Aid in 1985, many charities started to show people who are suffering as passive, dependent victims. The reality is usually quite different,' says Leigh Daynes, Executive Director of Doctors of the World UK. 'People work very hard to rebuild their lives under the most difficult conditions; humanitarian aid provides the basics that make it more likely that they will succeed.'

The images of suffering and crisis get millions for emergency funds, but the wide gap between how people react to suffering and why people give money is getting bigger.

And the humanitarian needs of people in these crises – whatever the cause – are often very similar. Who needs help most?

This article was originally posted on Doctors of the World UK.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: http://newint.org/blog/2013/09/06/why-do-people-donate-to-natural-disasters-and-not-to-wars/