Shocking photos from Haiti sparked an outpouring of donations—but why do Americans only give when they see the drama unfold on TV? Matthew Bishop and Michael Green, authors of Philanthrocapitalism, on the nature of sympathy.
The public has proved once again that it has a big heart. From Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush to the richest man in the world, Bill Gates, to hundreds of big companies, to countless smaller citizen givers, Americans have responded generously to the plight of the people of Haiti. Maybe, as happened after the Asian tsunami five years ago, public donations will exceed government assistance.
Why not match what you have given to the Haiti appeals with a gift to help someone facing dire need away from camera lenses?
Early estimates suggest that the Haiti earthquake’s eventual death toll could reach 200,000 people. This is a catastrophe. The outpouring of practical sympathy is an example of humanity at its best. Yet it also highlights a failure of humanity during more normal times. Nearly 10 times as many people as died in Haiti will perish this year alone from diarrheal diseases caused by poor water supply and sanitation—an issue that has so far failed to generate nearly as much generosity from the public, either in donations or public support for government aid programs that could tackle these and many similarly deadly but non-headline-grabbing problems.
• Eric Pape: “Baby Doc” Speaks• Big Fat Story: Haiti Descends into Chaos • Peter Beinart: Why Liberals Thrive in a Crisis • Gerald Shargel: Haiti’s Lawless StreetsThe Soviet dictator Josef Stalin understood something of human nature when he said that “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Our capacity for sympathy for others is one of our great human attributes, yet it also means that we find it more appealing to give to causes that are immediate or telegenic. Humanitarian emergencies, particularly “acts of God” like earthquakes and tsunamis, tug at our heart strings because they are unexpected and then immediately visible. They are also, for most of us except Pat Roberston, morally clear cut—just innocent people needing help, rather than a consequence of bad government policy or conflict.
When it comes down to it, though, a death is a death, and many of the less-reported deaths in the developing world could be prevented just as easily as helping to relieve the immediate suffering of the people of Haiti. Some people find our need to be stimulated into giving by shocking images and stories depressing; British development blogger Owen Barder calls it “ poverty porn.” There are fears that disaster images badly distort our giving, favoring emotional causes over situations where money could make a far bigger difference.
Indeed, in the worst case, a disaster like that in Haiti may divert money that was heading somewhere it could have done more good. Certainly, corporate donations to Haiti are likely to come from a fixed giving budget, and thus at the expense of other causes. For individual giving, however, catastrophes tend not to be a “zero sum game” in that they attract new givers and additional gifts from existing givers, and so overall giving rises higher than it would have been.
Yet as we respond to Haiti, we should also remember the less-reported suffering around the world. So why not match what you have given to the Haiti appeals with a gift to help someone facing dire need away from camera lenses? And when you do so, why not pick one of the less supported countries or organizations?
Countries that are politically complicated, less frequently visited by tourists, or where charities find it more difficult to operate tend to attract fewer public donations—for instance, Pakistan, where school enrollment levels are even lower than in Sudan. Similarly, some causes just don’t excite in the same way that HIV/AIDS and malaria do—diarrhea is much less likely to attract celebrity endorsements or mobilize the public to wear wristbands or lapel pins.
Finally, most important, do some due diligence on the organization to which you are giving. We call people like Bill Gates “philanthrocapitalists” because they pay the same attention to getting results out of their giving as they do to their business investments. Now, through online giving sites like globalgiving.com and kiva.org, which show us who we are helping and report back on the difference our money makes, all of us can be rigorous when we give. The high-profile debate in the past few days over whether the charity of Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean makes good use of the money it raises should occur for every organization we support. Our giving is an act of the heart, but that should not stop us from thinking hard about how to ensure we are putting our money to the best possible use.
Matthew Bishop and Michael Green are co-authors of Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World , which is out in paperback next month. Bishop is NewYork bureau chief of The Economist and on Twitter @ mattbish. Green is a writer and consultant. They blog at www.philanthrocapitalism.net.
Michael Green is a writer, consultant and co-author of Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World , which is out in paperback next month. He blogs at www.philanthrocapitalism.net.