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


A young Syrian refugee fetching water at Zataari camp in Jordan © Sacha Petryszyn/MdMand

You’re watching TV and a fundraising appeal for Syria comes on. There are shocking images and no one can deny the serious needs of the men, women and children on the screen. But you don’t reach for your debit card at the end. Something in you has not been moved quite as much as when you saw such an appeal for the tsunami victims in 2004.

When the Indian Ocean Tsunami destroyed thousands of lives, the disaster pulled at an unprecedented number of heart strings encouraging hundreds of thousands of people to part with their hard-earned cash. Britons alone donated a staggering £392 million. Similarly, the appeal after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 raised £107 million. Compare this to when the Darfur war reached tragic heights in 2007, and just £13.6 million was collected. The recent Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Syria raised £19 million.

It seems that when it comes to natural disasters donors give willingly, but when man-made disasters occur the purse strings are nowhere near as loose. Yet suffering is suffering, be it natural or man-made, so what’s behind people’s reservations about donating to war victims?

Dr Hanna Zagefka and her team of researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London, have revealed that one reason that tsunamis, famines and earthquakes switch on the altruism button within us is because we perceive victims as the people somehow less to blame for their circumstances.

In an experiment, Dr Zagefka’s psychology team, invented disaster scenarios: half were told a famine was caused by a drought, the other half were told 'military' action stopped food supplies. The researchers found people were much more likely to give money to the victims of the natural disasters.

So it seems that less sympathy is shown for victims of war – people are seen as somehow more responsible for their circumstance even though they were not actively involved in causing atrocities. Dr Zagefka says this type of mentality echoes the 'Just World Belief' hypothesis, a term referring to people's tendency to believe that the world is just and that people get what they deserve. Because people want to believe that the world is fair, they will look for ways to explain injustices – even by blaming the victim.

Unconsciously, this is one of the psychological and underlying factors behind donations. Researchers believe that by producing a message of 'giving a hand' and not 'give money now' could change the way charities interact with the public. Working with this valuable information could benefit charities and help them design more productive relief appeals.

Dr Zagefka explains: 'Charity appeals for humanly-caused disasters could explicitly stress that, even though an armed conflict is going on, the victims are impartial civilians who did not trigger the fighting. Similarly, appeals could stress that victims are making an effort to help themselves'.

And some argue that this approach would also be more representative of the situation on the ground.

'In part because of Live Aid’s success in 1985, many charities fell into the trend of portraying people who are suffering as passive, dependent victims. The reality on the ground is usually quite different,' says Leigh Daynes, Executive Director of Doctors of the World UK. 'People work tirelessly to rebuild their lives under the most difficult conditions; humanitarian aid provides the essentials that improve the chances of their efforts succeeding.'

But even though images of suffering and crisis ensure millions enter into emergency funds, the chasm between how people react to suffering and why they give is bigger than ever.

And the bottom line is that regardless of the cause, the humanitarian needs of people experiencing these crises – however they are caused – are often very similar. Who are we to decide who is most worthy of help? 

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