By and large, Americans haven't opened up their wallets to help victims of the flood disaster in Pakistan. According to Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy, charitable donations by individuals, foundations and companies totaled just $25 million as of Aug. 30.
By comparison, the center's data show that Americans donated $900 million to relief efforts in Haiti within five weeks of the earthquake there.
Disaster relief experts were nearly universal in agreeing that there are at least three reasons why fundraising for this disaster has been challenging.
The first has to do with the nature of the disaster, says Randy Strash, the strategy director for emergency response at World Vision, a Christian relief agency with worldwide operations, including programs in Pakistan.
Fewer Donations For Floods
“Earthquakes, regardless of their location, under the same circumstances will raise 10 to 15 times more from the private donors than a flood,” Strash says.
The slow-moving nature of floods, combined with typically lower death tolls, removes a sense of urgency in many donors’ minds, Strash says. He says many people use the number of dead as a "barometer" for the severity of a disaster.
Fewer than 2,000 people have been reported killed by the floods in Pakistan, compared with an estimated death toll of over 200,000 in the Haiti earthquake. But disaster experts warn that the humanitarian situation in Pakistan may be even more serious than in Haiti because millions more people have lost their homes and livelihoods in the flood.
The Media's Impact
The relatively lower amount of news coverage in Pakistan may be another factor.
“There hasn’t been that much media coverage relative to the kinds of coverage that we certainly saw in Haiti and many other disasters,” says Nan Buzard, senior director for disaster response at the American Red Cross.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism said there was 10 times as much U.S. news coverage of the earthquake in Haiti as of the floods in Pakistan.
Buzard said without a stream of stories and vivid images playing over and over on cable TV, public awareness of a disaster is low and donations are correspondingly weak.
Experts also point to donor fatigue. Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy estimates that about 40 percent of American households donated money to disaster relief efforts in Haiti.
“The fact that people were so generous with Haiti and we’re in a difficult economic environment at this time, I think makes it more difficult for people to give to Pakistan as a result,” says Michael Delaney, the director of humanitarian response for Oxfam America.
Lessons From The Past, Religious Contributions
But the experience of past disasters suggests that donors are sometimes capable of repeated, generous giving. After a large earthquake struck Pakistan in October 2005, Americans donated $150 million for relief efforts there, according to data from Indiana University.
Those donations came a little over a month after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, prompting nearly $2 billion worth of donations. Americans also gave about $900 million for relief efforts after the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck in late December 2004.
Only one charity contacted by NPR reported no difficulties raising money for Pakistan.
Islamic Relief USA doubled its fundraising goal to $10 million after a surge of donations, says spokeswoman Rabiah Ahmed.
“The majority of our donors are Muslim and this happened right before the month of Ramadan, [which is] the time for Muslims to be generous and to give money to the people that are in need,” Ahmed says.
Religious and cultural affinity also very likely played a role in the strong fundraising efforts by charities in the United Kingdom, which has large Pakistani and Muslim communities. The Disasters Emergency Committee, an umbrella group of 13 British charities, reported on Aug. 27 that its flood relief appeal had raised about $61 million.
But there are also concerns religion may have played a role in another way. The campaign to halt a planned Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan and anti-Muslim remarks by politicians may have made some Americans wary of giving money to Muslim Pakistan.
Una Osili, director of research for Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy, says religion “is a factor.” But she emphasizes that it’s difficult to measure its impact on fundraising. Americans’ perceptions of Pakistan probably also played a role in the relatively low level of giving, she adds.
“There is a strong association with Pakistan and terrorism right now and that may also explain the differential response that we have observed,” Osili says.
With donations running low, charities operating in Pakistan say they may not be able to continue supporting their programs there. World Vision has raised $1 million in private donations but has a $20 million relief effort under way. The charity hopes to raise an additional $11 million and fund the difference from its reserves. But unless donations pick up soon, it may have to scale back its operations in Pakistan, says Strash, the group’s strategy director.
He says the low level of giving is discouraging, but adds: “At the same time, giving is voluntary. You can’t force people to give; you have to present the case as strongly as you can.”
United Nations officials warned this week that millions of weakened flood survivors could face disease and hunger. Strash hopes Americans will see the gravity of the situation and find a way to reach a little deeper in their pockets.