Why you should care
As extreme weather events batter nations with growing frequency, donor fatigue is leaving the communities most vulnerable to climate change in even greater danger.
When Prince Vo, a manager at a backpackers hostel in the southern Indian state of Kerala, rushed to a donation-collection center to contribute a week after disastrous floods in August, he couldn’t find one that was well-staffed or had remotely enough supplies for victims. “The response seemed cold — not even lukewarm,” he recalls. It was in stark contrast, he says, to a year earlier when, after similar floods, droves of volunteers swarmed collection centers to coordinate relief, as mainstream and social media revved up calls for urgent support.
Yet it’s a response relief agencies across South and Southeast Asia are increasingly beginning to confront. As floods, droughts, typhoons and other extreme weather phenomena batter nations with growing frequency, donors are turning weary and selective, leaving one of the world’s regions most vulnerable to climate change even weaker in its ability to grapple with such mounting crises.
This is incredibly dispiriting.
Mohammed Mukhier, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
The Kerala Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund website shows that as of Oct. 3, it had received $650 million in donations, far lower than what the state received last year, says a former government official who requested anonymity. In Afghanistan, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies launched an emergency appeal in March — initially for $7 million, which it subsequently raised to $8 million — to tackle a combination of drought and floods that has affected 650,000 people. But as of Aug. 28, it had received only 46 percent of that amount, says Mohammed Mukhier of IFRC.
In Bangladesh, which experienced massive floods in 2017, relief agencies sought only $3 million in aid when they needed $5 million — aware that a higher target could scare off potential benefactors. Still, only two-thirds of the need was met, says Mukhier. And the emergency operations after Typhoon Tembin in the Philippines in late 2017 drew only 47 percent of needed relief support, far below the usual funding of 72 percent, he says.
“This is incredibly dispiriting,” says Mukhier.
To be sure, donor fatigue — a phenomenon where those who give either give less or don’t donate at all with each passing crisis — has occasionally in the past hit other parts of the world too. UNICEF struggled to find funding for repeated droughts in the Horn of Africa at the turn of the last decade. In the 1980s and early 1990s, parts of Africa that were perennially famine-struck needed music performances like the Live Aid concerts to drum up public donations.
But the new weariness isn’t a one-off, and it’s hitting the world’s most populated region at a time the U.N. is warning that climate change-related humanitarian crises are set to explode in numbers and scale. A September U.N. report said the ocean could swell by more than 5 meters by 2030, rendering some low-lying islands “uninhabitable.” The IFRC estimates that in 30 years, up to 200 million people could each year need humanitarian assistance because of storms, droughts and floods, compared to 108 million annually at the moment. Climate-related humanitarian costs could balloon to $20 billion per year by 2030.
Soon after the 2018 Kerala floods grabbed international headlines, other parts of India — Uttarakhand and Maharashtra — suffered from floods too. By the time floods hit Kerala again, many ordinary donors “felt betrayed that their last donations went to waste,” says Manu Gupta of the New Delhi-based disaster relief nonprofit Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society. “One-off new incidents make donors more sympathetic.”
Other reasons too might be driving down donations amid increasingly frequent climate crises, says Samantha Penta, an assistant professor of emergency preparedness at SUNY Albany. Some people donate simply to help those in need. Others “might also give for social acceptability, images and expectations; maybe there’s a tax write-off,” she points out. “When we look at donor fatigue, we must understand people might be thinking that they have already given enough for the broader idea of disaster.”
The IFRC believes that news headlines, strategic donor choices — for specific countries, because of historical or personal ties, or geopolitics — and access to information also influence where individuals and organizations put their money. But simple human psychology could be playing a role too, suggests Renee Lertzman, an applied researcher on the impact of climate change on human behavior.
“It is pretty well established that we have, as humans, a window where we can only process so much. I think it is important to situate donor fatigue in the context of how we as humans manage and cope with complicated issues that could be called trauma,” says Lertzman, author of a book titled Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic Dimensions of Engagement. “What I believe is happening is that there are so many competing disasters that people kind of tune out after the first or second jolt. On a deeply personal level, maybe that is how people make the crisis manageable for themselves.”
The only way to bridge the widening funding gap for climate crises might then be to limit the impact of such disasters. Through inclusive, climate-smart development, the IFRC estimates that the number of people in need of international humanitarian assistance annually could fall to as low as 68 million by 2030, and further to 10 million by 2050 — a decrease of 90 percent compared to today. Just one more reason why putting off measures to tackle climate change is no longer an option.