I have to admit that I learned about last year's earthquake in Japan through a commercial on VH1. After a few weeks in the Malawian village where I lived with no radio, television, or newspaper, I came to the capital for a weekend off, and between Nicki Minaj videos and sips of beer, saw an ad for the Japanese Red Cross.
“What's with this ad?” I scoffed to my friends. “Like Japan really needs our aid.”
The bar's patrons stared at me, incredulous at my insensitivity, and after some light mockery, explained what had happened in Japan.
I joined the world in mourning Japan's tragedy, but despite its callousness, I think my original sentiment had some merit. Why does it take a well-publicized disaster for us to acknowledge a loss?
21,000 children die every day from preventable causes; that's 7.6 million per year. An estimated
316,000 people died in Haiti's 2010 earthquake. The world's governments pledged
$2.1 billion in relief for Haiti in 2010, and in the same year private donations to the same cause reached $1.1 billion (whether those funds were actually spent effectively is another matter). By contrast, WHO estimates
that GAVI, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations, prevented 3.4 million child deaths between 2000 and 2008; their budget for 2010 was $1 billion.
We respond to disasters because they strike us as extraordinary, outside the natural scope of things; the death of a child from malaria or measles is sad, but only part of the world's inevitable march. The deluge of media coverage that follows a tsunami surrounds us with heart-wrenching photographs for a short time, but even the most compassionate among us cannot stand constant exposure to the world's quotidian tragedies.
This is not a critique of our generosity after disasters. I am proud to live in a nation, and a culture, of sympathy with the world's most vulnerable. I worry, however, that our sympathy is easily manipulated. Studies show that the probability of donating aid, and the amount donated, are heavily influenced by shared colonial history, shared language, media coverage, and distance. We don't send money to people we can't picture, who live far away.
The problem is that these people are precisely those who are most vulnerable in a disaster. The third of the world's population living in low-income countries is 90% more likely to die in the event of a natural disaster than those living in high-income countries. This disparity could be chance; it so happens that the world's recent deadliest disasters, like the 1984 drought in Ethiopia and Sudan and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, have happened in low-income countries. But it is also true that a lack of infrastructure, government corruption, and vulnerability to disease render low-income countries more susceptible to fatalities in disasters, and less able to recover afterwards.
This means that the best and most effective steps we can take to help people affected by calamity happen before, not after, disaster strikes. Writing of the current famine
in the Horn of Africa, Suzanne Dvorak, chief executive of Save the Children, said, “We cannot forget that these children are wasting away in a disaster that we could - and should - have prevented.” Jane Cocking, Humanitarian Director of Oxfam, called the famine
a “preventable disaster.” They say this because its terrible effects were the result of a human, not natural, problem. Patrick Webb, an expert in food security at Tufts University, said, “Actually, a lot of famine happens when there is food in the market. It's about people's inability to acquire that food. Famine represents a catastrophic failure
of all the systems that people rely on to survive.”
Disasters give us impetus. But the problems that make natural events so, well, disastrous, are already here. The UN estimates
that every $1 invested in preparedness strategies saves $7 in emergency relief; imagine the impact that long-term investment in development could have on disaster fatalities and damages.
And what does it take to qualify as a disaster, anyway? I'd argue that the 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty are suffering from a disaster of the worst kind. Their calamities are small in scale but extreme in effect; their earthquakes are those of the heart. And the floods that inundate them are not of kindness and sympathy, but of indifference.