Altruism strikes back: a new era for giving

Haiti’s earthquake was just one of three major natural disasters in the past decade, yet it has provoked the greatest charitable response.

Three weeks after Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, was struck by the country’s most severe earthquake in over 200 years, we’ve seen the repercussions—both here and abroad. We’ve walked by schoolchildren asking for donations on Grafton Street; we’ve seen John Travolta fly in on his private jet to help with the recovery efforts; we’ve made every party a Haiti benefit as internationally-renowned celebrities organized one of their own. We have seen, on the national and international media, images of bodies littering the ground and stacked along roadways, watched news anchors break down in front of millions of viewers as they talk about now-childless mothers.
The images circulated by global mass media are difficult to turn away from, and they’re not altogether unfamiliar.  After all, a tsunami hit the Indian ocean five short years ago, and Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, Louisiana, six months later.  In both catastrophes, we saw similar wreckage to the images that we see now: portraits of people who ordinarily live on the edge of poverty with their homes destroyed and their families missing. These widely circulated depictions of human misery have become familiar to us, thanks to 24-hour-news and websites with hourly updates.
But something seems different this time: it seems that Haiti is receiving more global charity and attention than either Katrina or the tsunami, and we’re left asking why. After all, the death toll in Haiti is still smaller than that of the tsunami by almost 100,000. The world economy is struggling, in comparison to robust 2004 and 2005. What is it that makes us want to give more now than we did then? And what can we learn about our global community from the differences in our reactions to each disaster?
Perhaps the easiest answer relies on an assessment of international politics. Though many of the victims of Katrina left in New Orleans were destitute, Katrina nevertheless took place in the richest country in the world. It’s assumed that the United States can take care of itself, and it did, raising $580 million in charitable aid in the eight days after the disaster. Katrina elicited less global attention because it seemed to be concentrated in its own hemisphere, with its own powerful government left to deal with the fallout.
Haiti, unlike Indonesia, is close enough to the U.S. geographically to garner American sympathy and attention, with the U.S. raising $305 million for Haiti in eight days as opposed to $163 million for the tsunami. And Americans are not unique in their ties to Haiti: as a former French colony, Haiti’s ties to the EU run deep. Perhaps there is a sense of European guilt for the legacy of colonialism in a country that had an underdeveloped economy and faltering political structures before being hit by catastrophe. Though Haiti is located in the U.S.’s sphere of influence, its ties to the EU imply a vast (and global) net of international relationships—a net not as strongly woven in Indonesia and the other South Asian countries affected by the tsunami.
Or perhaps the influx of charity has to do with the concentration of the Haitian earthquake.  Though the death toll from the tsunami was higher, it was more spread out. Haiti’s catastrophe affected the entire livelihood of one country in particular. Perhaps it’s human nature to feel more sympathy toward human misery when it’s confined to a specific location.
But assessing the magnitude of charity as it relates to Haiti leads us to another point, a bigger one. In a world as intricately and bizarrely connected as ours is now, cultural logic operates similarly to economic logic. The whole world follows larger trends than they did 20 years ago, or even five. The bursting of a housing bubble in America can shatter the national economy of Iceland, causing a global credit crisis that is enhanced by diminished expectations about the world economy. When Americans lower their spending norms, the rest of the world does likewise: globalisation means that we are all ensconced in a net of cause, effect, and expectation. In a similar fashion, a global outpouring of grief seems to have a ripple effect: media attention multiplies as our attention multiplies.
When we see celebrities devoting attention to Haiti, we want to devote our own—even if it’s something as simple as dropping a few coins in a child’s bucket on Grafton Street. And the means by which we share information makes us more receptive to trends in charitable giving, too. Facebook was limited to college students in 2004, and Twitter didn’t even exist. Both have played an enormous role in the crisis, with Wyclef Jean and our peers alike constantly telling us to give. We can now donate money simply by sending a text message, and this sheer convenience means that we give more now than we did five years ago.
We are the first generation to come of age in a global community, and the first that has borne witness to this kind of media response to national disasters. We now inhabit a world where grief can be poured out of a television screen, where sympathy can be sought on Twitter and placed into a text message. Our increasing interconnectedness means an enhanced ability to invoke sympathy, especially in the face of a natural disaster. Haiti, Katrina, and the Indian Ocean tsunami are catastrophes of the sort that comes into the world without any apparent human cause. And in a world where our causes are increasingly in touch with one another, the effect seems to be that our inclination toward altruism increases.