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Charitable donations: do we care more about our close neighbours?

With the flood of donations for those affected by the war in Ukraine, some have asked whether people are more willing to help their close neighbours. Evidence suggests not: rather, it is the scale of a disaster together with media coverage that most influence the response to an emergency appeal.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has created a humanitarian crisis. More than three million people have fled their homes, most to neighbouring countries, including Poland, Hungary and Moldova. Many more are likely to do so over the coming weeks and months.

The response has been an outpouring of support from the West. In the UK, 100,000 people signed up to host a Ukrainian refugee family on the first day that the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme opened. An emergency appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) received more than £150 million during the first week, making it DEC’s second largest fundraising appeal in more than 50 years.

Some critics have accused the West of double standards in the response to the Ukrainian crisis – for caring more about a humanitarian disaster unfolding on their doorstep than about similar tragedies further afield.

A senior CBS News correspondent has been particularly berated for his comments that: ‘This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.’

A contrast has also been noted with a DEC emergency appeal launched for Afghanistan in December 2021, which collected £30 million, less than a quarter of the amount given to the Ukrainian appeal.

But do people really care more about crises closer to home?

Analysing the responses to more than five decades of DEC appeals, there is in fact, little evidence that UK donors are more generous when it comes to close European neighbours. Across the whole period, there have been 73 DEC appeals, of which six (including Ukraine) have been in response to disasters in European countries – the previous ones being floods in Romania (1970), earthquakes in Turkey (1990) and the former Yugoslavia (1969), and conflict in the former Yugoslavia (1994) and Kosovo (1999).

Looking at average total donations by geographical area (see Figure 1), the amounts donated were, if anything, lower for European appeals compared with those in Asia, Africa and Central America.

This mirrors findings from economic experiments that explore the role of race in generosity in the context of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In these experiments, donors were primed with information about the race of victims, but this information did not affect how much they gave.

In other words, on average, white donors gave as much to black people as to other white people. But people did give less when they were primed to think that the victims were from a less economically disadvantaged area. This may explain the higher amounts given to Africa and Asia in DEC appeals.

Although there was no variation by victims’ race on average, there was variation according to the participants’ subjective identification with racial groups. This was measured by the question ‘How close do you feel to your ethnic or racial group?’

Where white donors identified more with their racial group, they gave less to black victims, while white donors who did not identify with their racial group gave more to black victims. (Similarly, black donors who identified more with their racial group gave less to white victims.) The role of group identity in pro-social behaviour is more complex than a simple ‘them and us’.

Figure 1: Analysis of donations to 72 DEC appeals, 1968 to 2021

Source: Disasters Emergency Committee
Note: Real donations in 2021 prices (GDP deflator)

What explains responses to disaster appeals?

There is a perception that people give more in response to natural disasters than to man-made disasters. This is not the case for DEC appeals. Since 1968, roughly two-thirds of the appeals have been in response to natural disasters.

The average amounts given are not significantly different between man-made disasters and natural disasters – £26.8 million for man-made emergencies (such as war and violent conflict) and £39.2 million for natural disasters (£28.6 million excluding the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean). The current response to the invasion of Ukraine also confirms that people give generously when it comes to man-made disasters.

The amount of money donated is closely related to the scale of the disaster, as measured by the number of people who are killed and the number affected in other ways. Standardised information on the scale of natural disasters is available from the Emergency Disaster Database (EM-DAT) provided by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED).

Controlling for natural disaster type (floods, earthquakes, storms, etc.) and geographical area, a 10% increase in the number of people killed and in the number of people affected both increase the amount donated by 3-4%.

Another key factor driving donation responses is media coverage. While this is closely correlated with the scale of disasters, research has isolated the effect of media coverage by exploiting the presence of competing news events, particularly sporting events. The results show that television coverage of natural disasters has an effect on the provision of aid.

The exact mechanism is not clear, but media coverage is likely to provide information on the scale of the need, to make the need more salient in people’s minds, to create identifiable victims by showing images of real people who are suffering, and to reduce the social distance between donor and potential recipients.

Media coverage is an important factor in explaining the very large response to the DEC appeal in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. The response to that natural disaster remains the biggest fundraising appeal, with more than £500 million donated (in real terms). Dramatic pictures of devastation were broadcast around the world during the Christmas holidays, a time when people typically watch a lot of television and when there may be few competing news stories.

Similarly, the almost constant coverage of the war in Ukraine is likely to be an important factor driving the large donation response.

Lift or shift?

When large amounts of money are donated in response to a single fundraising appeal, there is a concern that this will reduce donations to other causes. But there is no evidence that this is the case.

Focusing on responses to six DEC appeals between 2009 and 2015, analysis of detailed donation data from the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) accounts found that donations to other charities increased during the time of an appeal. Although these other donations subsequently reduce, there is overall zero effect on other donations.

The contemporaneous increase may be the result of transaction costs – ‘if I am giving to one charity, I might as well make my other regular donations at the same time’. But this may also be a salience effect: the DEC appeal makes people more aware of the need to give to those in need.

Taken together with the positive response to the DEC appeal itself, the most important takeaway for the charity sector is that the response to the current humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is likely to generate new giving rather than taking donations away from other charities.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Sarah Smith
  • Kim Scharf
  • Susan Pinkney, CAF
Author: Sarah Smith
Photo by shironosov from iStock 1
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