Sunday, January 23, 2005

Tsunami in Perspective

In the wake of the oceanic tsunami, we have seen a "tsunami" of donations for relief. Nations engaged in a public bidding war against nations, and for private citizens, the opportunities and reminders to give to this cause are pervasive. (I think every major website put a tsunami relief link on its homepage.) While this flood of generosity is heartwarming, one might step back for the bigger perspective and ask "why does this disaster rate such an unprecedented response?" Without demeaning the suffering and loss caused by the tsunami, there are other disasters striking around the world of equal if not greater scope, albeit not as mediagenic. There is the AIDS epidemic, with 6 million HIV-infected people needing treatment and less than half a million receiving treatment. There is the continuing genocide in Darfur, Sudan. There are locust swarms of biblical proportions destroying half of all food production in the African Sahel region (you'd think that would be telegenic). There are over 10 million children each year who die of preventable diseases (e.g., tuberculosis) and malnutrition. Why do these deserving needs for relief not inspire the same kind of response as the tsunami?

I think the answer is complex. The tsunami was sudden, creating all its casualties in one dramatic stroke, while most of the other disasters are ongoing crises with relentless casualties drawn out over time. It is our nature to give inordinate weight to sudden dramatic losses of some number of people, in comparison to much greater losses that occur gradually. It's the same reason that many people fear airplane crashes yet have no fear of driving on the highway, even though the latter is statistically much more dangerous. For some, a natural disaster may inspire more sympathy than victims of human causes such as wars. For some, even disease or hunger may be perceived as at least partly deserved (e.g., thinking that AIDS is the desert of the promiscuous, or that poverty is the desert of the lazy). For some, the tsunami may have seemed "closer to home" than other "third world" crises, because it affected some "first world" people, not just National Geographic poster children, but also models, photographers, and Oprah's designer's boyfriend.

However you may have been motivated to give to tsunami relief, you deserve to feel good about your generosity. But it's also worth taking a moment to think about what you give, when you give, and how you give. Think about some of the other crises in the world (I've given several examples already: strife in Sudan, locusts in Sahel, AIDS, tuberculosis, etc). Are they any less deserving or compelling than the tsunami? If so, why? If not, will you donate to these causes also?

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