The tsunami, the internet and funding for forgotten emergencies
by Christopher Eldridge, independent July 2005

Public responses to appeals for aid funds after the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 were unprecedented. In Britain, more donations were made more quickly to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC)’s tsunami appeal than to any previous appeal coordinated by the DEC. In two months, £300 million (about $600 million) was raised – over eight times the amount given to the DEC’s Sudan appeal, which had been running for four times as long. Official aid pledges were also large. The responses of the public and of donors raise a number of issues around the financing of relief. This article looks at two: funding for so-called ‘forgotten emergencies’, and the role of the media and new technology in fundraising and awareness-raising.

Forgotten emergencies and three funding issues: proportionality, timeliness and switching

The problem of forgotten emergencies has been acknowledged for some years. It has been underlined by the disparity between Consolidated Appeal (CAP) pledges for the tsunami and those for other CAP emergencies. As of 5 April 2005, donor commitments for ten of 17 CAP emergencies then current were each less than 5% of the CAP requirements. For the tsunami, they amounted to 80% of requirements – well over half as much again as those for the other 16 emergencies combined.

The fact that under 5% of CAP requirements for ten emergencies were met a quarter of the way through the year highlights the issue of timeliness. The timing of expenditure is critical in emergencies for several reasons: first, because by definition the needs are urgent; second, due to seasonal effects (the start of the rains, for example, might cause logistical or health problems); third, because of implementation requirements (in some countries operations are scheduled on a quarterly basis); fourth, where expenditure involves food aid, relief food deliveries which continue after the harvest tend to depress local food prices. So the fact that funding might eventually come close to requirements is not the issue: speed of effective disbursement is of the essence.

The third issue highlighted by the tsunami response concerns the switching of funding between emergencies. None of the $350 million pledged by the US for tsunami programmes during the month after the disaster was new money; it was simply switched from existing aid budgets. If some or all of a donor’s pledge comprises old money, what will be cut as a result? How quickly will this money be transformed into effective programmes? What financing mechanisms, and/or what conditions attached to the money, might limit the speed, effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the programmes it will finance?

More broadly, the scale of the public response to the tsunami is likely to affect public fundraising for other emergencies, though the nature, scale and duration of the effects are unclear. In relation to charitable giving in general in Britain, a survey conducted by the UK’s Institute of Fundraising a month after the tsunami found no clear consensus among British charities as to whether the tsunami appeal would have negative or positive impacts on their incomes in the long term. A fifth of the 293 charities in the survey reported an increase in income over the previous month, and a fifth reported a decrease. Following previous emergencies, many international NGOs have experienced a longer-term increase in income.

The complementary roles of the mass media and the internet

The disparity between funding for the tsunami and for other current emergencies was paralleled by a disparity in media coverage. The tsunami attracted more media attention in the two months after it struck than the world’s top ten ‘forgotten’ emergencies enjoyed over a whole year. Among the likely reasons for this were:

  • dramatic images of devastation, both rural and urban, in ten different countries;
  • the immediate availability of images filmed and photographed by holidaymakers;
  • timing: the tsunami struck at Christmas, a time of the year when many people are watching television, and when there are relatively few news stories;
  • easy and rapid access by journalists to most affected areas;
  • the relative novelty of the disaster (destructive tsunamis are rarer than droughts, floods and conflict);
  • the apparent simplicity of the cause of the disaster, and its amenability to graphical, scientific explanation;
  • the tsunami struck many areas familiar to Westerners: 14% of those in the UK who made donations gave because they knew the area or had actually visited one of the regions affected; and
  • the death or temporary disappearance of several thousand people from Western countries.

Technology had a major impact on the way in which people pledged their support, offering them a variety of ways to make donations. A survey for the Charities Aid Foundation in the UK found that 61% of people who gave online did so for the first time, and 41% of those who used a debit or credit card to give by telephone were also doing so for the first time. Text messaging was used by 1% of donors – all of whom did so for the first time. The availability of information on how to go about donating was also important: of those in the UK who made donations, 65% did so because information on how to give was readily accessible. (The availability of technology alone would not be of much help if there was no information available on how to make use of it.)

The large increase in the number of internet users over recent years provides an opportunity for at least partially overcoming two main constraints which have imposed finite and easily reached limits on the role of the mass media in creating and maintaining public awareness of emergencies (and of relief and development issues generally): space constraints (other news stories compete for limited space) and temporal constraints (after a certain, variable, period, high-interest news stories slip down the schedule and onto inside pages, and the space/airtime devoted to them decreases and eventually disappears). Both constraints mean that a major new emergency, or a newsworthy worsening of an existing emergency, almost inevitably reduces the attention given to other emergencies (and to other development issues more generally).

These two constraints suggest that it may be operationally useful to distinguish between creating awareness, and maintaining and extending awareness – providing more, and more nuanced, information on emergencies. The mass media are best-placed for the former, and the internet (with a few quality newspapers, TV channels and journals) for the latter.

The mass media and the internet were used in complementary ways to rapidly raise large sums of money from the public immediately after the tsunami. This complementarity could be extended to increase public awareness of forgotten emergencies and of the wider contexts in which emergencies occur. Websites might be established by organisations involved in emergencies, perhaps by donors involved in the GHD initiative, UN organisations, and NGO coordinating groups such as the DEC in the UK. These could be used to describe, for example:

  • forgotten emergencies;
  • the increasing number of natural disasters, which tripled from an average of 150 a year in 1980 to over 450 a year today;
  • the two-way links between poverty and emergencies;
  • emergencies and development (in countries of low human development, 1,052 people died per natural disaster on average between 1991 and 2000, almost 50 times as many as in countries of high human development (23 deaths per disaster));
  • emergencies and vulnerable groups, such as children, older people and disabled people;
  • emergencies in the context of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); and
  • ‘grey’ emergencies, such as malaria and diarrhoea, which are not emergencies in the conventional sense, but nonetheless kill large numbers of people, particularly children, and are specific and avoidable.

There are limits to the number of separate emergency appeals which can be launched. Making references to websites endorsed or established by organisations involved in emergencies would help to circumvent these limits, and the two constraints characterising the mass media noted above. It would also allow emergencies to be linked with other campaigns and programmes, such as the Jubilee Debt Campaign, whose website referred to the need to cancel a significant part of the debts owed by countries affected by the tsunami, and freeze repayments on remaining debts; this kind of analysis could be repeated for other emergencies. Other areas to explore could include HIV/AIDS (emergencies tend to facilitate the spread of HIV/AIDS); there is no immediately obvious website relevant to HIV/AIDS and emergencies.

Once endorsed or established, such websites could be used to extend awareness of emergencies and their contexts still further through their use in schools. In Britain, for example, the geography syllabus in secondary schools includes natural disasters and responses to them. Faith-based organisations, other civil society groups, and the private sector may also be useful avenues (donations by companies to the tsunami appeals in Britain varied greatly, but in general seemed less generous than those by individuals). It might also be possible to use the internet to raise public awareness at the onset of an emergency: for example, sponsored pop-up news-boxes on Google, Yahoo or MSN.

Conclusion Various factors contribute to the continuing problem of forgotten emergencies. These include the complexity of many of them, overall low volumes of aid, and the little attention paid by the mass media to poor countries, in which nearly all such emergencies occur. Consequently, several approaches to improving funding programmes for forgotten emergencies are needed. These include emphasis on the GHD initiative, particularly the principles of proportionality and timeliness; transparency concerning switched funding; the funding of UN relief agencies at least in part from assessed contributions, rather than relying on pledges in response to individual emergencies from donor governments; and the expanded use of the internet to increase public awareness of forgotten emergencies, to expand awareness of the wider contexts in which emergencies occur, and to help transform impressive public responses to high-profile emergencies into more regular giving.

Christopher Eldridge has worked intermittently on emergencies for several NGOs in Africa and Asia since 1982. He is currently a visiting fellow with the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK. His email address is: christophereldridge@yahoo.co.uk.