New Orleans after Katrina
Communities up and down Colorado’s Front Range were ravaged a couple weeks ago by flash floods that turned every stream and creek into a raging torrent. Hundreds of homes were lost, roads and bridges were washed away, lives and businesses were uprooted. Disasters like this, we’ve learned, bring out the best and worst in people. Everyone gets stretched to their extremes. But for the most part, the generosity of people in response to catastrophes like this is truly remarkable. And that generosity is not bound by spatial scale. Whenever a disaster occurs, donations – whether useful or not – pour in from around the world. Indeed, disasters like this provide opportunities for people to demonstrate their generosity. Giving to others in need makes us feel good.
It also makes us look good. While generosity is seemingly, by definition, a selfless act, ‘the gift’ is fraught with socially-loaded baggage. Generosity – despite how selfless the giver’s intentions may be – is often received with the understanding that reciprocity is somehow expected or that the receiver is now, in some way, in the giver’s debt. And when corporations get involved, there’s always an unavoidable element of self-interest. For instance, the Patagonia company is visiting flooded towns in Colorado to hand out their brand-name jackets and such to first-responders and flood victims. This is certainly a generous act, particularly given the retail value of Patagonia products. But one cannot help suspecting that Patagonia’s motives are at least partially self-serving; their generosity today is cultivating new customers tomorrow. And if the local media happen to be filming while products are being distributed, then their free advertising thrown in as well.
Are these socially-loaded complications of disaster relief culturally specific? How different is generosity in Colorado compared to generosity in, say, China? How important is cultural, social, and political context to the role disasters play in how people give and receive donations? These questions have been on my mind as I contemplate Colorado’s flood recovery while also thinking about all the similar disasters that befall communities throughout the world and, particularly, throughout Asia.
Wenchuan earthquake, China
I recently came upon a study conducted by researchers in Australia and China comparing international donations in response to Hurricane Katrina in the US and the Wenchuan earthquake in China. One of the most striking facts revealed in their paper, “Disaster Relief Drivers: China and the US in Comparative Perspective,” is the discrepancy in the amount donated by the international community in response to these disasters. Whereas China received some $500 million from 160 countries following the Wenchuan earthquake, the US received $854 million from 130 countries in response to Katrina. Certainly Katrina caused unprecedented destruction, along with some 1,800 lives. But it also happened in the world’s wealthiest country. The Wenchuan earthquake, by comparison, claimed nearly 70,000 lives, injured 375,000 more, with nearly 20,000 officially ‘missing’, and some 4.8 million homeless. The catastrophes are hardly even comparable in scale, and yet China received some $350 million less than the US in donations. Even more strange: Asian countries donated over $780 million to the US for Katrina, whereas they donated only $147 million to China.
What explains this discrepancy? The paper does not provide a single definitive answer to this question, but does suggest that political factors figures prominently in any explanation.
The 41 Asia donors provided USD147.40 million in assistance to China, while33 countries donated USD782.20 million to the US, accounting for 531 per cent of the amount of donations to China. This can be explained by the fact that donor countries of Hurricane Katrina wanted to attract US attention by offering huge donations.
So, trade relations had a lot to do with how donor countries responded to the two disasters, with those seeking to maintain good trade relations with the US being more likely to donate more to the Katrina recovery.
For the Wenchuan earthquake, donor countries that had less imports from China were of higher likelihood to respond by giving supplies assistance. For Hurricane Katrina,the case appears to be different: donor countries that had lower exports to the US and more imports from the US were more likely to offer assistance in the form of supplies (p. 109).
Disaster diplomacy, then, becomes a significant factor in explaining different patterns of disaster aid. The authors found that only the EU maintains a relatively consistent approach to disaster aid, based on humanitarian concerns more than potential political gain. The EU donated roughly equal amounts to both the US and China. In general, the authors find that generosity is geographical, with developed countries donate less than developing countries.