Donors play 'blame game' with disaster victims

Haiti earthquake survivor with banner appealing for help The Haiti earthquake appeal broke records for aid donations

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People give more to victims of natural disasters than to casualties of man-made calamities like wars, according to new research by psychologists.

We give more to a drought victim than a war victim because we suspect the latter may be partly to blame for their plight, the authors say.

It could explain why the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami sparked a huge response but the Darfur appeal received less.

The study was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

"These conclusions are borne out by our experience," said Brendan Paddy of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), a UK body that co-ordinates aid appeals.

Start Quote

If we see someone suffering, we assume they can't be completely innocent - this is the way we defend our belief in a just world”

End Quote Hanna Zagefka Royal Holloway, University of London

"Appeals for a humanitarian disaster arising from conflict tend to get significantly less response than natural events."

Presumed innocent?

In the study, the psychologists invented a fictitious famine.

They then told test groups the famine was caused either by a "drought" or "armed conflict" and invited them to contribute to an appeal for funds.

People routinely gave more to the victims of the "drought" because when they saw victims of a man-made disaster they tended to think they must have something to do with their plight, the authors concluded.

This response was due to a "blame game" based on what was known as the "just world belief", said lead author Hanna Zagefka of the Royal Holloway, University of London.

Under this belief, she said, we all wanted to think the world was fair and just, "because the alternative could mean that all sorts of random and horrible things could happen to us".

Darfur refugee The Darfur aid appeal raised far less than the Indian Ocean tsunami

"In this fair and just world that we want, the innocent do not suffer," Ms Zagefka said.

"So if we see someone suffering, we assume they can't be completely innocent - this is the way we defend our belief in a just world."

In the case of famine caused by conflict, we might subconsciously think that the victims were somehow complicit, the researchers said.

But in a natural disaster, they added, our instinct told us the story was simple - the earthquake struck, or the huge wave arrived, and it could not be the fault of the victims.

The findings could have implications for the way charities frame their appeals.

"Appeals could explicitly stress that even though an armed conflict is going on the victims are impartial civilians who did not trigger the fighting," Ms Zagefka said.

While the "blame-game" psychology that favours natural disasters goes some way to explaining aid flows, it is far from the only dynamic at play.

Pakistan, for example, suffered a huge natural disaster when floods hit much of the country in 2010.

But a senior source in the Western aid world said: "The country has an image problem so people didn't give as generously as they would have done if the floods have happened elsewhere."

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