Foreign policy experts often focus on problems like violence, terrorism, and instability, but the reality is that disasters are far more destructive.*
Between 1980 and 2000, disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods killed roughly 1.5 million people and directly affected at least 2.3 billion people worldwide. Economic losses from these catastrophes average between $250 billion and $300 billion per year, a number that's expected to increase in the future. And the impact falls disproportionately on poor countries.
Clearly, there's a tremendous demand for disaster relief. So it's a huge problem that disaster aid from wealthier countries rarely lines up with actual needs.
One recent example: the 2010 floods that devastated Pakistan affected more people than the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the 2005 Pakistan earthquake combined. Yet the latter three got far more attention and received far more aid. In the weeks after the floods, Pakistan received just $16.36 per person affected. That pales beside the $388.33 per person affected for Pakistan's earthquake, or $1,249.80 per person affected for the Indian Ocean tsunami.
The discrepancy is even greater for smaller disasters, which, when added up, account for the majority of deaths and displacement but don't make the headlines, and hence receive even less attention from donors.
Disaster relief is heavily influenced by politics and media coverage
So why the discrepancy? There are a few possible factors. Countries aren't always equally active in soliciting aid in the wake of a disaster. States that wish to emphasize their own self-reliance (China) or are seen as pariahs (North Korea, Burma) have resisted relief in the past.
What's more, donor countries often have their own political interests in mind. Some observers have argued that the Bush administration was especially eager to respond to the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir to garner support for its policies in the region.
But these factors alone can't account for the clear gap between the demonstrated need for relief and the level of support provided. Over the past two decades, the gap between the funding requested for humanitarian emergences and the amount actually provided by donor organizations has grown by 800 percent.
There's one other factor. As David Strömberg, an economics professor at Stockholm University, has found, media coverage plays a big role in determining where disaster relief goes.
Media coverage can be arbitrary — but it seems to influence aid decisions
In a 2007 study, Strömberg and Thomas Eisensee examined 5,212 disasters to see what factors affected media attention to these events. Using data from the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, the authors examined the level of coverage of each event on nightly newscasts in the US.
First, they found that other big stories can crowd out disaster coverage. For every 2.4 extra minutes the networks spent on their top three stories, the probability that they would cover a disaster fell by 4 percent. Olympics coverage reduced the probability of disaster coverage by 5 percent.
They also found that media was more likely to cover disasters with lots of deaths — "if it bleeds, it leads." A tenfold increase in the number of people killed by a disaster increased the likelihood of news coverage by 10 percent. By contrast, a tenfold increase in the number of people affected by a disaster only generated a 3 percent increase in coverage.
What's most striking is that this coverage appears to influence where disaster relief goes. The authors looked at USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and found that it responded to only 19 percent of the disasters in their study sample. So how did the office choose?
Strömberg and Eisensee found that nightly news coverage of a disaster increased the odds that OFDA would provide disaster relief by 16 percent. The effect was even greater for disasters that under normal circumstances would have only a marginal chance of getting covered — coverage increased the probability of aid by 68 percent. By contrast, if a disaster was going on during Olympics coverage, the likelihood that OFDA would provide relief went down by 6 percent. (A busy news day reduced the odds by 3 percent.)
Among other things, these results suggested that disasters occurring in a period with a busy news cycle would need to have six times more casualties than one that occurred on a slow news day to have the same chance of securing relief funding.
The authors conclude: "We argue that the only plausible explanation of this is that relief decisions are driven by news coverage of disasters, and that this news coverage is crowded out by other newsworthy material. We find that natural disasters are more likely to receive relief if they occur when the pressure for news time in the U.S. network news broadcasts is low."
Earthquakes get far more attention than famines or droughts
Media focus on some disasters over others isn't entirely random. The type, scale, and location of a disaster all matter.
For instance, the major networks covered roughly one-third of the geologic disasters in the sample: volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. But they largely ignored epidemics, droughts, and famines. Strömberg and Eisensee's results suggest that 38,920 people have to die in a famine for it to receive as much coverage as a single victim of a geologic disaster.
There is also a clear regional bias. Around one-sixth of disasters in Europe and Latin America made it into the broadcast, compared with less than 5 percent of those in Africa and Asia-Pacific. Depressingly, in order for a disaster in Africa to receive the same level of coverage as one in Europe, 45 times as many people must be killed.
And, again, these sorts of biases aren't just limited to the media. In another 2007 study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Strömberg looked at disaster relief provided by the members of the OECD's Development Assistance Committee (DAC) from 1995 to 2004.
When a disaster happens in a former DAC colony, the odds of the donor providing relief increase by 8 percent, while the amount of aid provided jumps by 46 percent. Distance plays an even starker role. Countries located "on the other side of the world" (roughly 12,000 miles from the donor) are 11 percent less likely to receive aid than a neighboring state. And on the off chance that a donor does provide aid, it’s roughly 55 percent less.
To put this into perspective, Strömberg notes that "to have the same chance of receiving relief, a country at the other side of the earth must have 160 times as many fatalities as a country at zero distance." This type of neighborhood bias has clear ramifications for countries in the developing world. Compared with disasters in Europe, those occurring in Asia-Pacific and Africa garner 36 percent and 21 percent less relief aid, respectively.
Taken together, this research paints a bleak picture. While those of us in the developed world may like to believe that our governments provide humanitarian aid on the basis of need, the evidence tells a different story. OFDA's mission may be "to prevent or minimize loss of life, alleviate human suffering, and reduce damage to economic assets in disaster-affected countries," but clearly not all disaster-affected countries receive the same treatment.
So is there a better way to do disaster relief?
Disasters are only likely to get worse in the future, thanks to a combination of climate change, population growth, urbanization, environmental degradation, and violence. So it's important for the international community to figure out how to better direct relief to where it's most needed.
One promising idea is called "disaster risk reduction" (DRR), which the United Nations defines as a strategy to bring about the "substantial reduction of disaster losses, in lives and in the social, economic and environmental assets of communities and countries." Whereas disaster relief attempts to address the consequences of disasters after the fact, DRR focuses on investments to mitigate or prevent the consequences of a disaster in the first place.
DRR initiatives often have positive side benefits. Consider the planting of mangrove forests. That not only reduces the flow rate of tsunamis by up to 90 percent — significantly reducing disaster risk — but the mangroves also provide a myriad of other benefits, including water purification, fish habitats, and a sustainable source of non-timber forest products. Evidence suggests that every dollar invested in DRR generates at least $4 in benefits and avoided costs.
Yet wealthy countries have been reluctant to fund this approach. Earlier this month, negotiators at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan reached a last-minute deal that would lay out priorities for mitigating disaster risks through 2030. The Sendai Framework was a landmark deal in several ways, but the agreement also lacked any firm commitments from developed countries to provide financial support for DRR in the developing world.
Global climate funding mechanisms face similar headwinds. Congressional Republicans have threatened on several occasions to block President Obama’s $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund. The GCF is primary international fund for financing adaptation in the developing world. Without a guaranteed contribution from the US, it is unlikely that the fund will manage to meet its $100 billion target by 2020. Mistrust around this issue could undermine the climate talks in Paris later this year.
Given that the developed world has largely driven the changes of our climate that are increasingly making themselves known through disasters and extreme events in the developing world, it would seem only fair that those countries take concrete steps to improve the way we do disaster relief. It would be a profound moral failure for those countries to produce the carbon pollution that helped intensify a tropical storm in Kiribati or Mozambique, and then contribute only haphazardly to the recovery effort.
* I use the term "disaster," rather than the more common "natural disaster," for reason I outline in this post. Because disasters are, in many ways, politically and socially constructed, it is improper to view them as "natural" phenomena.
Tim Kovach is an independent analyst and blogger from Cleveland who researches and writes about climate change, disaster risk reduction, and environmental peacebuilding at timkovach.com. Follow him on Twitter at @twkovach.