photography politics

Responding to crises: the problem of ‘donor fatigue’

The second anniversary of the Haiti earthquake has seen some excellent follow-up reporting on what the international aid effort has achieved (see The Global Post series, with photos by Ron Haviv, as well as this morning’s Guardian report and picture gallery amongst others). This focus on where the aid money has gone highlights one of the major problems with international responses to such crises – much of the money promised by governments fails to materialise.

In thinking about how outsiders react to coverage of crises, ‘compassion fatigue’ is commonly cited. I’m writing a research paper on why the ‘compassion fatigue’ thesis is a myth, and will be making that available in the near future for debate. With regards to Haiti, the international community’s compassion was never in doubt. Coverage was extensive, often powerful, and the publics’ charitable response was great. Even if it is applicable in other contexts, it doesn’t stand up as an explanation here.

What the story of Haiti’s aid money helps demonstrate is that ‘donor fatigue’ is a more significant issue. Although ‘donor fatigue’ is sometimes related to ‘compassion fatigue’ (see here), it is something entirely different. It refers to the fact that international donors – meaning principally governments – fail to fulfil their initial commitments. Within days of a crisis, headlines are often made with officials basking in a humanitarian glow by pledging millions to a relief effort.

When accounts are later examined, those promises are regularly unfulfilled. Haiti is a case in point, with The Guardian reporting that countries “have delivered only about half of the billions of dollars promised for reconstruction, according to UN data.” The Guardian’s detailed data analysis (source of the above graph) shows that:

Venezuela and the US, which promised the lion’s share of reconstruction funds – more than $1.8bn together – have disbursed just 24% ($223m) and 30% ($278m) respectively. Japan and Finland are among the few donors to have fully met their pledges.

Calling this underfunding donor fatigue is misleading. ‘Fatigue’ suggests a reduction over time through repetition. The claim of donor fatigue implicitly assumes there was a time governments once fulfilled their pledges, but they now no longer do so. I suspect that is historically inaccurate. My sense is that government’s have always generally pledged more than they have paid out.

Some support for this comes from looking at how UN Consolidated Appeals operate. The Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) is the annual global agenda of humanitarian needs. In 2011 there were twenty-one appeals to governments for funds, and the UN’s Financial Tracking Service reports that only 61% of the total required was raised. In the last five years CAP fulfilment has been in the range of 60-70%, and in 2001 it was as low as 55%. The record of insufficient government aid to meet global appeals is both constant and long-standing. ‘Fatigue’ is therefore better understood as inaction or indifference. Most importantly, all this is hidden by the frequent invocation of ‘compassion fatigue’ as an explanation for any inadequate international response.

Can images play a role in overcoming government inaction in the face of humanitarian crises? Yes, pictures can provoke. In Malawi (2002) and Niger (2005), government donors responded to food insecurity only after the international media started carrying reports of famine.[nbnote ]See my paper “The Iconography of Famine” (2011), pp. 18-19 for quotes and references.[/nbnote] Far from being the cause of a mythical ‘compassion fatigue’, pictures have the potential to disturb the official incalcitrance we mistakenly call ‘donor fatigue’.

Featured photo: PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Aug. 28, 2011) An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 26 transports Rear Adm. Steven Ratti, U.S. Southern Command director of operations, from a temporary medical site at the Killick Coast Guard Base during Continuing Promise 2011. Continuing Promise is a five-month humanitarian assistance mission to the Caribbean, Central and South America. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric C. Tretter/Released)

5 replies on “Responding to crises: the problem of ‘donor fatigue’”

Hi David, thanks for another insightful post. I think you make an important differentiation between ‘compassion fatigue’ and ‘donor fatigue’, but the issue that the figures illustrate is not simply about donor fatigue either. The Haiti earthquake humanitarian ‘Flash appeal’ in 2010 was actually pretty well funded (75%) when compared to others – the appeal for Somalia in 2011 is 83% funded, but the one for the 2011 Pakistan floods is only 49% met. This is donor fatigue – getting countries to pledge money in the first place.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t issues with the funds (once pledged) actually getting through to people on the ground – there obviously are. In Haiti particularly there are many complex challenges, especially when it comes to longer term reconstruction projects – land rights and lack of available land, elections, the lack of a properly functioning stable government and rule of law (most of the main Haitian government buildings collapsed in the earthquake and many civil servants were killed). Nobody even knows for sure how many people died in the earthquake, or how many were made homeless by it as opposed to how many already were. Accurately assessing humanitarian and reconstruction needs is also fraught with difficulty. These are just some of the reasons why some of the money pledged simply hasn’t been spent yet – because it simply can’t be. It’s also true that donors are taking greater and greater care to make sure funds are spent properly and accountably – they’d be accused of wasting money if they weren’t. None of the above are excuses, but they are real factors on the ground, factors that the figures alone don’t/can’t explain.

I don’t claim to be an expert in humanitarian funding – I’m most certainly not. I’m just a picture editor who works on development and humanitarian issues. So what has all this got to do with photography? Well, you’re right – photographs have and still can prompt action from donors to meet appeals, to mitigate some of that donor fatigue. Long may they continue to do so.

But they’re also being used increasingly to provide evidence, of when the money pledged has actually been spent, of where it’s been spent. So photography has an important role to play at either end of the process. Donors such as the UK (DFID, where I work), USAID and others are all increasingly trying to illustrate these complex stories using photography – even the US Navy is, as your picture shows. Some of us are even doing it using Creative Commons licensed imagery!

Sadly, two years on from the Haiti earthquake is only really the beginning of the road to recovery for a destroyed country. With the best will in the world, we’ll need to look at the story that the figures – and the photos – tell in five, ten years time. I look forward to reading your paper on compassion fatigue in the meantime – do let me know when its available.

Best wishes, Russell

Thanks for the comments Rob and Nick. I don’t have all the answers to your questions Rob – my understanding of CAP is that its usually separate from national aid budgets, and because its meeting humanitarian emergencies operates on a short annual cycle, but I stand to be corrected on that.

Great insight, I find it very hard to understand why more is not said of donor fatigue. More countries should follow the japanese ethic of pledging an amount which they can realistically fufill. I will be very interested to read your work of the myth of compassion fatigue, something i have not questioned.

Regards, Nick

Spot on with the analysis of compassion and donor fatigue in that it implies an idyllic past when we were more generous and less cynical. However, although I don’t work for a development agency, I suspect there may be a lot more behind the disbursement stats than meets the eye. Not least that it is unclear what time frame these pledges were taken under and whether these bids included existing aid? And that often donors are reluctant to release money until they have guarantees that it will be spent appropriately (or it is the right time to spend – I have lost money on projects due to delays that then mean the money is taken back at the end of the financial year). Many agencies in Nepal (where I have worked) are keen to channel money through the government, even in the face of some (relatively small scale) corruption, in order (in the long term) to build the capacity of the government. If hardly any of the money went through the Haitian gov then it would be worth examining why this was? I also wonder if the CAP is an example of evolutionary behavior, in that they over bid and the donors under deliver?

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