Why 'Shock Value' Determines Humanitarian Aid Giving

A man wades through flooded fields in Pakistan's Punjab province. Photo by: Jaspreet Kindra / IRIN

Slow-onset disasters such as the fatal monsoon flooding in Pakistan do not generate the same “shock value” that induces people to contribute aid, a New York Times report says.

As of October, funds raised to help earthquake-ravaged Haiti have reached USD3.4 billion, of which private donations account for more than USD1.1 billion, according to United Nations estimates. In contrast, Pakistani flood relief funds total USD1.7 billion to date, including less than USD300 million in private donations.

“Humanitarians have long struggled with this paradox. The number of dead, along with the swiftness and drama of their demise, trumps almost any amount of agony among those who survive a disaster, particularly a creeping one,” The New York Times report says.

Randy Strash, strategy director for disaster response at World Vision, explains: “Donors use the number of deaths as a barometer with disasters … When you have a slow-onset disaster, like the flooding in Pakistan, which accumulated for three weeks and sustained for much longer, you don’t have that same shock value.”

The giving public sees natural disasters as sudden shocks that require immediate provision of cash to help disaster-ravaged communities get back on their feet. Once these shocks are over, the giving public perceives that disaster-affected communities continue on the same trajectory, says Peter Walker, an expert on humanitarian aid at Tufts University.

This perception may not hold true for poorer nations such as Haiti and Pakistan, where disasters create short- and long-term humanitarian needs, he added.

“For countries low down on the development scale, these disasters can drastically change the development curve,” Walker said.

About the author

  • Dsc05567

    Ma. Rizza Leonzon

    As a former staff writer, Rizza focused mainly on business coverage, including key donors such as the Asian Development Bank and AusAID.