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Donors Respond Slowly to Pakistan Floods

A UMNS Report

By Susan Hogan*

The outpouring of donations following the Jan. 12 earthquake that rocked Haiti is not being repeated for the people of Pakistan fighting for survival in the wake of massive floods.

The United Nations blames donor fatigue and the fact the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis is unfolding slowly. Others say the time of year, the distance from Pakistan to the United States and scaled-down media coverage are factors, too.

Whatever the case, a massive financial response is necessary because the devastation is many times worse, said David Sadoo, an executive with the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

"We are in need of donations to deal with a desperate situation," he said. "The scope of the disaster is immense. But this isn't registering yet in the United States."

Many people assess the size of a tragedy in relation to its death toll, which may also play into the response to Pakistan.

More than 200,000 people died and 1.3 million were left homeless in the Haiti quake. UMCOR raised $40 million dollars for relief efforts there.

In Pakistan, the death toll is lower -- an estimated 1,500 people. But the numbers run out of their homes or left homeless could reach as high as 15 million or 20 million, according to the United Nations.

"The number of people affected is many times over than that in Haiti," said Sadoo, UMCOR's executive secretary for international disaster response.

UMCOR has given $105,000 to its ministry partners providing relief to Pakistan, he said. 

"The money coming in isn't even close to that now," Sadoo said. "We have a general emergency fund that we're dipping into. We need help, and we need a lot of it."

Spreading the Word

The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that 39 aid groups raised $560 million in just over two weeks after the Haiti disaster. But U.S. aid groups across the board said that donations for Pakistan were trickling in at a snail's pace.

"The immediate response was slow, but increasing media attention has brought more donations in the past few days," a spokeswoman for Oxfam America told the Chronicle.

Other relief agencies also said a lack of media attention, rather than donor fatigue, was a factor in the slow donor response.

"Donor fatigue is usually not the issue," said Josh Sprunger, a spokesman for the Center on Philanthrophy at Indiana University. The center is based in Indianapolis.

"It usually comes down to two things -- awareness of the issue and being asked," he said. "If people are asked to donate by organizations they know and trust, then they will give."

When Haiti's earthquake hit, it also dominated television news on the front pages of newspapers, Sadoo said. People opened their hearts and their wallets upon seeing the horrific images of the tragedy

"Pakistan has been on the front pages, but it hasn't been the primary story," Sadoo said. "For many Americans, geography may be factoring into the response. Pakistan seems so distant. They don't feel the impact as much."

Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, board chairman for the Chicago-based Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, shares Sadoo's assessment.

"People responded to the media coverage of Haiti. The images shocked them. They wanted to help," said Mujahid, a Pakistani who moved to Chicago decades ago.

"Pakistan's death toll is substantially lower, so people assume the tragedy is not as bad," he said. "The reality is that the millions left homeless makes it much worse. That impact on human life is only slowly becoming clearer."

For United Methodists, Haiti's earthquake hit home in a personal way, which fueled a  desire to help, Sadoo said. United Methodist mission workers were trapped in the rubble. Three of them died.

UMCOR doesn't have an office in Pakistan, but it has partners on the ground there, Sadoo said.

United Methodist Giving

The Rev. Rinya Frisbie, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Hood, Ore., said the differences in response may also be due to the time of year.

Haiti's earthquake hit in January, a time when her small congregation of 80 people is likely to be on hand. The Pakistan flood hit in summer during peak tourist time, when church members are taking vacations.

"We may take a collection later, but I don't want do to it now because people are traveling and attendance is low," Frisbee said.

She also said she hasn't had resource materials to provide her congregation about Pakistan.

"It seemed like as soon as the earthquake struck Haiti, The United Methodist Church had videos and stories that you could share with your congregation," she said. "I showed the videos. I showed the photos. They made a huge impression on people. One church member decided to start a fundraising project for Haiti."

The effort — with a community choir and brass ensemble benefit — brought in $1,300.

The Rev. Carol Thompson, the part-time pastor of Jerome United Methodist Church in Jerome, Idaho, also said the time of year is playing into people's response to Pakistan.

"We've been so consumed by the spud booth we run at the county fair every summer that I think we stopped paying attention to the world for a moment," she said.

The congregation's website, however, asks members to remember Pakistan's flood victims in prayer. Maybe it's time to start thinking about doing more, she said.

"We contributed to Haiti in an incredible way," she said. "We're just a small church of 75 members. Many people are retired and on fixed incomes. Yet, we contributed over $500."

UMCOR resources on Pakistan are available here.

Please give generously to International Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #982450 and help the people of Pakistan survive the worst disaster in memory in their country. Please indicate Pakistan Floods on the memo line of your check. Online Giving

*Hogan is a freelance writer based in Chicago.