Humanitarian aid groups are grappling with a paradox in dealing with the mass suffering caused by Syria’s civil war: The more horrific it gets, the more difficult it becomes to raise private donations to alleviate the plight of the victims. There are various explanations for this, including insights from Mother Teresa and Joseph Stalin.The saintly nun and the ruthless dictator came to similar conclusions on attitudes toward suffering on a huge scale.
A remark ascribed to the late missionary says: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
According to Stalin, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”
To hear humanitarian aid experts tell it, the war in Syria – now in its fourth year – has turned so atrocious and complicated, the flood of refugees so enormous, that it is difficult to convince people their contribution can make a difference. “There is a notion that this is a vast hole into which we pour money,” said Jeffery Wright, Director of Emergency Response at the U.S.-based charity organization World Vision. “People fear this is a vast unsolvable problem.”
Americans find it hard to identify with what is happening in Syria and they tend to respond more readily to natural than man-made disasters. “So, raising funds for Syria is particularly difficult,” Wright said.
Numbers tell the story. When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines last November, killing more than 6,000 and making almost 2 million homeless, World Vision raised $16 million in private donations for the victims, within weeks. So far, donations for the victims of the Syrian bloodshed total around $1.6 million. Other aid groups collecting private donations report similar disparities.
The picture is not as bleak where government contributions are concerned but they, too, are falling short of what is needed. At an international donor conference in Kuwait last January, countries pledged more than $2.4 billion for food, shelter, medical care and water. The United Nations had appealed for $6.5 billion, the largest request for humanitarian aid in the world body’s history.
Since the Syrian conflict began in March, 2011, more than 140,000 people have been killed and almost 10 million have been driven from their homes. Around 2.5 million have taken refuge in neighboring countries. On the third anniversary of the war, in mid-March, Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, described Syria as “the biggest humanitarian and peace and security crisis facing the world.” U.N. officials urged the world not to forget Syria.
To what extent such calls can generate public empathy is open to doubt. The reluctance of Americans to make private donations appears to bode ill for efforts elsewhere – global surveys regularly rank Americans at or near the top in terms of charitable giving and helping others. According to the latest World Giving Index compiled by the U.K.-based Charities Aid Foundation, Americans lead the world in individual generosity “due mainly to the fact that helping a stranger is more commonplace” in the U.S. than in any other country.
But the perception that there are no “good guys” in the Syrian war has put a brake on generosity, aid workers say. So, humanitarian groups are trying to find ways to put a human face on an ugly conflict and some focus on telling the tragedy of war through the voice of children, victims whose innocence is not in doubt.
The relief organization Save the Children has released a haunting video that depicts a year in the life of a young girl in an imaginary London sliding into civil war. It opens with a happy birthday party and ends in a refugee camp and the words “just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.” The video attracted more than 5 million views within a few days.
In a similar attempt to push emotional buttons, World Vision just released a report written by 140 Syrian refugee children between the ages of 10 and 17 living in Lebanon and Jordan. Quote from Rania, aged 14: “To the global leaders: Wake up. We are not involved or guilty in this. Put yourselves in our place. Would you wish for this?”
One reason why public attention on Syria is fading in the U.S., according to World Vision’s Jeffery Wright, is a distinct lack of celebrity interest in the conflict. With the exception of the actress Angelina Jolie, who has visited refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, big Hollywood stars have shied away from focusing attention on the conflict.
British celebrities have been more vocal: In mid-March, 30 figures from the world of acting and literature, including actor Hugh Grant and singer Sting, called on the U.N. to take action to ensure that aid supplies get through to civilians besieged in parts of Syria by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. A U.N. Security Council resolution adopted unanimously in February demanded “prompt, safe and unhindered access” for humanitarian aid across civil war front lines and borders.
But the resolution, though binding, included no threat of sanctions for violators and had little impact on the ground. As fighting continues, so does the daily flood of refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that another 1.7 million Syrians will become refugees this year, bringing the total by December to 4.1 million. It’s a statistic that numbs the mind.
Bernd Debusmann is a former World Affairs columnist for Reuters. This article was written exclusively for The Daily Star.