Tsunami of Cash

By Clark, Ross | The Spectator, November 19, 2005 | Go to article overview

Tsunami of Cash


Clark, Ross, The Spectator


When, last Christmas, I whipped out my credit card to make a donation for victims of the Asian tsunami, it was more out of emotion than out of a genuine calculation that my money could achieve some good.

The pictures of flattened villages were appalling, and it didn't take much to imagine the wretches left clinging to coconut trees. Duty done, I put away the card.

According to my bank statements, I also gave some money to an emergency in Sudan last September, though to be honest I cannot remember many details of the crisis which inspired it, to the Royal British Legion on the 60th anniversary of VE Day, to the local children's hospices last Christmas, to the Samaritans and to the Pakistan earthquake last month. I remember, too, toying with the idea of giving some money to the victims of the New Orleans' hurricane, then hesitating and thinking 'It's America, isn't it? They must have pots of money.' It is not a philanthropic record of Carnegie proportions, I admit. But it is one which I think the number-crunchers at the Charities Aid Foundation would recognise. When laid out in front of me, I can see that my pattern of giving responds mostly to the big, highprofile appeals. As to the lesser-advertised humanitarian disasters in more obscure parts of the world, not only have I not given any money, I am afraid they have hardly registered with me -- in spite of my geography degree and my weekly glance through the nether regions of the Economist. Those made homeless by Hurricane Stan in Guatemala? I'm sure I must have read about it at the time, but there have been an awful lot of hurricanes this year, you understand.

The outbreak of kala azar in Ethiopia? An outbreak of what? Drought and famine in Burkina Faso? I'm sorry, but I couldn't even locate it on a map.

I don't think I am especially ignorant.

Rather I suspect that most people react to charitable causes in exactly the same way that I do. We're full of generosity, or at least we don't want to be left out, when the BBC sends one of its stars to make a fund-raising film. But that tends to be it until the next big appeal. Charitable giving, disaster relief in particular, has become like the football league: the money is becoming ever more concentrated in fewer causes. The premiership disaster appeals -- the tsunami, in particular -- have attracted so much money that the charities don't know what to do with it, while down in the Unibond league of disaster appeals there is grass growing through the terraces and they've just sold their goalkeeper for a tenner.

The Institute of Fundraising recently published a report on the effects of the tsunami appeal on charity fundraising in general.

Forty-eight per cent of charities unconnected with tsunami work reported that they had suffered a loss of income in the wake of the tsunami appeal. Separately, Childline and the National Missing Persons Helpline have both complained that their fundraising efforts have been hit. After all, there are only so many charity bike-rides one can go on, and, if the tsunami is the fashionable cause of the moment, it tends to reduce the scope for other charities to get a look-in.

You will never get a charity openly to admit that it has got too much money but, when you study how the remainder of the £400 million which Britons generously gave to the tsunami appeal is being spent, it is hard not to detect a certain amount of inventiveness in the projects which charities are pursuing in order to work their way through the mountain of cash.

Oxfam says it is 'involved in advocating the rights of the poor and marginalised as well as raising awareness of gender-related issues'. I am sure women's rights in Indonesia are a very important issue, but I am not sure that it is what donors had in mind when they came up with the cash last Christmas. In Sri Lanka, Christian Aid is spending some of its money on the Active Theatre Movement, which stages plays for children caught up in the disaster. …

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