The trouble with disasters

Now that David Cameron is off on his summer holiday, his deputy Nick Clegg has been let out of the cupboard. And he’s been using his new-found limelight to comment on the plight of those caught up in the Pakistan floods. According to news reports, at least 1600 people have died, up to 20 million have been affected, and 6 million need urgent food aid. But despite the huge scale of the disaster, donations have been relatively low.

Asked why this might be the case, Nick Clegg speculated that:

“One of the reasons may be because this is a disaster on a scale that people are struggling to understand…The flooded area is the same size as England.”

On the face of it, this seems strange. With 24-news channels gagging for material to fill news bulletins, you would have thought that we would be bombarded with the sensationalism of what is happening in Pakistan, and that donations would follow.

Interestingly though, a paper by economists at UCL backs up Nick Clegg’s hunch. According to the research, we become less sensitive, and are less shocked by each additional death as the death toll increases. So we shouldn’t expect twice the donations to come in for a disaster that is twice as large.

A potential reason given in the paper on why people react in this way is that “people have limited resources for coping with negative events [and so] a diminishing sensitivity to increasing fatalities may protect us from being emotionally overwhelmed by large death tolls”.

This effect means that aid agencies need to be more innovative in trying to attract funding: the shock factor only works up to a degree.

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