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What turns the aid tap on

By Andrew Leigh - posted Monday, 21 January 2008

Just over three years ago, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami struck, wreaking havoc in Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka. With little else to occupy the Australian media during January 2005, the tsunami received near-blanket coverage over subsequent weeks. In total, the Australian public donated nearly a third of a billion dollars to help the victims.

At the time, many commentators attributed this to the natural generosity of the Australian people. But might it also have had to do with the timing of the tsunami? Or to put the question another way: if the disaster had been on page ten rather than page one, would Australians have been as generous?

If two recent studies are to be believed, the answer is probably no. Analysing the factors that predict private donations to World Vision and public grants through AusAID’s emergency relief scheme, Simon Feeny and Matthew Clarke found that the more newspaper articles written about an overseas disaster, the more money Australians gave. A 10 per cent increase in the number of articles was associated with a 10 per cent increase in the amount of money given by private donors, and a 37 per cent increase in the amount of money given by AusAID.


But while media coverage might be idiosyncratic, it could also tell us how “needy” the victims are. So to get at the true causal impact of the media, we need some source of variation in coverage that is unrelated to the crisis itself. In their study of disaster relief provided by the United States government over the past 30 years, Thomas Eisensee and David Strömberg come up with a clever solution: they look at how domestic preoccupations affect a nation’s generosity. What happens when an overseas famine, volcano or flood occurs at the same time as an event of local interest such as the Olympics, the OJ Simpson trial, or an American school shooting?

Eisenee and Strömberg show that when the US media is preoccupied with another story, it is less likely to pay attention to the international crisis. In turn, this has a direct impact on US government donations. To have the same chance of receiving US assistance, a disaster that coincides with the Olympics needs to have three times as many casualties as a disaster occurring on a regular news day.

Coverage of international disasters also seems to skew aid in other ways. In both Australia and the United States, visually dramatic events such as volcanoes and floods receive significantly more media than famines and civil wars. According to Eisenee and Strömberg, for every person killed in a volcano disaster, 40,000 people must die in a drought to receive as much media coverage. Access matters too. For an African disaster to receive as much media coverage as an Eastern European disaster, 40 times as many people must die.

These studies have profound implications for slow-moving African crises, such as the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. With fewer images to put on the television screen and the front page, Darfur rarely rates a mention outside the foreign affairs pages of serious newspapers. As a result, Sudan’s evacuees probably receive a smaller share of international assistance than would people displaced by a volcano in South-East Asia.

Sometimes the neediest causes are not the most newsworthy. Several months after the Indian Ocean tsunami, a famine in Niger killed about 360,000 people. As Feeny and Clarke point out, this was a higher death toll than in the tsunami. Yet the Niger famine received minimal media coverage, and less than one-hundredth of the aid that went to tsunami-affected countries.

No one expects academic research like this to transform news priorities. But that should not stop policymakers and donors from taking them into account when deciding how to allocate money. As economist Robin Hanson argues, social science is increasingly uncovering instances in which individuals make systematic errors. In these cases, the right response is to work at overcoming our biases.


For the media, overcoming bias might involve finding innovative ways of bringing important stories to readers’ attention, such as Time Magazine’s recent feature on the “Top 10 Underreported Stories of 2007”. For individual donors, it could involve doing a bit more due diligence before choosing a charity. And for politicians, it may mean ensuring that Australia does not divert a disproportionate share of our aid budget to those who make the evening news.

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First published in the Australian Financial Review on January 10, 2008.

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About the Author

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

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