The earthquake on January 12, 2010, had tremendous human and economic costs. According to The Age, there are approximately 230,000 confirmed casualties and very severe infrastructural damage: 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings collapsed or were severely damaged by the earthquake.2
Pamela Cox, the World Bank’s vice president for Latin America and the Caribbean, is quoted as saying that the earthquake will cost Haiti fifteen percent of its gross domestic product. The New York Times estimates the damage caused by the earthquake to be between $7.2 and $13.2 billion.3 Yet there has been a great outpouring of donations toward the devastation in Haiti. The Hope for Haiti telethon aired in the United States, for example, raised $61 million for relief efforts. The latest figures show that $2.7 billion has been given or legally committed to Haiti, with an additional $1.25 billion forthcoming from pledges. Taken together, congressionally authorized funding and individual donations from Americans amount to nearly $2 billion, which translates into an average of $6.67 for every American. Donations coming from the British and the French are similar while the donations from other countries amount to $4 per Canadian, $1 per Spaniard, $2.5 per Swede, $.08 per Brazilian and $.009 per Chinese.4
This largesse of monetary donations has raised questions about what type of involvement the United States will have in Haiti, and how long this involvement will last. When asked by USA Today/Gallup5 how long they think the United States should keep a large number of troops and other government workers in Haiti, 63 percent of Americans said, “as long as it takes to ensure basic services are restored and life is more or less back to normal for the Haitian people.” But what does life back to normal mean?
According to a December 2008 Gallup poll,6 a majority of Haitians, who live in the poorest country in the western hemisphere, had, in the past twelve months, experienced times when they did not have enough money to buy food (60%) and had not been able to provide adequate shelter (51%) for their family. Haitians were also less likely than any other population in the region to report having widespread access to health care services. As seen in the many stories brought to us from Haiti by the media, all this has meant bad news, then and now. Are these conditions what Americans believe should constitute “life back to normal”? Media coverage of humanitarian crises appears to influence charitable giving. Using internet donations after the 2004 Indonesia tsunami as a case study, Philip Brown and Jessica Mintyof The William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan, show that media coverage of disasters has a dramatic impact on donations to relief agencies. According to Brown and Minty, an additional minute of nightly news coverage increases donations by 13.2 percent of the average daily donation for the typical relief agency. Similarly, an additional 700-word story in The New York Times or Wall Street Journal raises donations by 18.2 percent of the daily average.7
Does this mean that, when it comes to foreign aid, Americans are somehow inclined to seriously support only highly visible humanitarian disaster relief? Yes and no. Donations to Haitian relief had dropped off a cliff since the earthquake ceased to be a major news story. Nonetheless, polls show that Americans consistently support relief efforts and are particularly generous at doing so. According to an October 2008 poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA),8 the majority in 19 out of 20 countries, with a plurality in the Palestinian territories, think that that they have a moral responsibility to work to reduce hunger and severe poverty in poor countries. Americans are no different: 81 percent of them believe that they have a moral responsibility to work to reduce hunger and severe poverty in poor countries. Seventy-five percent of Americans are personally willing to pay $56 a year, providing other countries pay their share, in order to cut hunger by half and reduce severe poverty in accordance with the Millennium Development Goals. Yet, according to Reliefweb, nations with urgent appeals for humanitarian relief are given anywhere between 15 and 55 percent of what they request, Haiti being in the high end of the spectrum.9 So why is there a difference between what the polls say and what the reality seems to be?
One possible explanation is found in a February 2001 study by PIPA,10 which found that the American public does believe in giving foreign assistance but, at the same time, also believe that the United States government spends too much on foreign aid. The study also found that Americans greatly overestimate how much the U.S. spends on its foreign aid budget; the median answer was twenty percent of the federal budget when, in fact, the amount is less than one percent.
A June 2002 poll by the Washington Post11 also showed that 56 percent of Americans thought that the United States spends too much on foreign aid, as opposed to eight percent who thought too little was being spent. In the past several years, polls have also consistently shown that Americans overwhelmingly support the principle of giving some foreign aid, while at the same time highly overestimating how much is actually spent on foreign aid12—an overestimation that seems to have created a desire to reduce this imagined benevolence. At the end of the day, this could lead to the conclusion that as Americans mistakenly believe that their government already spends too much money on foreign aid, they might be, as a result, likely to donate less on their own that they would otherwise. When misinformation on foreign aid as a percentage of the federal budget is corrected, however, a strong majority of Americans favors maintaining or increasing foreign aid spending.
The polls cited in this article also infer that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe they—and those who represent them—have a moral responsibility to help Haitians (and others in need) in a way that will empower those who are suffering (and, by the same token, foreign aid effectiveness) rather than foster dependence on outside assistance. With the hurricane season in Haiti upon us, congressmen, senators, executives, diplomats, humanitarians, citizens, take note: Americans are giving their money to Haiti to assist with humanitarian relief, and ultimately to help and empower Haitians to rebuild their country’s infrastructure. They do so because they want to, and they would donate more to Haiti and elsewhere, if only the news media and elected officials reminded the public of the continuing need that places like Haiti necessitate.