The world looked on in horror as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire. Luckily, the blaze was extinguished by the next day, but the recorded damage included a collapsed roof, a destroyed spire and damage to two of the rectangular towers.
Within a day and a half, restoration efforts amounted to $995 million, including $100,000 from the University of Notre Dame and $226 million from LVMH luxury goods, the owner of brands such Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior.
Although this fundraising is a tremendous tribute to the sense of community and significance that surrounds Notre Dame, it reinforces a disappointing trend that has come to accompany contemporary humanitarian issues: interest and donations are often short-lived, and actions are increasingly due to ulterior motives.
In the case of Notre Dame, many consider themselves to be personally affected by the fire due to geographic proximity, religious affiliation or fascination with its architecture. Thus, people will reach into their pockets and fund an initiative they consider to be close to home, physically or psychologically.
Society’s short attention span when tragedy strikes can be seen most blatantly through the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Flint has been struggling with lead poisoning since 2014, when a change of water supply to the Flint River was accompanied by contaminated drinking water. It would take about $55 million to replace the city’s pipes, meaning the money collected the first day and a half after the Notre Dame fire could fix Flint’s water problem 18 times.
When Flint’s clean water issue initially arose, donations poured in and media coverage was frequent, but as coverage died down, Flint no longer received the support it had previously seen from outside sources, with those not immediately affected by Flint’s water crisis ceasing to contribute to a solution. This is a result of the fleeting nature that we regularly assign to humanitarian issues, and the lack of importance society places on slow-burn issues. While the crisis in Flint has been slow-moving, the Notre Dame inferno was a dramatic occurrence with visceral imagery.
The same problem arises with efforts to keep the ocean clean. Considering the impact of a multitude of oil spills and the amount of trash found in the sea each day, it is truly shocking this issue does not receive more attention.
While marine animals wash ashore with plastic and trash in their bellies every day, only when there is a surge in media coverage does this cause generate any donations or action. According to a report published by the United Nations Refugee Agency, the underreporting of 2017 issues such as flooding in Peru and the poverty and food insecurity that plague North Korea showed a visible association between media coverage of issues and the money they receive in donations.
The current media environment reports nearly exclusively on dramatic events such as celebrity scandals and the Notre Dame fire rather than less dramatic, but still pressing, issues of humanitarian concern, such as Flint’s water crisis and ocean maintenance.
Another issue that arises with large-scale charitable donations is that there is typically an underlying motive to the action. Large corporations and wealthy individuals give to charities now seemingly just for the publicity aspect of giving or to receive deductions on their taxes. The donations that are going toward Notre Dame, for instance, are accompanied by a generous tax deduction for those who contribute.
In France, businesses are able to claim back 60% of donations, while individuals are able to deduct 66%. This economic incentive to donate may increase total donations, but comes at the cost of diluting true altruistic actions. The issues that receive donations become those that businesses can publicly pledge their support for and promptly deduct from their taxes.
There are still people out there who genuinely think outside of themselves and would like to be a part of the solution to these issues. But as long as the amount of people who have adopted this utilitarian mindset outweigh genuine altruists, we will continue to see issues that don’t provide direct incentives to donate go unresolved.
Of course, this is not to say that no one ever does, or will ever do, good things out of genuine concern for the situations and struggles of others. Conversely, this is meant as a reminder that long-running issues deserve and need attention always, not just when it’s convenient or when we benefit directly.