Why Raising Money To Fight Ebola Is Hard

Why Raising Money To Fight Ebola Is Hard

5:40pm Sep 22, 2014
Medical workers in Monrovia, Liberia, put on their protective suits before treating Ebola patients
Medical workers in Monrovia, Liberia, put on their protective suits before treating Ebola patients
Dominique Faget / AFP/Getty Images

The response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was massive: Billions of dollars in donations poured in.

"It had everything," says Joel Charny, who works with InterAction, a group that coordinates disaster relief. "It had this element of being an act of God in one of the poorest countries on the planet that's very close to the United States. ... And the global public just mobilized tremendously."

People haven't responded to the Ebola outbreak in the same way; it just hasn't led to that kind of philanthropic response.

From the point of view of philanthropy, the Ebola outbreak is the opposite of the Haiti earthquake. It's far from the U.S. It's hard to understand. The outbreak emerged over a period of months — not in one dramatic moment — and it wasn't initially clear how bad it was.

Donors like being part of a recovery story. In Haiti, buildings and lives were destroyed. The pitch was, let's help them rebuild.

In the case of Ebola, it's been harder to make a pitch.

Doctors Without Borders tried to tell stories about Ebola for months. But much of the public wasn't listening. The story wasn't prominent in the news until things became dire. Experts who have worked on famine relief say their field is similar.

"There's plenty of early warning," says Gary Shaye, who works with Save the Children. "All the people on the ground know what's going to happen; they talk about it. But until it's something much more visible in the media, it's almost impossible to raise funds."

The Ebola outbreak is unimaginable, says Sophie Delaunay, the director of Doctors Without Borders in the U.S. "It is so horrific, that once you realize how dramatic the situation is, then you just keep thinking about Ebola all the time," Delaunay says. "But until you make that step, you prefer to get away from it."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Countries are mobilizing to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The United States has pledged to build treatment centers. The UN is planning an emergency mission. But so far, we haven't seen a groundswell of private donations as we often see in major disasters. Planet Money's Zoe Chace looked into why.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: Private donors behave very predictably. That's according to Bob Ottenhoff with the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

BOB OTTENHOFF: Ninety percent of all dollars given to disasters is given within 90 days of a disaster.

CHACE: OK, so that implies that a disaster has to begin somewhere.

OTTENHOFF: Yes, exactly right. There has to be an event.

CHACE: An event that fixates world attention, with a clear beginning. If you look back at the history of disasters and think just in terms of fundraising...

JOEL CHARNY: The perfect disaster - and all your listeners will recall this - was the Haiti earthquake.

CHACE: Joel Charny is with a group called InterAction that coordinates disaster relief organizations.

CHARNY: It had everything. It had this element of being an act of God in one of the poorest countries on the planet that's very close to the United States. The images were there immediately, and the global public just mobilized tremendously.

CHACE: Ebola is the opposite of the Haiti earthquake in every way. It's far from here. It's hard to understand. It wasn't clear at first how bad it was. Ebola is a medical disaster. Most people expect governments to handle that.

In the Haiti earthquake, buildings and lives were destroyed. The pitch was let's help them rebuild. In the case of Ebola, it's been harder to make a pitch because the needs are much more complicated.

EMILY VELTUS: One of the main things I have learned working in Ebola - you have to make a million impossible decisions.

CHACE: Emily Veltus works with Doctors Without Borders. She went to Sierra Leone in the middle of the summer. Here's an example of the kind of decision she faced every day. Say a family comes to a health center. The parents have Ebola. Their baby does not.

EMILY VELTUS: And you have to decide, you know, immediately - what do we do with her?

CHACE: Do we keep her here in the suspected cases area where she might sneak away to be with her parents who are sick?

VELTUS: Do we send her home to a house that hasn't been disinfected - because disinfecting teams aren't functioning.

CHACE: Do we send her to a foster home with six other kids who haven't been tested yet? And then, if the little girl does get sick after she's sent back...

VELTUS: ...Then which ambulance is going to come pick her up - because the ambulance service isn't running.

CHACE: Doctors Without Borders tried to tell stories like this all summer, but much of the public wasn't listening. The hard thing about raising money for an outbreak is you really need the money at the beginning when the number of cases are small and more manageable. But of course, at the beginning, it's not as dramatic. It's the same problem with the famine. Here's Gary Shaye, who works with Save the Children.

GARY SHAYE: There's plenty of early warning. All the people on the ground know what's going to happen. They talk about it. But until something is much more visible in the media, it's almost impossible to raise funds.

CHACE: It's only in the last few weeks, he says, that donations have come in to Save the Children for Ebola. InterAction, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the Red Cross - all told me the same story. Either money is just coming in now, or it still hasn't.

Donors - people like a story. When a natural disaster happens, the first day is the worst day. Then, hopefully, things get better. People like being a part of that story where they know the script and there's a happier ending. Ebola is different. Sophie Delaunay is the director of Doctors Without Borders in the U.S.

SOPHIE DELAUNAY: It seems unimaginable to everybody. It is so horrific that once you realize how dramatic the situation is, then you just keep thinking about Ebola all the time. But until you make that step, you prefer to get away from it.

CHACE: That's another thing. It's really hard to think about Ebola if you don't have to. Zoe Chace, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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