Peripheries: The phenomenon of ‘crisis philanthropy’

The wealthy donor community has come together in the wake of the destructive fire that wrecked the Notre Dame cathedral last week. Three of France’s richest families vowed to donate over $500 million. The CEOs of fashion giants, oil companies and banks have pledged equally impressive sums of money toward the rebuilding effort. The reaction on social media was mixed. Amid the outpouring of grief and slew of photos by students who visited the cathedral while studying abroad was a resounding critique, one that  has been leveled after many other recent tragedies that have occurred in the West: Why do we react so strongly to sudden crises in the West while normalizing similar crises and structural problems in the rest of the world? Why don’t the same billionaires getting down on their knees to help with the Notre Dame reconstruction efforts also give  massive donations in the name of combating structural poverty, or helping disaster relief in the Global South?

First, it’s important to acknowledge that crisis mobilizes us to act. Notre Dame’s senior fundraising adviser expressed frustration that the donations were just coming now. Global media attention is often needed to alert us to problems in the first place. The role of publicity has not been all bad, though. Indeed, the Notre Dame fire actually drew attention to the underfunded historically black churches in the South, which had raised less than 100,000 before international attention caused them to surpass $2 million. The crisis in France drew attention to a parallel crisis in the American south, informing previously unaware citizens that their fundraising dollars were needed to support the churches in Louisiana, arguably more urgently. However, this seems to be an anomaly. Too often, we mourn the lives lost in terrorist attacks on Western soil while the deaths wreaked by militant groups in Syria and Afghanistan barely make headlines. Perhaps violence is more frequent in certain parts of the world. However, that certainly does not mean that we should consider it more ‘normal.’ We have relaxed our outrage and reserved our moral condemnation for tragedies that affect parts of the world we deem to be ‘civilized,’ ‘peaceful’ and ‘liberal.’ This is both problematic and misplaced: As populism and xenophobia sweep the globe, no one is immune to emerging threats, even Western liberal democracies.

Peter Singer famously argued that, although we intuitively feel the impulse to help a child drowning before our eyes and do nothing for one starving thousands of miles away, we have an equivalent moral obligation to both because distance is not morally relevant. Certainly, we are hardwired to care more for those who are close to us and similar to us. Systematically caring for poor families on the other side of the world may be an extreme demand; however, that does not mean we should normalize large-scale injustices with such selectivity. Our capacity to react to the Notre Dame fire shows that we are capable of caring for those who live oceans away from us. Our task is to broaden the reach of our compassion to include all of humanity, not just those with light skin who reside in the West.