A major concern for the Kerala government and the humanitarian workers in the floods and landslides that affected most of the state and ravaged the districts of Wayanad and Malappuram in the last few days has been the initial reluctance of people to contribute cash and relief material.
Compared to the public response to the floods last year – one of the worst in Kerala’s history – this year’s response was rather cold, and not even lukewarm. Although it picked up a little after a couple of days and relief material started moving to camps in affected areas, it’s still far less intense than last year. Missing are the beehives of collection centres, calls for help by district administration officials and politicians, army of volunteers coordinating relief, and social media initiatives that instantaneously revved up a sense of urgency. This time around, there were far fewer collection centres, and most of them were empty in the initial days. Even when they gathered momentum, the activity was sub-optimal.
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Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, his Finance Minister Thomas Issac and party supporters alleged false propaganda against the government and the state to dissuade people from contributing. Vijayan said there were organised campaigns by “anti-socials” that the funds collected for flood relief in 2018 had been diverted and that they were a “heinous crime against the State”. He charged that people from outside the state were involved in spreading such fake news.
Vijayan and his supporters may feel justified in accusing his political opponents of misleading people because there was indeed organised propaganda about the government’s credibility. But can it really alter the exemplary behaviour of voluntarism and charity that the people in the state demonstrated last year in such a remarkable way? That too in a literate, and socially aware state, such as Kerala?
By finding fault only with vested political interests, what Vijayan, his government colleagues and others have ignored – probably inadvertently – is that this dwindling public enthusiasm is not a surprising behavioural change. It’s called “donor fatigue” and it’s a fairly well-established fact in development work.
As in any other behaviour change, this doesn’t happen overnight because of some mischievous campaigns, but is driven by genuine reasons. Internationally, development organisations and charities acknowledge this behaviour and try to address them sensibly because it creates major roadblocks to their work.
For instance, the HIV/AIDS sector acknowledged it in the late 2000s and the situation only worsened in the following years. Because of continuous donor fatigue, AIDS-funding has now been reduced to a trickle, compared to the billions of dollars it originally attracted.
Globally, there’s been some research into this phenomenon and its possible causes. The most commonly cited reasons are budget exhaustion and poor results, which means that the same people who had enthusiastically contributed before either don’t have enough resources now to spare, or that they were not happy with the results. It could be a combination of both as well.
Studies clearly show that repeated calls for contribution overstretch people’s capacity to donate and even frustrates them. And, the situation worsens if the results on the ground are not good enough in their eyes. The American people’s response to hurricane Katrina in 2005, and how they went cold in the subsequent Hurricane Rita is an interesting example.
In fact, there were tell-tale signs of impending donor fatigue in Keralites when Vijayan returned almost empty-handed from his resource-mobilisation campaign in the UAE a few months ago. Clearly, expat Keralites failed to contribute because they possibly had no more resources to spare. They had already contributed generously to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund (CMDRF), sent additional money to their households to reconstruct homes and assets, including businesses, that were damaged or lost during the floods, and had also contributed to various other charities raising money for “rebuilding Kerala”. That is like contributing beyond one’s means.
People living in the state also faced the same situation. They too have contributed multiple times, both in cash and kind, and they have been under pressure to donate again and again because of the drives by various charities and political parties. Studies show that such repeated demands are often frustrating and off-putting. The plateauing of contributions to the CMDRF, that has mopped up more than Rs 4000 crore, was also a sign that there was hardly any money left.
The other established reason is the unsatisfactory results for what they have donated. People are extremely sensitive to wastage or mismanagement of resources and delivery of the promises that governments make to them. As a 2012 British Medical Journal article on donor fatigue in the health sector noted: “improving efficiency is also about ensuring that resources are going to where they will be the most beneficial and making investments that are the most efficient over time”.
This is where the Kerala government needs to seriously introspect and stop being self-righteous. There are some critical questions that the government needs to answer before finding fault with others.
Has it been able to instil confidence in the people that they got the best bang for their buck?
Following the last floods, when people contributed all they have, has the government conserved its own resources, which are obviously paid for by the people as taxes, and spent them wisely?
Have the ministers and bureaucrats still stuck to their sense of entitlement and spent on avoidable luxuries when people were willing to sacrifice?
Are they committed to disaster-resilient reconstruction and the “Build Back Better” philosophy as proposed in the Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) of the UN?
Have they begun to help get affected people back on their feet?
Have they shown any urgency in “Building Back Faster”, “Building Back Stronger” and “Building Back Inclusively” that constitute Building Back Better?
It’s been a year since the last disaster and are they aware of the impact of delays on the well-being of people as illustrated by the “well being index”?
Critics allege that the government is trying to leverage last year’s disaster and use the funds they collected for reconstruction of an ecologically inappropriate infrastructure policy. Although the government refutes such charges, there isn’t a convincing policy change towards “disaster-resilience”, which is absolutely unavoidable given that 14.5 to 50 per cent of Kerala’s land is prone to floods, five or more districts are constantly susceptible to landslides and there 36 types of natural hazards.
When the government is trying to “front-load” infrastructure to the tune of a whopping Rs 50,000 crore borrowed money through an extra-budget vehicle called KIIFB, has it been backed by a holistic development agenda that has been discussed by the general public? Or it is an assortment of retail projects driven more by political expediency?
In the midst of all this, there are also allegations of profligacy by the government as evidenced by apparently flippant foreign trips by several ministers and officials, buying luxury cars, lavishing on festivals, sprucing up offices, and doling out money to families of politicians and victims of police excesses. The situation became so ludicrous that Finance Minister Thomas Issac put up a social media post to say that the government doesn’t use relief money for buying cars, and that it has a separate budget for that. In other words, instead of addressing the charges of profligacy, what he said amounted to reiteration of the ruling class’s sense of entitlement.
In fact, it’s indeed immoral on the part of the ruling class to be profligate in a state that has seen the erosion of 2.6 per cent of its GDP and ask people who have suffered unprecedented damages and losses (the PDNA figure of RS 31,000 crore doesn’t include the damages and losses suffered by people) to contribute more. Instead of navel-gazing and finding fault with others, government must introspect and course-correct. It must also realise that transparency is absolutely unavoidable for addressing “donor fatigue”.