Shaking Off Donor Fatigue

A pedestrian walks past a poster appealing for aid donations for Syrian refugees by UNICEF in Sydney on April 22, 2014. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

A pedestrian walks past a poster appealing for aid donations for Syrian refugees by UNICEF in Sydney on April 22, 2014. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

When it comes to Syria, the numbers are painful. Every day, the tolls rise—of the wounded, the tortured, the displaced, the detained, the missing and the dead. But numbers no longer have the power to shock, and it is increasingly obvious that the barrage of statistics is lost on a war-weary international audience.

Events at the start of the crisis may have made headlines, but since last summer’s chemical attack, the conflict has gradually slipped from the Western collective conscience. A quick look at Google Trends shows that for the past two months, the crisis in Ukraine and the mystery disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 have dominated public interest. The Syrian conflict, meanwhile, has fallen almost entirely off the radar.

But the war is not ending. Every day it grinds on, with more images of death and destruction, loss and despair, filtering out of the country. And it is set to worsen: a recent UN special report has warned of looming drought within Syria, with the northwestern areas of Aleppo, Idlib and Hama looking set to be worst hit. With no break in this narrative of despair and destruction, many in the West have grown indifferent, numb to the events unfolding within Syria.

It is not just the monotony of unrelenting disasters which is prompting public lack of interest. There is the war’s increasingly complex nature, too: a fragmented opposition; international actors elbowing their way in; the emergence of extremist factions; the inflaming of the conflict along sectarian lines. It is not easy to relate to such a complex political scenario, and all too tempting not to try.

This lack of interest has directly affected the relief effort, and charities have reported difficulties in maintaining a consistent flow of donations from the general public. “With an emergency like this, the narrative is complicated,” an Oxfam representative said. “There are people to blame on both sides, it’s highly politicized and there is no real end in sight. It’s very different to a natural disaster—such as the recent typhoon in the Philippines—which is much easier to engage with. It’s fast—disaster strikes, we send aid to remedy it—and there is this sense that no one is to blame.”

But a steady flow of donations is crucial to ensure a degree of sustainability within the aid effort, and charities are seeking ways to re-engage public interest in Syria. Moving away from stock images of refugees, maimed survivors and graphic carnage, some have been seeking new ways of conveying the harsh realities of this crisis to a Western audience. A recent video produced by charity SOS Children’s Villages Norway for its winter appeal transported the suffering of Syria’s children to a cold Oslo bus stop, while a Save the Children video used a similar technique, showing the devastating effects of war on British, rather than Syrian, children.

It is not just relief agencies that are resorting to such creative methods. Many are doing what they can on an individual level. One such person is Mahmoud, a manager at a Fortune 100 company, who, back in 2012, founded a website dedicated to moving beyond the heavy rhetoric of the war. Aiming to respond to what the Internet likes best—cats—Mahmoud set up FSA Kittens, a site which features ‘cuddly’ images of children and fighters cradling cats amid the rubble and of cats sitting within scenes of destruction, as well as rather more graphic photos of cats injured in the fighting.

“It was once a big deal that Assad was leveling Homs with artillery, and Western media covered it as a headline story,” said Mahmoud. “Today, I feel like most don’t care. Some people will skip over photos of suffering Syrian children, but as soon as they see a photo of a cat maimed by a sniper’s bullet pitifully dragging itself in Homs, they think, ‘Oh my God. That’s horrible. What kind of sick person would shoot a cat?’”

Whilst Mahmoud could be criticized for trivializing a terrible humanitarian disaster, and the Save the Children and SOS Children’s Villages videos for assuming we empathize only with ‘people like us’, different approaches to war reporting have become necessary in order to prevent intractable conflicts from being forgotten. Statistics of Syria’s dead and displaced have reached such dizzying heights that sometimes it is easier to distance ourselves from something we feel we have no power to halt. But at a time when international aid is crucial for those still living in the war’s shadow, if an alternative video or a picture of a Homsi kitten can bring our attention back, it is no bad thing. Syria must not be forgotten—and perhaps a little creativity is what it takes.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.