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Why Raising Money To Fight Ebola Is Hard

Medical workers in Monrovia, Liberia, put on their protective suits before treating Ebola patients
Dominique Faget
AFP/Getty Images
Medical workers in Monrovia, Liberia, put on their protective suits before treating Ebola patients

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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Zoe Chace explains the mysteries of the global economy for NPR's Planet Money. As a reporter for the team, Chace knows how to find compelling stories in unlikely places, including a lollipop factory in Ohio struggling to stay open, a pasta plant in Italy where everyone calls in sick, and a recording studio in New York mixing Rihanna's next hit.
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