The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict has drawn eyeballs across the globe. As images of shelled hospitals and bloodied children flood the media, civilian soldiers are in a fight for their lives, and donations to Ukrainian relief are swelling.
In New York, pedestrians walk the streets waving blue and yellow flags, and cardboard signs disparaging Russian premier Vladimir Putin, while on past weekends, lines wrapped around the block for Veselka and other restaurants serving borscht and pierogies in the east side’s “Ukrainian village,” packed with patrons in solidarity with the country’s people.
This mobilization of support feels heartening—but also, notably rare. As the outcry has grown, so has the distinction in how the West has treated Ukraine’s crisis compared to other regional conflicts worldwide—for example, in Myanmar, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, or Nicaragua, among others, where people are also dying. Like Ukraine, these conflicts have produced victims of horrific circumstances and political strife. But the same call to action hasn’t seemed to be felt.
That discrepancy was underscored in a recent Harris Poll, conducted exclusively for Fast Company, which surveyed perspectives on global refugee situations. Specifically, it found Americans showed more concern for refugees of multi-national conflicts that have captivated the world—with greater news coverage and international involvement, such as in Ukraine—than for refugees of conflicts borne from internal disputes such as civil wars, which are characteristic of developing nations with unstable governments like Syria or El Salvador. This was true despite most Americans having an awareness of a range of global conflicts.
The poll, conducted from March 4 to March 8, asked 1,048 respondents in the United States to report how aware and concerned they were about current refugee crises in Ukraine, Myanmar/Burma, Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Central America (including El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua), and Haiti.
Perhaps unsurprisingly as it dominates the headlines, Ukraine drew both the most awareness (95% of all respondents) and the most concern (89% of respondents). That was followed by Afghanistan, where 92% of Americans were aware of a crisis, likely because the United States spent two decades on Afghan soil fighting Taliban forces as part of its high-profile War on Terror—when Kabul fell in August 2021, the world was watching. Yet six months later, only 77% of Americans said they were concerned about the displacement of refugees from the region, despite the Taliban’s continued occupation of the country.
And in Syria, where pro-democratic insurgents have clashed with a dynastic regime for over a decade and 6.8 million have fled under threat of massacre, 89% of Americans were aware of the conflict, but only 73% were concerned. The crisis led to the scattering of 1.1 million refugees across Europe, where nations like Poland and Hungary refused Syrians seeking asylum and built walls and fences to keep them out. In the past two weeks, however, those same nations have thrown open their borders and successfully fielded an influx of more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees.
For those who are aware, the relative lack of concern defies logic. Consider the devastation: Over 10 years in Syria, an estimated 350,000 people have been killed. In the Afghanistan-Pakistan war zone, the death toll is near 250,000 since 2001. In Iraq, it’s 288,000 since 2003. In Ethiopia, 52,000 in three months during 2020’s Tigray conflict. If there’s a disparity, it’s certainly not a matter of scale.
Relief groups feel the difference
At Save the Children, an international humanitarian agency that has worked to combat these crises for over a century, donation data suggests a similar bias. In the first two weeks of Ukraine’s crisis, the country’s total designated digital donations were 31.5 times that of what was given to Afghanistan in its first two weeks, and 12.4 times that of Haiti. Each average donation was roughly 25-30% larger for Ukraine than for either other country. But even more remarkably, as the agency’s president, Janti Soeripto, tells Fast Company, “People really came to us on their own [to help Ukraine]. Seventy-five percent of online donations came from people who never gave to us before.”
“Normally, you tend to get funding from your existing supporters,” she explains. That was the case with Afghanistan and Haiti, for example, where targeted emails sent by Save the Children were the leading source of donations. However, with Ukraine, most of the money came through traffic from search engines, referral links, and organic visits to the website.
Larger campaigns suggested a bias, too. In the United Kingdom, a public appeal for funding by the Disasters Emergency Committee, a joint effort of 15 of the nation’s aid groups, has collected 160 million pounds for Ukraine, while previous appeals for places like Haiti and Yemen topped out around 30 million pounds.
And at the corporate level, the economic response has been punitive as well as charitable: In the U.S., large companies from McDonald’s and Nike, to Netflix and Visa, were quick to hit Russia with business sanctions. But when the Arab Spring ruptured the Middle East a decade ago, catalyzing multiple refugee crises, there was no commercial sea change. In fact, reports emerged of western businesses profiting, including tech firms that sold surveillance to Arab dictators.
The role of media coverage
According to the Harris Poll, Americans’ concern for refugees did not vary much by political party. It did, however, increase with education and income (possibly linked to greater awareness of the crises among college-educated and high-income Americans); it also increased among parents (possibly due to empathy for children), and was lowest among Gen Z.
Overall, the bigger picture may still be too blurry to tell. But some believe the volume of media coverage has a lot to do with it, and aid groups might agree. “You have to think that’s a factor,” says Soeripto. In past weeks, she shares, “it was very difficult for us and for all other humanitarian agencies to find any attention for the current famine that is raging across 13 countries, putting 45 million people at risk—the largest number since the early ’80s. We couldn’t get any attention for the issues in South Sudan. Or Yemen, which is the world’s second largest humanitarian crisis with 12 million kids at risk.”
For Save the Children, responding to various crises has always been a balancing act: When Russia first struck Ukraine, Soeripto stresses the most urgent priority was to surge its operations and attend to the country’s immediate needs, as the earliest days demand the most agility. But at the same time, she notes, there were multiple category 1 crises happening globally. She was on the ground in Kabul last week, where Save the Children has massively grown its work in the last half year. “That’s hardly talked about,” she says.
Janti Soeripto, Save the Children
It was difficult for us to find any attention for the current famine that is raging across 13 countries.”
At Unicef, experiences are similar. “Emergencies that capture the attention of the international community and media often will create spikes in giving,” Renée Cutting, chief philanthropy officer of the U.S. division, tells Fast Company. “For example, in Syria, we’re coming up on 11 years so awareness of the general public may ebb and flow, pending the immediate needs and what’s being covered in the news.”
But scrutinize how exactly some western news desks have covered it, and a troubling undercurrent surfaces. The day after bombs first dropped over Kyiv, a CBS News senior correspondent dispatched to the capital mused in a broadcast: “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, too—city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”
The statement was a major faux pas, swiftly derided on social media by users who argued it dehumanized people from war-torn regions in the Middle East. (The correspondent later apologized for the comment.) But days later, a reporter from Al Jazeera’s English bureau went on air describing fleeing Ukrainians as “prosperous, middle class people . . . not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war; these are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to.”
Resources are already stretched
If these gaffes reflect deep-seated prejudices present in the western psyche, they will always be hard to root out. But apart from that, groups like Save the Children are keeping the work alive. In Ukraine and in many corners of the globe, people continue to need critical aid. The gap in funding, Soeripto says, has only widened during the COVID pandemic as people are yanked back into poverty, with healthcare and schools shuttering. And against that backdrop, this year’s omnibus spending bill—signed by the White House Tuesday—has cut $1 billion dollars of general humanitarian aid, despite allocating $13 billion for Ukraine. To some extent, a “cannibalization” of funding has begun.
Western backlash to Russia’s invasion has been overwhelming, and perhaps further amplified by its international waves: On U.S. shores, fears are rising that the Kremlin—armed with an arsenal of nuclear weapons—could trigger World War III. Consumers are now boycotting anything vaguely Russian to almost ludicrous extremes; even famed composer Tchaikovsky, who wrote the music of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker—and who died more than 100 years ago—became collateral damage in Europe.
But elsewhere, others are suffering too. “The public sees the heartbreaking conditions that children in Ukraine are facing and Unicef can share that children in places like Afghanistan, Syria, Ethiopia, Central America, Myanmar, Haiti, and beyond are facing similar situations,” says Cutting, citing more than 300 million children and families displaced due to violence and natural disasters.
It’s a constant battle to reach them, Soeripto says, as the rest of the world waits for the next fire to burn. In the end, she says, “the whole humanitarian sector is overstretched and underfunded. That’s always been the case.”