121212 Is a Joke

Superstorm Sandy may have been disastrous -- but the real need is elsewhere.


Singer Bruce Springsteen performs with Jon Bon Jovi (R) and drummer Max Weingberg during the "12-12-12" benefit concert for victims of Superstorm Sandy at Madison Square Garden in New York. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

The 121212 concert for Sandy relief was awesome and inspiring. Inexplicably, most of the biggest performers were British, but everyone put in impressive performances. The between-song appeals for donations were well done. Big-name celebrities were on hand to answer the phones. It was a huge, perfectly executed fundraiser for the truly needy victims of a truly horrendous disaster.

I'm not giving any money to the effort. It's not because I don't want to minimize their suffering, or because I don't think they deserve huge help. But I think that events like this are a huge monument to a loss of perspective. Hurricane Sandy tragically killed 109 people. At least 100,000 people were displaced from their homes by the storm. Compare that to a few of the headline disasters of the last 10 years. The cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma in 2008, killed 138,000 people and left an estimated 2.5 million homeless and suffering. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed approximately a quarter of a million people and displaced over a million. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti killed 316,000 people and displaced 1.5 million. An earthquake in China in 2008 killed 69,000 and left 4.8 million homeless, and one in Kashmir in 200 killed 79,000 people and ... Am I boring you? Then you probably won't want to hear about the death toll of Measles and Malaria, both easily preventable diseases.

What's the difference between the victims of hurricane Sandy and the victims of these other natural disasters? From where I sit, it looks like it's their insurance policies. By my rough calculation, the median family in New York City is in the richest 5% of the world's population. The monetary damage caused by Hurricane Sandy is enormous, but that's because Sandy hit an exceptionally wealthy place.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that the victims of Hurricane Sandy don't need help. What I'm saying is that there's help on the way. Lots and lots of it, completely out of proportion to the magnitude of the event compared to the daily suffering of people all over the world today and the much larger disasters that have happened and continue to happen in destitute parts of the world. Surely we don't think the victims of Hurricane Sandy are more entitled to help because they live in the same country as us, or speak the same language?

The most important effect that relief organizations can have here is to convert the outpouring goodwill and money from this disaster into resources that can help those who will be, in the very near future, in much graver need. Because for all of our good intentions, we're terrible at following through with giving money to needy people in faraway places. Almost half the $4.5 billion pledged in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake never materialized. There are experts out there who are much better than the average citizen at directing aid to those who need it most. Oxfam and the Red Cross, just to name two examples, pool many of their donations into a universal fund before allocating those resources themselves, ensuring that these donations have the greatest possible impact in alleviating human suffering.