The Cable

Oxfam: Syria might be worse than Darfur

Oxfam America President Ray Offenheiser has a problem.

The Syrian civil war is causing the greatest humanitarian crisis on the planet, but he can't get Americans to donate.

"Most of our organizations have been getting very little response from the American public," Offenheiser recently told The Cable. "We wonder whether to some degree, the way this story has been narrated in the media is an issue."

When it comes to the scale of human suffering in Syria, the stats speak for themselves: In a country of 20.8 million inhabitants, nearly 7 million need humanitarian assistance, at least 80,000 have been killed, 4.25 million have been internally displaced and 1.6 million have sought refuge in neighboring countries.

This -- to Offenheiser -- is Darfur-level insanity.

In fact, it may be even worse.

"If you think about 7 million people compared to 2.5 million [deaths] in Darfur or 2.3 million [displaced] in Haiti, it's three times that in terms of scale, and yet the public response is just nil" said Offenheiser.

A peek inside Oxfam America's fundraising history puts the donation disparity in stark relief. It has only raised a paltry $140,000 from U.S. donors to support Oxfam International's $53 million fundraising goal. By comparison, Oxfam America raised close to $29 million for the 2010 Haiti earthquake, $4 million in a year for Darfur, and $3 million for the 2010 Pakistan floods.

Why are fewer Americans giving for Syria?

One theory points to the toxic politics of military intervention playing out across cable TV, the halls of Congress, and editorial pages in all 50 states.

"The discussion about red lines and chemical weapons and Islamic radicals may give the American public pause," Offenheiser said. "But the humanitarian crisis per se, and the fact that this is about women and children and lost families and lost livelihoods and a country that's going to have a hard time putting itself back together -- all of that's getting lost in some of the more inside baseball political discussions about policy and potential negotiating outcomes."

If recent polling is any indication, Americans are concerned about the crisis in Syria, but remain deeply skeptical about a U.S. military intervention.

On Monday, a CNN/ORC International poll found that 36 percent of Americans are "very concerned about the current situation in Syria," up seven percentage points from August, and 43 percent said they are somewhat concerned, leaving less than 20 percent "not concerned." 

A Reuters/Ipsos poll earlier this month found that Americans oppose a U.S. military intervention in the civil war, even if President Bashar al-Assad's regime used chemical weapons. Only 10 percent surveyed in the poll said the United States should intervene in the fighting. Sixty-one percent opposed military intervention. "Particularly given Afghanistan and the 10th anniversary of Iraq, there is just not an appetite for intervention," Ipsos pollster Julia Clark said.

Has the thought of donating to a crisis that could become the next Iraq soured the public appetite for philanthropy?

For Oxfam America, it's a frustrating predicament, because it too opposes any further militarization of the conflict, but seeks desperately to convey the scale of human suffering.

"We know that Americans have big hearts," said Matt Herrick, a spokesman at Oxfam America. "We must do a better job of putting the focus on the millions in need of humanitarian assistance in and around Syria, and demanding an end to the bloodshed."

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