Black Summer: what can be learnt from online philanthropy
Illustration credit: Molly Tong

The beginning of the new decade, a country on fire, a world looks on and pours money in. And now, months following the end of the Black Summer, have the enormous philanthropic donations helped?

A tweet of an 80-year-old woman who had her home burnt down, living in a barely converted shipping container gained traction in June 2020, as winter in rural Australia saw snow forecasts and temperatures well below 0 degrees Celsius,  The money that the world poured in had not bought her warm, safe accommodation. In the first week of July, a documentary consisting of a plethora of interviews reaffirmed this story, that the grants, the donations and the time had not gotten people adequate housing to live in through the Hard Winter. New South Wales opposition leader Anthony Albanese tweeted in July of the disappointing response to the fires, as debris remains on fire affected property 5 months later. Disaster relief is tough for any government, and as was stated in the documentary, and the sheer scale of this disaster meant that no organisation, be it government or charity, was equipped to handle the money or the number of people needing assistance. Now, almost five months since the Black Summer ended, and as the snow begins to cover the ash, what can we learn about online philanthropy? 

In 2009, the Los Angeles Times stated that if you want to look at what the future of climate change would look like, look to Australia.  It quotes Tim Flannery “The problems for us are going to be greater. The cost to Australia from climate change is going to be greater than for any developed country. We are already starting to see it. It’s tearing apart the life-support system that gives us this world.” A decade later, the country spent its summer on fire. While Australia is no stranger to extreme weather events, the 2019 – 2020 summer was unprecedented and will have long lasting ecological and economic effects. Given the enormous stress of climate change induced extremes, these events are likely to increase in severity and frequency. 

The event became globally associated with enormous online campaigns to raise money for recovery. These extraordinary donations received over the summer, and the lack of infrastructure to handle this, highlights an issue in disaster relief.  The New South Wales Royal Fire Service (NSW RFS), the organisation responsible for fire control in the eastern state of New South Wales, received $51 million AUD of donations from one Facebook post, the highest ever done on the platform. Donations poured in from around the world, a beautiful sign of human compassion as the fires scorned the Australian bush. More than 25 people died, thousands of homes lost and millions of animals were lost to the brink of extinction. Now as the memory of the burning summer blends with a cold winter, how have these donations helped, and what can we learn about online philanthropy?

A screenshot of the record-breaking Facebook fundraiser

By no means am I saying that online donations are a bad thing. Of course, they do wonders.  However, the failures of the recovery process exposes the shortfalls of online philanthropy. Celeste Barber, who set up the viral campaign said… I’m going to make sure that Victoria gets some, that South Australia gets some, also families of people who have died in these fires, the wildlife.” However, this did not happen due to complex trust deed laws in NSW. Given the enormous amounts of donations, and the trend in online philanthropy – people sharing petitions, donation links, etc – perhaps we should pivot the thinking away from where money was meant to go, and where in fact needs it most.

According to the 2018 National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, federal and state government spending are already at $2.75 billion AUD annually.  This economic stress is expected to double by 2030. It can be assumed that as natural disasters increase in frequency and severity due to climate change events similar to the Black Summer will increase, and the economic stress of such events will follow suit. Each state may currently seek up to $150 million AUD to take out of this fund, but the bureaucracy of this makes it difficult to deliver it to the hands of those in need.

The misinformation, and bureaucracy, around charitable donations, has caused enormous confusion and disappointment to fire affected areas, and highlights the importance in people (specifically people with online influence) knowing the laws around charitable donations. The disjunction between ill-informed donators believing they were directly helping families and wildlife who had lost their homes. The reality is drastically different. Barber later statedmy concern is that if it is not possible to help these people have their money allocated to where they want it to go in this unprecedented instance that this may be the last we see of such generosity on such an international scale.” 

The NSW RFS is of course grateful for donations, however the assumption that the extraordinarily large amount of money donated would be distributed among states and charities proved wrong, and the donations were skewed heavily to only one of the states affected by the national disaster. The funding, which were largely thought to be distributed to other states and charities, are being used to better the situation for volunteers. RFS Commissioner said to the ABC “The important thing is for the people that donated money to the RFS, they can be assured we’re going to spend that just on making sure volunteers are better equipped and able to do their job better.” 

In the early weeks of July, a documentary aired on the ABC highlighting the hardships faced by rural Cobargo, a town that following the disastrous New Year’s Eve fires received a lot of press as residents criticised Scott Morrison’s poor response. The viral clip of a pregnant woman with her toddler expressing their disappointment at Morrison as he did a superficial tour of the town, without bringing any much-needed supplies. There has been endless criticism of the Australian Prime Minister’s response to the Black Summer. He was notably on holiday with his family in Hawaii, lied to Australia and when he returned said ‘it wasn’t like he was going to pick up a hose’. But leaving the delayed response from the Australian government aside, the world picked up the slack and millions of dollars were donated as pictures of burning bush and koalas desperately drinking from bottles of water filled the timeline. Australia, a country known for its beaches and bush, was burning – and the world tried to help. 

As I see it, the Black Summer disaster pushed governments and charities to build more capable systems for large scale disasters. Climate change will increase the occurrence and severity of natural disasters and the interconnectedness of our current world, organisations should look towards aptly planning for how to handle the influx of money and a clear strategy as to how to disperse it. 

The Red Cross has given out $21 million in grants to those whose houses were structurally damaged by fire, spent time in the hospital for reasons caused by the fires and to those whose homes were destroyed and continue to face economic hardship. The government has given out grants to help rebuild homes, farms, towns, lives. The way to get these grants has been heavily criticised, as the process is long, traumatic and tedious. Many have given up due to the enormous amount of paperwork needed. Disaster relief policies need to simplify this process and allow people traumatised by the events to see economic aid more quickly.

But how can this be done, without running the enormous risk of people trying to manipulate people’s good intentions and get money they don’t deserve. Surely the risk of later punishment would be enough to deter most people? If you can be punished for lying about some business expenses through taxes can end up costing you an enormous amount of time and money, surely the same principle would apply to relief grants.

However, Australia’s relationship with free money, and people who need it, would likely not agree with me. The image of welfare schemers, who lie and live a lazy life of social welfare is burnt into popular culture. Does this same attitude extend towards people, who have built their homes and livelihoods without ever using these government agencies, and then had that all burned down? Does this extend also to money donated, and therefore not taken away from taxpayers, which is often the argument against increasing social welfare?

Given the magnitude of the disaster, the publicity of the events, and the enormous donations accumulated from around the world, why are people still without effective accommodation to get them through the winter, without water (a basic right), and without the support of their government despite the enormous amount of publicity surrounding the disasters? People came to the conclusion that the responsibility cannot be given to the state government, nor handled effectively by the federal government. The next logical solution is charitable organisations, but given their failures who does Australia trust to help when the next disaster comes?