refugeesSyrian refugees in Jordan leave their tents after heavy rain. Photo: UNHCR

It was a splendid show, the Sydney New Year’s Eve fireworks display, a fairyland eruption of pink and white and gold that held a billion people, they say, spellbound. Auckland’s contribution to what is coming to look like an annual international contest was modest by comparison. London and New York held their end up, while in Manila anarchy reigned as the whole city exploded in technicolour total war. And so on around the world.

But it was Sydney that took the cake with more than 10,000 aerial fireworks, 25,000 shooting comets and 100,000 pyrotechnic effects on show over Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. And in addition to the million or so people who turned up to watch, enthusiasts around the world could witness the pyrotechnics photographed by drones (surely a first) and live streamed to their screens.

It was all so thrilling and put everyone in such a good mood that it seems churlish to ask how much it cost. As with Olympic Games openings, “hang the expense” seems to be the ruling ethos of New Year celebrations. Goodness knows what it all added up to globally, but someone has put a price tag on the Sydney show: in Aussie dollars, $750,000 for the fireworks and $7.2 million for the total cost of three hours of celebrations across the city. London’s cost about half as much. At a conservative guess the world’s top cities alone blew the equivalent of one hundred million US dollars in one night.

While it was probably good value for money, in terms of both entertainment and civic or national pride, such profligacy seems a strange way of seeing off a year in which the fortunes of ordinary people seem to have everywhere declined, West Africa has been hit by the Ebola crisis, and millions have lost everything as they fled from war and terrorism.

Only three weeks earlier, the United Nations had launched a record appeal for $16.4 billion in aid donations to help almost 60 million people in 22 countries in the coming year. Valerie Amos, UN under secretary for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said 2015 was going to be an incredibly difficult year for the surging numbers of people affected by violence, and the rising scale of need was outpacing the UN’s capacity to respond.

Already the World Food Programme had suspended distribution of food vouchers to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees (briefly, thanks to a successful one-off campaign) and had earlier cut food rations to refugees in Northern Kenya from Somalia and South Sudan.

The civil war in Syria and the brutal campaign of ISIS have left 12.2 million people within Syria and another 6 million Syrian refugees in asylum countries in need of help. Add to that 5.2 million Iraqis either displaced or in areas under the control of ISIS, 1.5 million people in South Sudan and more than a million people in the Central African Republic, and 70 percent of the $16bn the UN wants is spoken for.

“This is not business as usual in the humanitarian world,” said Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees told The Guardian. “Today’s needs are at unprecedented levels, and without more support there is simply no way to respond to the humanitarian situations we’re seeing in region after region and in conflict after conflict.”

Nor can it be a time for giving as usual, it seems.

The UN is therefore looking beyond governments and the usual NGOs to tap non-traditional sources of funds by means of more direct appeals to the public. The way WFP dealt with the Syrian refugee electronic food voucher programme in early December is instructive. After announcing it had been forced through lack of funds to suspend the programme, the agency immediately launched a 72-hour social media campaign to raise $64 million to reinstate it. “All it takes is US$1 from 64 million people,” said WFP executive director Ertherin Cousin.

The campaign was a great success, raising $80 million – but most of that came from governments and included $52 million from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah (who gave as much again for other WFP programmes). Only $1.8 million came from other sources – like the individuals who spent up large for Christmas or joined in New Year’s Eve revels.

ebolaNearly 11,000 children have lost one or both parents from Ebola. UNICEF photo.

UNICEF, with its focus on the children affected (including 11,000 who have already lost one or both parents), is running similar appeals for the areas ravaged by the Ebola epidemic, setting small targets for donors like NZ$40 for 160 bars of soap and $55 for a worker’s protection kit. A series of advertisements on New Zealand national television over Christmas and New Year brought funds raised here since October to $200,000 – a figure the agency says it is pleased with. However, it is hardly impressive against the record breaking $404.3 million that Kiwis managed to spend on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day.

Of course, people do not give only to the UN, and for some it might be their least preferred channel for donations. There are also many causes crying out for the charitable, or even sacrificial dollar, so it is not a simple matter to judge how generous the more comfortable legions of the world are towards those suffering urgent need.

But refugees – that is, forcibly displaced people – and those facing death from epidemics must be prime candidates. And if the public response to the UN’s appeals for them during the festive season is any indication, our charitable impulse lags well behind the instinct to spoil ourselves and show off – and hang the expense.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet