The fire that ravaged Notre-Dame on 15 April was a tragedy. Few buildings stand for more than 850 years, and even fewer stand as such an identifiable symbol of a country’s cultural heritage. So when videos and photos proliferated showing the ancient cathedral aflame, the visceral emotional reaction of people all over the world - and of course, in France in particular - is completely understandable. Grief is a proportionate and appropriate response to a tragedy.
However, the fact of the tragedy should not stop us from critically considering what came after. Does the Notre-Dame, as a charitable cause, really deserve the $1 billion (USD) plus in donations it has accumulated?
According to presidential cultural heritage envoy Stéphane Bern, the Notre-Dame received over $950m in 36 hours after the fire. 36 hours - just a day and a half - is not even enough time to ascertain the extent of the flames or damage, let alone how much financial assistance the rebuilding effort would require. What if the damage was covered by insurance? Would the French government commit to financing the rebuild? (It did). Donors were clueless about the answers to all of these important questions in the immediate aftermath of the flames, but that did not slow the outpouring of gifts.
Take the example of billionaire François-Henri Pinault, head of a huge business conglomerate that owns Gucci and Saint Laurent. Mr. Pinault pledged $100m while the cathedral was still on fire; a move that even his spokesperson admitted was “a decision dictated by emotion”. Still, while the fires were burning, Mr. Pinault’s business rival Bernard Arnault (head of LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton) went one better, donating $200m. Mr. Arnault’s spokesperson noted that he was “moved by the alarming pictures on TV”.
To be clear, emotional donating is still giving money away - we would surely prefer that our billionaires donate their money inefficiently or emotionally, rather than spend it on a superyacht. We ought to take the Notre-Dame donors at their word when they characterize their giving as driven by support for “a jewel of national heritage” and French fraternity. While reasonable questions can be asked about brand positioning and tax incentives, billionaire tycoons could surely find more cost-effective ways of enhancing their image if that actually was their (morally bankrupt) aim.
On the other hand, we should not be crediting the Notre-Dame donors too much for adding to the cathedral’s groaning restoration fund. As if we didn’t know it already, the sheer speed and scale of the Notre-Dame donation effort reinforced the enormous capacity of the rich to donate to charity - when they feel so inclined. The striking images of the cathedral in flames drove some of the world’s richest people to their checkbooks in a way that striking images of a drowned three-year-old Syrian refugee never did.
No matter Notre-Dame’s importance as a symbol of French spirit and culture, it is not a person. It felt no pain on 15 April 2019. It cannot suffer. These fundamental characteristics do not deprive the cathedral of charitable worth - culture and history are vital facets of human civilization and are worth investing in. But we must retain a sense of proportion. The Notre-Dame was only partially damaged, and yet its $1bn reconstruction fund absolutely dwarfs the amount raised for any recent humanitarian tragedy. Such a discrepancy does not paint a flattering picture of what we value as a society.
As a thought experiment, take a moment to consider some of the other uses for a billion dollars of donor money. The catastrophic infrastructure damage caused by Cyclone Idai in March this year to Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe, killing over a thousand people and displacing hundreds of thousands more, could be completely restored. Or if you were looking to maximize the number of human lives saved, what about mosquito nets? $1bn could buy a few hundred million and save hundreds of thousands of lives (if not millions over time).
Some writers have suggested that it is a false choice to present (as I do in this piece) the Notre-Dame donors as having made a binary choice to support the restoration of the cathedral instead of other causes. But what other conclusions can we possibly draw? Mr. Pinault does not appear to have donated $100m to the Cyclone Idai rebuilding effort. Mr. Arnault has not announced a $200m donation to fight malaria. These donors are rich enough that they could support all of these causes, as well as the Notre-Dame - but they have not.
It’s understandable that the French donors to Notre-Dame were motivated in part by a patriotic sense of loyalty to their country. But even when we only consider the charitable opportunities in France, there are plenty of causes more deserving and more desperate for support.
As the Abbé Pierre Foundation has pointed out, homelessness is rampant in some parts of the country: on the French island Réunion, the poverty rate is 40% and around 10% are estimated to be homeless. You might have expected the Abbé Pierre Foundation to be soliciting donations for the Notre-Dame, given its well-known priest and founder had his funeral there in 2007. But instead, the foundation said this to the Notre-Dame donors:
“We are very attached to where Father Pierre’s funeral was held. But we are equally committed to his cause. If you could contribute even one percent of the amount to the homeless, we would be moved.”
It’s true that few buildings stand for as long as the Notre-Dame. But we ought to remember the scale of the tragedy. Notre-Dame, after all, is still standing. Its famous stained glass windows are largely unblemished. Almost all of its art and treasures have been rescued and moved to the Louvre. French President Emmanuel Macron has even stated that the cathedral will be fully restored within five years. I ask again: is this cause worth $1 billion?