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One thing that may make people give to foreign causes is their personal connection to a region, either by knowing someone there or hearing an individual’s story, Miss Strahilevitz says. That’s difficult when unpopular governments are involved or media access is restricted, as in Burma.

Lurma Rackley, spokeswoman for CARE USA, is heartened that Americans are giving to Burma at all, considering the lack of images from the disaster. “There’s always concern that the tragedy is going to be forgotten,” Miss Rackley says.

CARE USA, World Vision and Mercy Corps all say giving for Burma is on pace to match the amount given after the Pakistan earthquake, although the Burma death toll appears to be far bigger. That’s partly because of concerns about whether aid will reach the intended recipients, with reports that Burma’s military government may be confiscating the aid or diverting it away from those most in need.

That’s part of why Dave Morris, 34, has yet to open his checkbook — he’s not sure he could really help.

Mr. Morris aims to give 10 percent of his income to causes such as public radio, the Red Cross and breast cancer research. However, the engineer from Ypsilanti, Mich., hasn’t given to the relief efforts in Burma and China, in part because the world’s problems seem impossibly large.

“If you thought about at this very second the number of people who were suffering and dying, I could dedicate all my resources to that and yet it would be a drop in the bucket,” he says.