Guest post: The ugly game of relief for Japan

Flickr, jchong

Note: This is a post written by an aid worker I know who, for reasons of employment, doesn’t wish to be identified.

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Over the last day, my email inbox has filled with appeals for aid to Japan.

I’ve heard from International Medical Corps, the World Food Programme, the American Red Cross, MSF, and JustGive. That’s the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Oh, and Lady Gaga has a bracelet.

How many of the groups raising money for Japan are actually in Japan providing aid? The Red Cross, kind of.  It’s supporting the Japanese Red Cross, I guess, although the Japanese Red Cross has been quoted saying they don’t need assistance right now.

IMC doesn’t have a presence of any kind in Japan. Neither does Doctors without Borders, Save the Children, or anyone else. World Vision has an office in Japan, but it’s a fundraising office devoted to getting donations for work in Asia. They’re not exactly out there with a helicopter and a search dog.

How much aid does Japan actually need? We don’t know. Unlike Louisiana (re Hurricane Katrina), Japan is a developed country with a good response system and an effective government. The government is moving aid in Japan as fast and efficiently as you can really ever expect in an emergency. It’s hard to picture what, exactly, an international NGO adds to that process.

Fundraising for Japan, though, is a game that no one wants to lose. I guarantee that at least 80% of the money raised by all these organizations eventually just goes to the Japanese Red Cross or Peace Winds, minus their overheads.

But, if you get your fine print right, Japan will be a moneymaker for your organization. You need an asterisk and a statement like “If we raise more money than we need for Japan programs, donations will be used for other urgent priorities around the world.”

Then all of a sudden you have unrestricted funds you can use to pay for (hopeful case) supplemental feeding in Niger, which no one ever cares about enough to donate to or (cynical case) fix the budget holes in that one country where they always seem to rack up costs that USAID won’t reimburse.

Or, alternately, you can raise enough money to get a team into Japan doing something – anything – and then you’ve got one more country on the list of places you work. If everyone else is opening offices in Japan, you’ll look small time if you don’t have one. If you get there first, you impress potential donors with your agility and responsiveness. Sure, opening an office is expensive, especially when you’re short on time, but that’s why you’re fundraising, right?

Japan has the third largest economy in the world and more experience with earthquake response than any other nation. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to cost a hell of a lot to rebuild the country and it doesn’t mean their tragedy was not enormous. It does mean that Direct Relief International probably doesn’t have a whole lot to offer that they need.

Japan’s going to need money, eventually, especially to rebuild the kind of little things that fall through government recovery cracks – community centers, small businesses, maybe NGO offices – but since they have both PayPal and a well developed civil society sector in Japan – people can donate the money right to the Japanese organizations that need it.

We really don’t need international NGOs as middlemen, counting beneficiaries and checking the books. Because this is Japan – they’re already up to international accounting standards.

It’s fantastic that people want to give to Japan. It says something great about our humanity that we see the tsunami pictures and our response is to donate. But I’d like to see those donations go to Japan, not the big game of who can grow their aid group the fastest.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.