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.


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.


About Author

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], follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

  • Cynan Houghton

    What is the greater tragedy? All those NGOs with an asterisk on their appeal?

    Or all the forgotten emergencies, where the needs are ten times worse, with a tenth of the local government capacity to respond, and have been going on for a hundred times longer than this crisis in Japan?

    That’s right — all those forgotten emergencies that all those NGOs can’t ever attract OUR interest to raise enough money to do all of what’s needed?

    Who is really to blame here?

    • angry aidworker

      That’s a good point. NGOs wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work.

    • angry aidworker

      That’s a good point. They wouldn’t do this if it didn’t work.

  • A Lee

    I agree on the whole but you need to get your facts right if you’re going to bother being so angry.
    MSF on earmarked donations for Japan:
    And they have been on the ground since Saturday:

    • angry aidworker

      1) Yes, MSF isn’t even bothering with the asterisk.

      2) Since saturday does not in any way qualify as present in country. They’re carpetbaggers like everyone else.

      • A Lee

        I took the author to mean a physical presence, blaming NGOs who are soliciting funds without actually being in-country to disburse assistance since the Japanese government has only approved a handful of NGOs that have offered help. Also, I don’t see how being more transparent equates to exploitation of the situation.

    • Anonforthis

      On the ground since Saturday isn’t exactly “in-country presence…”

      • Guest

        I’m not sure what you define as “in-country presence”, but does having an MSF office in Japan since 1992 count?

    • A Lee

      Hm, the person I replied to deleted the post but I thought the author was commenting on a physical presence in the country to disburse the assistance that organizations are soliciting funds for. My mistake. MSF does have a support section they have been coordinating with in Japan though.

  • Gustavo Araoz

    Very many good points. But that being said, if people want to help Japan, can any give a lead as to local Japanese organizations on the ground who will are dealing with continue to deal with the long lasting issues that will come of this disaster?

  • Ron

    The Salvation Army has been in Japan since 1895 and is working in the affected area.

  • Fromjapan

    Thank you for spreading the idea without knowing what’s really going on. The people in the shelter, and even people in Tokyo without foods and water will thank you for keeping lots of people from doing good.

    • Fromjapan

      And he does not want to be identified. Credible.

      • angry aidworker

        I fail to see how suggesting people give directly to japanese aid organizations and not INGOs hurts people in Japan.

  • Ashley Hestand

    Am I the only person who doesn’t think we should be giving money to first world countries? Search and rescue help and emergency food (if needed): Yes, but I would be honestly insulted if I were the Japanese people to find all this money pouring in as though I was starving in Africa. Its like this whole Simon Cowell business, its not about providing for a real need its about making himself (or in the case of nations themselves) look good. I would love for the reporters on the scene to ask people on the street what they think.

    • Gabby

      “I woulsd love for the reporters on the scene to ask people on the street what they think”- Ashley Hestand

      I would like to hear from the people what they are in need of. I attempted to donate a tote of baby items to a local redcross today and they said it would cost too much money to send to Joan…

  • Chris

    I think your audience would have been better served if you had provided more detailed information on how to most effectively donate, be it to Japan or the many other countries in need. The politics, petty egos and competition between charitable organizations will likely only exacerbate donor fatigue.

    Also, the pop art picture of the tsunami included with the original article is highly offensive and inappropriate.

  • Pete

    WFP assists in the logistics of moving the humanitarian goods within Japan, to the affected areas, on request of the government of Japan.

    • Tom Paulson

      Thanks Pete,

      I think it’s best to look at the major relief operations conducted by the UN
      as part of the Japanese government’s official response to the disaster,
      which is the point I believe you are making. Though the WFP, as a UN agency,
      is an outside organization when I use that term I am referring to the many
      other private relief organizations like Mercy Corps, World Vision, etc.

      And now you’ve raised other questions for me: Are we adequately supporting
      and funding these UN relief organizations? Why do I see all these media
      stories advocating donations to private organizations and very few stories
      advocating funding for the UN agencies that often do the lion’s share of a
      lot of disaster relief?


  • Doug Boemler Wareing

    I don’t understand this statement:

    “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.”

    Umm… since when isn’t Louisiana in a developed country with a good response system and effective government? There were NGO’s and government teams on the ground immediately after Katrina passed.

  • ejr

    Save the Children does indeed have offices/projects in Japan: