Mercy Corps, World Vision and the nagging question of how to help in Japan

World Vision in Japan, unloading relief supplies

The Japanese government and the UN agency coordinating humanitarian relief operations, in response to the March 11 quake and tsunami, have repeatedly asked that many foreign organizations refrain from trying to actively assist in the relief efforts.

Is this falling on deaf, if well-intentioned, ears? Or is it a request made to disguise the government’s inability to adequately respond?

I can’t tell.

The request by Japanese and UN officials may appear counter-intuitive, but it’s not too hard to understand upon further reflection. There is limited access on the roads and fuel shortages. The government and in-country assistance organizations need to have priority access.

There are many other basic infrastructure challenges that make delivering (and coordinating) assistance efforts difficult enough without dealing with multiple outside organizations trying to help (or, as the more cynical would say, appearing to help).

Saundra Schimmelpfennig who writes at Good Intentions are Not Enough reports on the latest such official Japanese and UN request, which states:

It is important not to overburden affected prefectures and local communities who are working at full capacity and do not have the resources to coordinate unsolicited offers of  assistance.

Yet relief organizations, including two major ones based here, World Vision and Mercy Corps, report back that they are discovering that many communities in the disaster zone are suffering from the lack of basic necessities and that they welcome the outside help. Both organizations continue to raise funds for the Japan relief effort.

A report from ReliefWeb reports on a number of other organizations donating and distributing basic necessities like food, water, blankets as well as providing medical care.

Here’s a Seattle Times Q&A with Joy Portella, communications director at Mercy Corps, who is now in Japan and reporting back on her organization’s relief efforts done in coordination with Peace Winds Japan.

Portella, who also has been blogging (see link above) and describing what she’s seeing in her travels, says Mercy Corps and Peace Winds (as an organization based in Japan) is helping with some relief efforts and providing child care but notes that much of what the organization intends to do is not immediate relief work:

Q: What aid efforts will Mercy Corps and its partner be involved with in Japan?

A: We are going to do post-trauma work with kids, and we are looking at how to make that really culturally appropriate … We are also going to get involved in the local economy. We are probably going to distribute vouchers that people can use to get into the stores as they reopen and buy goods, and pump up the local economy. We are going to look at small businesses that don’t have insurance and don’t have access to government funding, and may need support.

Meanwhile, many relief organizations continue to solicit donations for the Japan relief effort even though it is not at all clear they will be needed — or used to help Japan. World Vision and Mercy Corps tell donors this on their websites, but not every relief organization out there asking for money to help Japan does the same.

Also of note, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced it had given $1 million to Mercy Corps for its relief work in Japan. This is unusual in that the Seattle philanthropy typically focuses only on assisting poor countries and tends to favor longer-term projects — aimed at preventing disease or promoting development — as opposed to routinely funding emergency disaster relief operations.

Lady Gaga, it should also be noted, topped the Seattle philanthropy by announcing she would be donating $1.5 million.

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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.