Update: Does Japan need/want international relief assistance now?

Odd as it may seem, that’s a big question right now within the aid and development community.

By a simple measure of the number of news stories and organizational appeals out there, clearly the answer is: Yes, people should donate to disaster relief in Japan.

Perhaps the bluntest argument answering the question in the negative has come from Felix Salmon, economics columnist for Reuters, who said simply: Don’t Donate Money to Japan.

I’ve posted on this debate a few times, including an anonymous post from an aid worker decrying the “ugly game” of fund-raising around the Japan quake-tsunami disaster.

Others have written as well about the question of whether Japan needs/wants help from outside groups such as Stephanie Strom at the New York Times and Saundra Schimmelpfennig at Good Intentions Are Not Enough.

Since we all wrote many of those stories, the extent of the devastation and the stories of Japanese people struggling to cope have increased in scope and intensity. So maybe this disaster has gotten too big for Japan to handle on its own?

According to many, but not all, official Japanese agencies and the United Nations organization working on behalf of the Japanese government, the standard message appears to be unchanged. The Japanese government continues to ask that foreign relief organizations “please wait” rather than rush in to help.

Here’s an excerpt from the daily memo issued Tuesday from the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs:

“Concerning offers of assistance by NGOs, the Government of Japan states that “Search and Rescue operation phase still continues in the affected areas at this moment and the access to those areas is strictly limited to rescue workers.

It is also reported that there is temporary shortage of petrol in the affected area. International/foreign NGOs are recommended to wait until the situation improves so that those NGOs are able to conduct their activities in a self-sustainable way”

Basically, the Japanese government says it needs search-and-rescue workers, technical expertise (like for nuclear power plant breakdowns) and very specific kinds of assistance. The Japanese Red Cross remains the primary private relief organization operating in-country. Most experts say if you want to donate to help Japan, donate to the Japanese Red Cross (which has so far received about $275 million).

What the Japanese government still says it does not need or want, are swarms of foreign humanitarians running around handing out blankets, bottles of water and so on.

Yet according to many swarming foreign relief workers, and Time magazine, the Japanese actually do need lots of basic assistance. The government just doesn’t want to admit it.

Time magazine’s Hannah Beech asks (and then answers, affirmatively) “Is Japan’s bureaucracy strangling humanitarian aid?”

But in northeastern Japan, where an estimated 21,000 are dead or missing and another 350,000 are homeless as of March 22, the country’s labyrinthine bureaucracy has seriously hampered efforts to deliver aid. Some shelters still have no heat, while others are rationing rice balls.

That sounds bad. As I noted earlier, World Vision, which has an office in Japan, reports that it has been on the ground for days in northeast Japan handing out blankets, food, and water to people in shelters.

Joy Portella, with Mercy Corps’ Seattle office, just arrived in Japan to join the organization’s team already in-country. Portella had this to say in an email to me:

“We’re working with a Japanese partner (Peace Winds) so it’s been fairly easy for us to respond with them. For others, it’s probably more difficult. The NGO sector here is underdeveloped; people really look to government to respond and they’re rather overwhelmed, particularly on the local level. It will be interesting to see if NGOs grow out of this experience.

It’s a culture where people are lifers at government and corporations so NGOs don’t traditionally get much respect and their role hasn’t been totally clear. Plus, the openness to outside help has certainly been more than after Kobe 15 years ago but there’s still a desire to make sure the response is run/coordinated by the Japanese.”

For more info from Mercy Corps on its activities in Japan, see their excellent blog.

Here in Seattle, all I can conclude is that there are two very different stories coming out of Japan with regard to how the relief efforts are going.

Is Japan doing a good job or a terrible job, or something in between? Are Japanese bureaucrats really causing people to suffer? I can’t tell (because I don’t judge the accuracy of a story by the number of times it gets repeated).

As I’ve said repeatedly on Humanosphere, people should support the work of these many humanitarian organizations and if the disaster in Japan prompts more such support, that’s great.

But I also think the question, and the debate, over whether or not people should donate in support of the relief efforts in Japan (the world’s third wealthiest nation and probably the most prepared for dealing with a disaster) is a legitimate one.

Felix Salmon has taken a lot of abuse for being blunt, as he notes in this follow-up to his earlier, provocative article. That’s unfortunate, but not too surprising. Felix said to me by email:

“The point I’d add is that just because the Japanese government isn’t great at disaster recovery doesn’t mean that NGOs are going to be able to step in and pick up the slack.”

And here’s an update from Saundra at Good Intentions suggesting ways to improve donations in response to a disaster.

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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.