Two views on disaster relief in Japan

More than a month after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that struck northeast Japan, experts are still analyzing the cataclysmic event and coming to startling conclusions — such as the recent announcement the tsunami was more than 120 feet high in at least one location.

Another surprising observation made early on by some aid experts was that, despite the size and scope of the tragedy, Japan didn’t want or need disaster relief assistance.

Some aid watchdog organizations, like GiveWell, have consistently recommended against donating to the relief effort — and specifically questioned a $1 million Gates Foundation grant to Mercy Corps for Japan relief work.

Throughout the crisis, the Japanese government had asked that private, outside relief organizations stay away because of the pressure outsiders put on the already strained infrastructure and resources.

Some did, some didn’t. But many did actively solicit funds to assist Japan.

One aid worker who wrote a post for Humanosphere anonymously called the fund-raising done by many aid groups an “ugly game” because it was unlikely the money would be needed in Japan, the third wealthiest nation in the world.

Others said it may have been misleading, but it was a legitimate opportunity to raise funds that could be used elsewhere to help those in crises gave less media attention.

Japan did seek and receive assistance from governments, the U.S. military, and the International Red Cross. But it’s still not clear to what extent private relief organizations have been able to assist.

Here are two views.

One is from Joy Portella of Mercy Corps, which did offer active assistance in Japan. Portella says:

If you had asked me two months ago if Mercy Corps – which normally works in impoverished places like Afghanistan, Somalia and North Korea – would ever respond to an earthquake in Japan, I would have said “no way.” That was before this incredibly unusual event, and before I saw Japan’s devastation and need with my own eyes.

Another view is offered by Derek Sciba of World Concern. The organization decided early on not to try to offer direct assistance in Japan. Sciba says:

World Concern’s mission is to serve the poorest of the poor in developing countries – those who have no means of responding themselves, or rebuilding their lives. Because of this, we have elected to not mount a direct response in Japan – or to solicit funds on a large scale. It was a decision that we did not take lightly, but it has to do with who World Concern is called to serve.

Japan: One Month Later, Still Many Questions

Joy Portella, Mercy Corps

Today marks one month since the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. In that month of tumult, some things have become clear, but many questions remain.

No one can argue with the simple facts: This is a massive disaster that has done serious damage to one of the world’s top economic powers. The final death toll will almost certainly exceed 25,000, and damages will likely top $200 billion.

If you had asked me two months ago if Mercy Corps – which normally works in impoverished places like Afghanistan, Somalia, and North Korea – would ever respond to an earthquake in Japan, I would have said “no way.” That was before this incredibly unusual event, and before I saw Japan’s devastation and need with my own eyes.

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The Japanese government and military are doing a great job leading the emergency response. They are doing the heavy lifting of clearing debris, supplying people in shelters, and building temporary homes. But even the hyper-efficient Japanese have been overwhelmed by the magnitude of this disaster. There are critical gaps, and NGOs can play a role in filling them.

Donors have been very generous and a lot of money has been raised. The Chronicle of Philanthropy estimates that American donors alone have given more than $161 million. Many people have asked me: How is this money is being used? Does Japan even need or want help?

While I can’t speak for the entire NGO sector, I can speak for Mercy Corps. We are working closely with a great organization called Peace Winds, and by “working” I don’t mean we’re just passing them money. A Mercy Corps team with expertise in post-trauma, emergency relief, and economic recovery work is on the ground, augmenting Peace Winds’ capacity to be as effective and efficient as possible.

Together, we’ll fill some of those critical gaps: providing post-trauma counseling, simple things like bedding and pots and pans as people move into transitional housing, and capital that small businesses need to get back up and running. While we may team up with other organizations, the partnership with Peace Winds – with whom we’ve worked over the past decade in places like Iraq, Iran, and the US Gulf Coast – has been vital. It allowed us to start work and have an impact on the ground quickly; we would not have been able to do this on our own.

We’re not hiding our activities from the Japanese government, which has shied away from the assistance of international NGOs. We’re talking to Japanese authorities – we met with the mayor of Kesennuma when I was there – and participating in all of the Japanese-run coordination meetings of NGOs and other players. So far, everyone’s welcomed us, probably because we’re working thoughtfully with a Japanese organization and not rolling up to the earthquake zone on rogue solo missions.

This brings me to the last question I often get from people: Aren’t there other countries that need money more than Japan? I think it’s unfair to create a global “needs competition.” My heart went out to displaced families I met in Japan the same way it went out to families in post-earthquake Haiti or post-flood Pakistan.

But I will admit that the reality of emergency fundraising – fueled by breaking-news headlines – drives me crazy. I wish Mercy Corps could raise millions of private dollars in days for a place like Niger – chronically poor and hungry with a new, democratically elected government after years of dictatorship – the same way we raise those millions for the people of Japan.

How can we change that situation? We’re still working on that one. Let me know if you have any bright ideas.

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A Commitment to the World’s Poorest

Derek Sciba, World Concern

Watching the disaster in Japan unfold one month ago has been tragic and painful for all of us. Especially as humanitarian aid workers, it is agonizing to see what families are going through.

Since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, World Concern has forwarded donations designated for Japan to partners in hard-hit areas who are responding to the crisis. We are ensuring that donations for Japan are going to provide assistance to people in need. Our prayers are with those who are suffering, with the desire that everyone caught in the disaster will see peace return again.

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World Concern’s mission is to serve the poorest of the poor in developing countries – those who have no means of responding themselves, or rebuilding their lives.

Because of this, we have elected to not mount a direct response in Japan – or to solicit funds on a large scale. It was a decision that we did not take lightly, but it has to do with who World Concern is called to serve.

Japan is the world’s third largest economy, with an average income of $34,200. Japan has turned down many offers for assistance, requesting mainly specialized aid including search and rescue teams. Early on after the earthquake, the International Red Cross issued a statement saying that it was not requesting donations at this time.

Generous donors continue to step up and give to other relief organizations that solicit funds for Japan. As the news coverage for Japan continues, donations continue, including million-dollar donations from a few celebrities. Japan, in turn, has been touched by this sincere generosity. This week, the prime minister of Japan thanked donors from 130 countries, saying they have carried to Japan “The Bond of Friendship.”

Japan is the world’s leader in disaster preparedness, with the hard work saving thousands of lives. Still, the severity of the quake and tsunami has been significant – killing more than 13,000 people.  In spite of this grim situation, Japan’s economic minister believes the economy should pick back up later this year.

Japan’s response shows the value in disaster drills, tight building codes, and a country-wide commitment to safety. Unfortunately, not every country is as prepared as Japan.

For World Concern, our top priority continues to be the world’s poorest, those who barely survive on the best days, people who face ongoing struggles with food, water and finding a basic education for their children. In a disaster, these people truly have no recourse.

We respond to disasters in places like Haiti, still reeling from a far-smaller magnitude earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people. More than half of Haiti’s population lives in extreme poverty, on less than $1.25 a day – that’s $456 a year – in a country that was almost completely unprepared for a disaster.

We also rebuild lives in places like Myanmar (Burma), where a cyclone killed more than 140,000 people in 2008. This was a catastrophic disaster, yet Myanmar’s heartache was essentially a blip on the evening news, with donations anemically following suit. The average per-capita income in Myanmar: $1,200. After a disaster like Cyclone Nargis hits these fragile families, they have no savings to fall back on. They usually have no other assistance available, except through organizations like World Concern.

We encourage people to give to Japan. We also ask people to remember those suffering after disasters in developing countries. With the exception of Haiti, these disasters usually receive little, if any, publicity.  We also believe international media can do a better job shining a light on these “hidden” catastrophes.

You may want to consider a general donation to disaster response to a proven and trusted organization. World Concern is one of several established and effective organizations that are trying to transparently fund urgent life-saving needs for the world’s poorest.


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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]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Albert

    I think Ms. Portella makes a convincing argument. Thoughtful and cogent.