Why did Americans donate $730 million to wealthy Japan? | 

Japanese residents offer a prayer for the victims in an evacuation zone near the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plants.
Japanese residents offer a prayer for the victims in an evacuation zone near the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plants.

Three years ago today, a massive earthquake off the coast of Japan spawned a tsunami that devastated communities, killed nearly 16,000 people (with some 2,600 still missing) and damaged nuclear power plants at Fukushima.

The international aid and relief community responded with offers of assistance and a surge in fund-raising.

This was actually fairly controversial – partly because Japan is a rich nation capable of taking care of itself and also because the Japanese government initially asked the humanitarian community to not interfere with the disaster response.

One aid worker even contended the whole thing was just an ugly game the humanitarian community often engages in, exploiting a high-profile disaster to raise money. Continue reading

Two views on disaster relief in Japan | 

Flickr, jchong

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 given 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.

You can read their full perspectives below. Continue reading

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

World Vision

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. Continue reading

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 most blunt 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. Continue reading

Why you should donate, but maybe not to Japan | 

Flickr, LiminalMike

People want to help.

Well, okay, not everyone wants to help. Some people are jerks.

Despite my skeptical (which some misinterpret as cynical) view of human nature acquired after working a quarter century as a journalist, I find that most people actually do want to assist when they see someone suffering.

Wanting to help is how many of us are reacting to the news out of Japan following the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami — now made even more terrible by the possible (though often exaggerated) threat of a major nuclear accident.

Still, it’s important to recognize that wanting to help and actually helping are not the same thing. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

World responds to Japan in crisis | 

Flickr, Logan was his name-o

Aftermath of Japan March 2011 quake

The true nature of the devastation in Japan continues to emerge and the world community is responding, even if it may not be clear what most of the rest of the world can really do to help.

As The Guardian notes, it now appears that the death toll from this massive earthquake and tsunami is expected to exceed 10,000 people. As the newspaper also notes, the Japanese government has deployed more than 100,000 people to conduct search and rescue operations but:

The relief operation is being hampered by the damage done to the country’s transport infrastructure, with roads and rail, power and ports crippled across much of the disaster region.

In this BBC report, one journalist has found evidence of a 100-foot high wall of water hitting one community. As stunning new, and terrible, information keeps coming out in Japan much of the attention is focused on the continuing threat posed by damaged nuclear power plants, some of which have already suffered explosions.

Meanwhile, the international community is responding with assistance, or offers of assistance, of everything from cash to search dogs. The U.S. military is helping supply stricken communities while many nations and organizations are sending people with medical, rescue and emergency response skills.

There are also lots of stories about small, or even not-so-small, private relief organizations saying they are moving in to help. Some of this may end up being little more than moral support, symbolic really. And in such instances, there are always groups simply seeking to make money off the public’s desire to help.

The United Nations, for example, says it plan to mount no big relief effort because Japan appears to be doing a fairly good job of dealing with this catastrophe.

“United Nations action will be very targeted, according to needs. This is the most disaster-prepared country in the world,” Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

In all of these kind of disasters, there are unfortunately those organizations that seek to make money off the it. Here’s some how-to-donate advice from the AP and the Christian Science Monitor and also how-not-to-donate advice from CBS and the website Good Intentions are Not Enough.

Global health and development expert Alanna Shaikh advises that people who want to help should simply donate to the Japanese branch of the International Red Cross. Here’s her basic argument, (based on a crisis in 2008 in Myanmar).

As I noted on Friday, and in some of today’s News Rounds links, there are actually some parts of the world in much greater need of assistance that could use much more help. These are not immediate, dramatic disasters but they are disasters nonetheless.

Disaster in Japan … and Haiti, Pakistan, Congo, Ivory Coast, Niger, Mali | 

Flickr, doegox

We are all focused on the disaster in Japan right now, as we should be.

But what about the other, bigger disasters?

The massive earthquake, tsunami and current concern about damage to a Japanese nuclear power plant are the top news stories today. The quake was huge, the fifth largest in the last century. President Obama said today the U.S. is “marshaling forces” to help Japan deal with the catastrophe.

Local relief organizations like World Vision and Mercy Corps have put the Japanese quake-tsunami on the “front page” of their websites even though it is unlikely either organization will be doing much in response. I talked to both organizations and they are standing by ready to help, but both said it is possible they will not be needed.

Japan can largely take care of itself. World Vision and Mercy Corps take care of those who can’t. Continue reading