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Why you should donate, but maybe not to Japan

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.

As terrible and massive as the disaster in Japan has turned out to be, it is still not clear if there is a large role for outside humanitarian organizations to play when it comes to offering assistance. Yet many organizations say they are helping out and are asking for (or, at least, accepting) donations to help Japan.

On Wednesday, I posted a guest column from an aid worker who called this an “ugly game” — the game of seeking donations based on the emotional response many have to the intense news coverage of Japan’s plight. Others, like Felix Salmon at Reuters, and Saundra Schimmelpfennig at Good Intentions are Not Enough, have similarly urged people to think twice before donating to a charitable organization based on the disaster in Japan.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy has done a recent tally, noting donations to Japan are well below where they were following the Haiti quake one week on. This has caused some media outlets to do stories implying the world’s gotten stingier lately, and even that this is causing many Japanese to  go hungry or sleep in the cold.

Many people in Japan are suffering, but an organization representing leading humanitarian groups (Disasters Emergency Committee) says this is not because of the lack of enough international aid groups helping out. In fact, as they report today, all these foreign do-gooders coming in to help can make things worse:

There are 23,000 people still isolated in some of the worst hit areas and the government is seeking to increase distribution of food and other aid in evacuation centres and hospitals were shortages have been reported.

A large influx of international aid agencies would not solve the logistical and other difficulties faced by the government and would make co-ordination considerably more complex. Japan has requested that international humanitarian agencies do not seek to intervene directly in the affected areas at this stage.

I talked to Rachel Wolff, spokesperson for World Vision, one of the world’s leading humanitarian organizations. World Vision has offices and staff in Japan and they are assisting with relief efforts in some areas, handing out food, water, blankets and the like.

I asked Wolff if it wasn’t misleading for World Vision and other such organizations to be claiming (on their websites or through other means) that they need funds to help with the disaster in Japan — since it is still not clear yet how much they will be able to help.

“We do need to be careful not to overstate what we are trying to do, and can do,” said Wolff. She noted that World Vision, unlike some organizations, includes language on their website saying that funds collect for Japan and not used in Japan will go to other needs.

The disaster in Japan does pose a dilemma for aid organizations, Wolff said. They can hardly ignore such a massive disaster, she said, and the public expects them to at least be willing to offer assistance. Initially, World Vision said it was unlikely to be needed in Japan, she said, but this has turned out to be a much bigger catastrophe.

“And the situation is still very fluid,” Wolff said. If the situation worsens, she said, assistance from outside organizations could be needed much more.

But Wolff did acknowledge that one of the goals during such a high-profile disaster is for aid organizations to make a special appeal to the public. She said there are ongoing, chronic disasters going on all the time (as I noted on Day One of the Japan disaster) that seldom get any media or public attention.

“Most of the humanitarian needs on the planet are getting little or no media coverage,” Wolff said.

In short, you should probably give to organizations like the Red Cross, World Vision, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, Save the Children or whichever of the hundreds of do-gooder groups out there seem to you like a good thing.

But maybe not just because of what’s happening right now in Japan.


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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.