Why waiting to give to Japan is a good idea
Posted on March 14, 2011 at 3:58 pm
It’s natural to want to immediately give to Japan’s recovery efforts. With all the destruction wrought by a major earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant failing it would seem they could use all the help they can get. So my suggestion is going to seem counter-intuitive, but I agree with GiveWell’s recommendation
“At this point we strongly recommend holding off on giving to this relief/recovery effort.”
And Brigid Slipka’s decision
“So here’s what I’m doing: I’m taking that impetus to give and pulling out $100. Then I’m putting it aside for a month or so. After a bit more information is out there, I’ll figure out where and how to give.”
The reason I suggest you wait is because Japan has thus far only allowed/requested very limited international assistance.
If you read the fine print in most nonprofits appeals for this disaster, you’ll see phrases such as: “prepared to assist” “readying a team” “stand at the ready” “assessing the situation.” But few have actually deployed staff. And there is the very real possibility that many of the organizations currently collecting donations for the recovery efforts might not be allowed to operate in Japan.
There’s a good reason for this. Just because a major disaster has occurred, does not mean that the country is not capable of responding to it themselves. Just as Chile was able to respond to their earthquake far better than Haiti.
While it might seem like the more organizations helping the better, it’s not actually true. Having organizations pour in from all over the world, with different regulations, priorities, donors, and governing boards can lead to confusion, duplications and gaps in assistance, and a slower response. After the 2004 tsunami, the flood of aid organizations and people arriving to help was often called “the second tsunami.” It was like the Wild West, very chaotic and no one knew what anyone else was doing, which was why I was brought in. Trying to get organizations to coordinate and cooperate was like herding cats. Haiti faced even more problems with the 1,000, 4,000, 12,000, many more than 12,000 (all numbers told to me by people operating in Haiti) nonprofits.
While coordination after disasters continues to improve, there are still some major issues and roadblocks. I’ve often felt that if a country has the resources to coordinate, monitor, and guide the work of hundreds of aid organizations, then they have the resources to just handle the relief efforts themselves.
Another common issue after disasters is the competition for space in airports and seaports to bring in staff and relief supplies. There can be some major problems getting goods into port and then clearing them through customs. Goods that are not properly cleared and moved away form port quickly clog the damaged ports. Limiting the number and types of organizations allowed to assist reduces problems and critical delays at the ports.
Problems can even arise when one organizations collects donations for a sister organization. For the sake of this example, let’s call them Organization USA and Organization Japan. Donating to Organization USA is generally not the same as donating to Organization Japan, even though they’re sister nonprofits. This is because Organization USA has the responsibility to ensure that the donations they receive are spent properly. To do this they often hold back a percentage to pay for monitoring the work of Organization Japan. Organization USA may require Organization Japan to do certain types of projects that Organization Japan wouldn’t otherwise do, or Organization USA may require special financial or project reporting from Organization Japan. This extra layer of bureaucracy can be very unappealing and even burdensome to Organization Japan. It may be preferable to them to not accept donations from Organization USA and instead just work with the money they raise on their own. So even though Organization USA is raising funds for the recovery, they may not be accepted by Organization Japan.
Right now, from all accounts, the Japanese government is doing a good job of leading the relief efforts. It’s wise to give them time to assess the needs and determine which organization can best meet those needs. Once a nonprofit has official permission to work in the country, then you can donate to them.
Also, consider donating to Japanese nonprofits. They’re just as capable as U.S. ones and it cuts out that extra layer of bureaucracy and expectations.
UPDATES: Most recent updates are at the top
March 28th: According to today’s situation report from OCHA, Japan is limiting international assistance.
Following the OCHA team’s visit to Miyagi Prefecture on 23 March and after discussion with Government of Japan counterparts, OCHA notes: (1) that even though the scale of the damage following the earthquake and tsunami was significant and resulting humanitarian needs remain considerable, (2) Japan is a highly developed country and has, in principle, enough resources as well as the ability to respond to existing humanitarian needs. The country can both produce and procure relief supplies domestically and has the capacity to deliver those supplies to the affected population. Japan has a consolidated disaster management system for disaster response although coordination and logistical challenges have yet to be fully overcome. OCHA’s initial observation is that the need for any further international humanitarian presence or internationally procured relief supplies is limited and any such assistance should only be provided upon the request of the Japanese Government and in accordance with their stated criteria. In addition 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. As a next step, OCHA is currently planning to visit Iwake and is determining how to access Fukushima in order to better understand residual humanitarian needs in those prefectures.
March 25th: Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs respond to GiveWell.
“I am attaching OCHA’s latest situation report which states the Government of Japan’s position on international assistance. Given the Japanese national capacity to respond, there will be no international, inter-agency, multi-sectoral appeal for assistance.”
March 25th: From Situation Report #13, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
OCHA staff accompanied by colleagues from the World Food Programme (WFP), USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cabinet .
The mission of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is to mobilize and coordinate effective and principled humanitarian action in partnership with national and international actors. http://ochaonline.un.org travelled by helicopter to Miyagi Prefecture yesterday. The aim of this mission was to determine the need for further international assistance to the affected areas of the prefecture. The team met Prefectural officials from the Social Welfare Department, the local branch of the Red Cross Society and Non Profit Organization (NPO) and NGO representatives in Sendai as well as the local Social Welfare Council, Red Cross and NPO/NGO staff in Ishinomaki for comprehensive briefings and discussion. OCHA is now working in close coordination with government counterparts to determine what if any international assistance may be required.
March 24th: According to today’s USAID Factsheet, “According to DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team) assessments, the Government of Japan (GoJ) continues to meet the immediate needs of individuals in affected areas, with sufficient relief items available locally and higher quantities of relief supplies flowing into affected areas as roads are repaired. DART staff also noted that local level coordination appeared strong and has continued improving across the GoJ as telecommunications repairs are completed.”
March 22nd: JANIC Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation (a network organization of Japanese civil society groups) and the Japan Platform (an international emergency humanitarian aid organization made up of a consortium of 32 Japanese NGOs, the business community, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan). Both now have ways to give through their websites.
March 22nd: Today’s update from the International Federation for the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies states “While no international appeal has been launched at the moment, JRCS is receiving cash contributions from some Red Cross Red Crescent National Societies in the spirit of solidarity.”
Their main message is:
- Don’t come right now, as it is still the emergency response phase.
- Check before you come to find out if your help is needed and what type of help is needed the most.
- If you do come stay in close communication with the local authorities and organizations.
- Consider supporting the local institutions set up to respond to disasters as many of them have lost their resources in the disaster.
- Don’t bring over volunteers, there are thousands and Japanese volunteers ready to help.
March 19th: from OCHA Situation Report #8
“Meanwhile damaged roads, airports and ports are gradually being repaired. But delivery of relief goods sent in from around Japan to evacuees and survivors still remains difficult due to shortages of fuel and transport vehicles. International aid organizations in the affected areas say that most basics are being provided and there are only pockets of people still without assistance. NGOs such as MSF and Save the Children are focusing on getting to especially remote areas or on providing specialist help to the elderly or young children.”
Update: AlertNet posted a list of international organizations that have been allowed to work in Japan. Many of them have limited roles. If you choose to donate to any of them, donate to their general fund so that any money above what is needed can be used in areas where it’s needed the most.
Update: International relief mobilizes for Japan victims - Reuters – “While U.S. aid workers are on the ground in Japan helping to evaluate further humanitarian needs, including food, Japan’s government “continues to express a preference for financial assistance,” according to a USAID document.”
Update: Today’s situation report from UN OCHA states:
- All offers of assistance should be directed to the Government of Japan
- NGO and Relief Supplies - The Government of Japan has made public its position on international donations of relief items and on international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) operating in Japan be made public. With regard to relief items, “the Government of Japan has received offers for relief goods/material from many countries, international organizations, NGOs and private sector. The Government is identifying the needs and establishing a mechanism for storage and transportation to affected people. Therefore, it is recommended not to send any relief goods without coordination with the Government and local governments”.
- Concerning NGOs, the Government of Japan says “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”
- The Government of Japan is preparing to receive medical help from overseas for the thousands injured by the earthquake and tsunami. Although it is illegal for doctors without Japanese medical licenses to practice, the Health Ministry has sent a notice to local governments in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures saying minor procedures may be taken by foreign doctors, given the unprecedented catastrophe. The Government has received offers from countries looking to assist Japan in the medical field.
- Logistics is proving to be the biggest challenge at this stage of the emergency. The authorities have mobilized a large amount of aid but are unable to get it to the people quickly enough. This is mostly a result of the fuel shortages due to a breakdown of six out of nine oil factories in Kanto and Tohoku areas, and a lack of transport vehicles.
Update: According to an article in The Guardian, the British nonprofit International Rescue Corps was kicked out of Japan. They had to hand over all the supplies they brought with them to the Salvation Army.
Update: More and more newspapers and blog are suggesting that Japan might not need or want a lot of donations. See this post for links to the articles.
Update: The Japanese Red Cross has put up a page on their website requesting that if people want to donate to them, they should either donate to the Red Cross in their own countries or to the Japan Red Cross through a bank transfer. Interestingly, this is what they say about the bank transfers
“All the fund received under this account will be transferred to the Distribution Committee, which is formed around the local government of the disaster-affected prefecture and to be distributed directly among the affected population of –earthquake and tsunami,”
Update: The UN states that 13 nongovernmental organizations (NGO) are providing assistance on the ground. Thus far the nonprofits I’ve seen confirmed are:
From this Guardian article:
- The Salvation Army
From the UN Situation Report #5
- Adventist Relief and Development Agency Japan (ADRA Japan) providing assistance at one evacuation center.
- IOM (International Organization of Migration) is providing information for non-Japanese speakers via radio and television as to where to find services.
- World Food Program – helping with logistics
- Turkish Red Cross – technical support
- Swiss Humanitarian Aid Response Team - technical support
- Save the Children - technical support
- Plan International - technical support
- Telecom sans Frontiers – providing emergency telecommunications in Tokyo
- IFRC (International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society) – high level support/liaison team.
Also, after each disaster I advise people to consider donating to local or international charities that help with disaster preparedness.
Update: A New York Times article states “At present, the Japanese society is not launching a national or international appeal, but expressions of solidarity in the form of unearmarked financial contributions would be gratefully received.”
Update: Pierce Morgan interviewed American Red Cross (ARC) CEO Gail McGovern last night. In the interview she stated that 91 cents of every dollar go to the relief effort. So that means that 9% of each donation goes somewhere else. If this 9% goes towards the “forgotten disasters” then I’m OK with that. The “CNN Effect” often means that high profile disasters get far more money than other less publicly appealing issues. But if that’s so, then the Red Cross needs to let us know. If, on the other hand, this money is needed to cover the cost of ARC’s overseeing the Japanese Red Cross in spending these donated funds, then I have to question this decision. Now don’t get me wrong, I am a big supporter of the need to spend money on administration costs. But I do question why the American Red Cross didn’t just provide a link to allow people the choice of donating to ARC or to the Japanese Red Cross directly. Anyone have a good reason or counter argument?
Update: An article in AlertNet today had this quote: “Matsumoto said aid offers were pouring in but so far the Red Cross is not in need of any assistance although this could change.”
Posts linked to in this blog
Japan earthquake/tsunami relief donations – GiveWell
Giving in Support of Japan - Brigid Slipka
Japan: Earthquake & Tsunami Report #3 - UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Situations Reports
the long and short of NGO cooperation – humanitarian.info
The ugly game of relief for Japan – Humanosphere guestpost – “We really don’t need international NGOs as middlemen, counting beneficiaries and checking the books. Because this is Japan – they’re already up to international accounting standards.”
How Do We Help Japan? - UN Dispatch – Suggests waiting, along with a few other ideas.
How UK charities are helping quake-hit Japan - BBC – “There has been no request yet for humanitarian assistance from the international community.”
A Charitable Rush, With Little Direction - New York Times - Discusses how some charities are raising funds without a clear idea of how or whether they’ll be used.
Feeling the desire to help Japan – Stratosphere – discusses how Japan might not need our donations
Some Perspective On The Japan Earthquake - MicroISV on a shoestring – Perspective on the earthquake by a foreigner living there. Says there’s no need for international donations.
Aid workers brace for long humanitarian crisis in Japan – AlertNet – “Matsumoto said aid offers were pouring in but so far the Red Cross is not in need of any assistance although this could change.”