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Does Japan Need Our Help?

In the weeks following Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, I found myself bombarded by images, videos, and headlines about the event and its devastation.  Like many other Americans glued to their laptops, I felt overwhelmed and unsure about how to help.

With so much information readily available, it’s natural for us to want to give immediately to Japan’s recovery efforts.  It would seem that with all the destruction wrought by a 9.0 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant failing, (not to mention a 7.2 earthquake just last week), Japan could use all the help it can get.  Surprisingly, Japan has only allowed limited international assistance.

Photo courtesy of 37 Frames Photography

91 countries have offered assistance while Japan has exclusively accepted aid from only 15 countries (mostly partnering with governments and not charities). The Japanese government is among the best prepared for disasters and has made specific requests for help. However, Japan’s selectivity in who can help and what they can provide has not stopped organizations from fund-raising for Japan relief efforts.

The March 23 situation report for Japan from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that 670 non-profits have offered tsunami relief assistance. This means that all 670 groups have raised money without a clear request for assistance or without identifying local groups to support.

The fine print in many non-profits’ e-mails and donation pages include phrases such as: “prepared to assist”, “readying a team,” and “assessing the situation”. Few have actually deployed staff, and there is a real possibility that many of the organizations collecting donations will not be allowed to operate in Japan, altogether.

Why be exclusive with foreign aid?

Photo courtesy of 37 Frames Photography

There’s a good reason for limiting who can help and to what extent.  When organizations pour in from all over the world, they bring their respective regulations, priorities, donors and governing boards, which can lead to much confusion, inefficiency, duplication, and ultimately, a slower response… not to mention literal roadblocks. A common issue following a disaster is a race for space in airports and seaports to bring in relief teams and supplies. When goods are not properly cleared and moved away quickly, ports become clogged and damaged, thus causing critical delays and future impairment of export-import processes.

After the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, a flood of aid organizations and people arriving to help was often called “the second tsunami.” There was little collaboration among assisting groups. Donations flooded local markets, undermining local businesses. This proved to be detrimental to Indonesia’s economy. Haiti has faced similar problems.

As a wealthier country, it seems that Japan is taking advantage of the luxury of avoiding inefficient assistance by taking care of itself. Many experts on foreign aid believe that if a country has the resources to coordinate, monitor, and guide the work of hundreds of aid organizations, like Japan, then it has the resources to handle the relief efforts themselves. The international community would be wise to wait for an invitation to help.

What Can We Do Now?

International aid agencies like to “partner” with local agencies. But often times, local aid agencies are left with little control over the project design, may not be allowed to adjust the project to meet local needs, or may be pressured to work too quickly to please donors. By funding local or national aid agencies, you support their work and give them the influence they need to have a place in the international planning and coordination efforts. Local aid agencies know the area, have relationships with government and communities.

Here is a helpful donor’s guide to giving from The Journal of Philanthropy: http://philanthropy.com/blogs/world-view/a-donors-guide-to-giving-after-a-disaster/180









Posted on 04/11/2011 by Melanie Young

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