It’s natural to want to give immediately to Japan’s recovery efforts. With all the destruction wrought by a major earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant failing, it would seem the Japanese 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 donors wait is because Japan has thus far only allowed/requested very limited international assistance.
“The Government of Japan has received offers for assistance from 91 countries, and has accepted assistance from about 15 countries based on assessed needs, which is mostly specialized international urban search and rescue (USAR) teams and medical teams.”
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 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 on its own. Just as Chile was able to respond to its earthquake far better than Haiti has been.
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, duplication and gaps in assistance, and a slower response.
After the 2004 Indonesian 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 large number of nonprofits operating in Haiti—1,000, 4,000, 12,000, many more than 12,000, according to different estimates.
While coordination after disasters continues to improve, some major issues and roadblocks remain. I’ve often felt that if a country has the resources to coordinate, monitor, and guide the work of hundreds of aid organizations, then it has 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 from 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 organization 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 it receives are spent properly. To do this, a group will often hold back 10 to 20 percent of what it collects to pay for monitoring the work of Organization Japan. Organization USA may require Organization Japan to do certain types of projects it 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 might be preferable to Organization Japan to turn down donations from Organization USA and instead just work with the money it raises on its 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 it 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 donors should send their money.
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.
“Aid Groups Temper Their Contribution” - The Wall Street Journal
“A Charitable Rush, With Little Direction” – The New York Times
“How Do We Help Japan?” - UN Dispatch