Helping Japan

No song-title-for-blog-post-title today…

Remember what we learned from Haiti last year about giving in disasters:

  • Give cash, not goods. (Because where do you store the goods, who decides who gets what – it adds another layer of complication for first responders and recovery workers who are overwhelmed enough as it is.)
  • Support organizations that have existing relationships on the ground. It makes the process more efficient and means that more relief gets their sooner.
  • Give to the long-term recovery effort, not just immediate relief.
  • Be OK with the fact that because of what it costs to have an effective on-the-ground response, your dollar now may get into the field weeks or even months later, or on another disaster. Relief orgs need revolving sources of funding, and it’s not like you’re going to say, “no, don’t help those other people in the next disaster.” It’s like providing general operating support, give the organization that’s proven its ability to get help to those who need it the latitude to use the funds in the most effective way.

GiveWell has an interesting take (hat tip to the Foundation Center, whose post is also worth reading). They’re saying (as of last Friday) “hold off on giving for now” because it’s not clear what the needs are. They also suggest that local presence is not as important in this disaster, because most international groups don’t set up shop in wealthy countries.

And here we come to the crux of disaster response as a field. (I did some research in this area for a client.) One important definition of a disaster is a situation that overwhelms the ability of the local authorities to respond. In the U.S., a disaster can be “declared” by the President, which allows federal resources to go in. But they have to be invited in; the governor of the state has to request that relief.

The American Red Cross has only just been asked to help. They made their first donation, of $10 million to the Japanese Red Cross Society, today. This is as it should be. It’s up to the local authorities to determine what help is needed and when.

And this brings us to another principle that may be emerging from the current situation:

  • Pay attention to what local authorities are asking for. Have they invited international organizations in? Are they asking for specific kinds of help? Who’s in a position to provide that help? (See the previous principles). Obvious caveat for non-democratic regimes; when Burma was hit by a cyclone, giving to NGOs with strong local presences made sense – local authorities weren’t necessarily trustworthy.

I know this doesn’t sound easy, but hey, how often is what’s right really easy?

Stay tuned, keep paying attention, look for the right opportunity to give. (But give!) You’ll be glad you did, and so will the people who benefit on the other end.

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5 Responses to “Helping Japan”

  1. Scott Says:

    Great summary of the key points, Chris. It’s definitely a bit of a wrinkle that Japan is such a wealthy country (compared to other countries that need aid like Haiti or Burma), but will still obviously need all the help they can get.

  2. admin Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Scott. But that’s the interesting thing – what is the help they need, right? And who decides what this is? My wife and I were discussing this, and she was pointing out that Japan has a history of being an isolationist country – one thing is what “authorities” say they need, and another thing is what people on the ground need….

  3. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » Helping Japan, continued Says:

    […] The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" BETA version, new title in the works. New post each Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday (for now). « Helping Japan […]

  4. Scott Says:

    Good point about possibly diverging perceptions of need between the govt. and the people! I’m sure you saw the NY Times article about potentially weak Japanese leadership; what stood out to me was the distrust/unfamiliarity between the bureaucracy (that presumably has to implement any recovery effort) and their political superiors — due to the opposition party being in power for the first time in decades. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/world/asia/17tokyo.html

  5. admin Says:

    Thanks Scott – I hadn’t seen that article, but it’s inspired another post!

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