Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

Dancing in the Dark

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Hopefully it’s not too disrespectful to begin back up with song-title-as-blog-post-title when writing about Japan. My friend Scott Kuhagen points out a fascinating NYT article about the challenges of post-disaster communication in a conflict-averse culture:

But as is often the case with cultural explanations (of which I have in the past been a fan, or at least not an automatic opponent), there are institutional factors close at hand. In this case, it’s a “leadership vacuum” created by a recent change in the ruling party after 50 years of LDP rule. The Times article is worth quoting at length, as there’s a lot of substance in the analysis:

“The close links between politicians and business executives have further complicated the management of the nuclear crisis. Powerful bureaucrats retire to better-paid jobs in the very industries they once oversaw, in a practice known as “amakudari.”…Postwar Japan flourished under a system in which political leaders left much of the nation’s foreign policy to the United States and domestic affairs to powerful bureaucrats…. But over the past decade or so, the bureaucrats’ authority has been greatly reduced…. Yet no strong political class has emerged to take their place. Four prime ministers have come and gone in less than four years; most political analysts had already written off the fifth, Mr. Kan, even before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. Two years ago, Mr. Kan’s Japan Democratic Party swept out the virtual one-party rule of the Liberal Democratic Party, which had dominated Japanese political life for 50 years. But the lack of continuity and inexperience in governing have hobbled Mr. Kan’s party. The only long-serving group within the government is the bureaucracy, which has been, at a minimum, mistrustful of the party. “It’s not in their DNA to work with anybody other than the Liberal Democrats,” said Noriko Hama, an economist at Doshisha University.”

There’s so much going on here that as a political scientist I don’t know where to start: the parallels to 70 years of PRI one-party rule in Mexico and it’s relationship with the civil service, the analogies to the revolving door between Congress and K Street in the US – and above all (and I think that’s where I’ll start), the question of Japan’s political economy and the idea of “varieties of capitalism” that I’ve written on extensively on this blog.

Coordinated market economies are good at generating high-quality, well-engineered products through a system that features close coordination between labor, capital, and education. In the Japanese version, they feature cozy relationships between companies, particularly in finance, with lots of overlapping board seats and other forms of governance that would look odd in the context of the US, a liberal market economy.

And here we see a dark side of that coordination – a lack of willingness to point the finger of blame, to name a problem and respond nimbly in the moment. And this has to do with the flow of information.

So when we’re thinking about “varieties of philanthropy” analogous to varieties of capitalism, an important piece to look at is the flow of information, and how different institutional arrangements incentivize different information flows. Given what problems philanthropy has with good public information flow, this question seems particularly relevant.


Helping Japan, continued

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

As my Argentine friend Sebastian would say, “FahseeNAting.” Felix Salmon over at Reuters titles a post, “Don’t donate money to Japan,” and the comments absolutely explode at him (hat tip to Tactical Philanthropy). Yet he’s making much the same point as the folks at GiveWell, whom I cited last time. What gives?

Part of it is that you’d expect an economist to have a better handle at the importance of signaling. Many of the comments take umbrage primarily at the title, finding it offensive in the extreme, poorly chosen, and poorly timed. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution observes that it’s important to signal solidarity with one of the U.S.’s closest allies.

Which gets me thinking about giving as an expression of personal values – as opposed to giving as an effort to solve a particular social problem. The beauty of “small” philanthropy is that it’s a way for all of us to signal our allegiance with certain causes, whether our not our $10 makes a difference “at the margin,” as economists say.

The difference happens when hundreds of thousands of people make that choice at the margin to give. And what generates that – the aggregate of those hundreds of thousands of decisions – I feel is poorly understood. And yet, a valuable natural resource – not infinitely renewable, but pretty reliable in disaster situations.

There is much to be understood about motivations for giving and how to channel them. People are capable of such generosity and yet also such indifference. The furor over Salmon’s piece puts these issues into sharp relief for me.

Helping Japan

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

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.