15 March 2011

What to Do for Japan

In short; nothing.

Saundra, who has been giving great advice on disaster relief for awhile might finally be wearing down the entrenched attitudes which are pervasive amongst most of media. Annie Lowrey writes:

There are two basic rules for being useful: First, give to organizations with long track records of helping overseas. Second, leave it up to the experts to decide how to distribute the aid.

The first suggestion is simple: Avoid getting scammed by choosing an internationally known and vetted group. Big, long-standing organizations like Doctors without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross are good choices. If choosing a smaller or local group, try checking with aid groups, Guidestar, or the Better Business Bureau before submitting funds.

The second suggestion is more important. Right now, thousands of well-intentioned donors are sending money to Japan to help it rebuild. But some portion of the donated funds will be earmarked, restricted to a certain project or goal, and therefore might not do the Japanese much good in the end. Moreover, given Japan's extraordinary wealth and development, there is a good chance that aid organizations will end up with leftover funds they will have no choice but to spend in country...

[G]ive without restrictions; leave it up to the experts to figure out how to save the most lives and do the most good. If Japan needs the money, they will make sure the country gets it. But if it gets back on its feet, there are a whole lot of other places that could use the funds.
Felix Salmon is singing the same tune in his post for Reuters on what to do.
[E]verybody wants to do something, and the obvious thing to do is to donate money to some relief fund or other. 
Please don’t.

We went through this after the Haiti earthquake, and all of the arguments which applied there apply to Japan as well. Earmarking funds is a really good way of hobbling relief organizations and ensuring that they have to leave large piles of money unspent in one place while facing urgent needs in other places. And as Matthew Bishop and Michael Green said last year, we are all better at responding to human suffering caused by dramatic, telegenic emergencies than to the much greater loss of life from ongoing hunger, disease and conflict. That often results in a mess of uncoordinated NGOs parachuting in to emergency areas with lots of good intentions, where a strategic official sector response would be much more effective. Meanwhile, the smaller and less visible emergencies where NGOs can do the most good are left unfunded.
More directly, blogger Patrick McKenzie, who owns and runs a small business in the country, provides an excellent post on the disaster which ends with this advice:
A few friends of mine have suggested coming to Japan to pitch in with the recovery efforts. I appreciate your willingness to brave the radiological dangers of international travel on our behalf, but that plan has little upside to it: when you get here, you’re going to be a) illiterate b) unable to understand instructions and c) a productivity drag on people who are quite capable of dealing with this but will instead have to play Babysit The Foreigner. If you’re feeling compassionate and want to do something for the sake of doing something, find a charity in your neighborhood. Give it money. Tell them you were motivated to by Japan’s current predicament. You’ll be happy, Japan will recover quickly, and your local charity will appreciate your kindness.

On behalf of myself and the other folks in our community, thank you for your kindness and support.
Finally, Saundra gives a little background as to why NGOs are not quite jumping in to take part in the disaster response efforts.
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.