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Philanthropic Response Evolves As Japanese Crisis Deepens

By Susan Carey Dempsey on March 28, 2011No Comment

It is a sad truth that the global community has experienced so many devastating humanitarian catastrophes in recent years that it has become well understood that the best way to help immediately is to donate cash to major organizations equipped to mobilize a comprehensive response.  So it was that, in the face of the three massive catastrophes to strike Japan two weeks ago – the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster – individuals from around the world felt compelled to channel their concern into donations.

However, while the scope and severity of the damage and loss of life were still emerging, it was not immediately clear how much philanthropic aid would be needed, as the world’s third largest economy sought to restore its own citizens’ well-being and its once robust infrastructure. Further, the depth of the disaster are still emerging – the Japanese economy is seriously frayed and the nuclear threat appears to be far from ended. So how does an enlightened, responsible, informed philanthropist respond?Early on, news outlets, including The New York Times, published lists of credible agencies where relief donations could be directed, yet reported concern and questions about whether such donations would actually be needed, as the Japanese government had not yet requested assistance. As the nuclear disaster unfolding at the Fukushima Daiichi plant worsened, however, the Japanese government not only reached out to the United States for help, but acknowledged that it had been overwhelmed by the terrible toll unleashed by the earthquake and its aftermath.

Experienced organizations like Global Giving channeled donors’ efforts to organizations working inside Japan and has already raised more than $2.1 million. And Global Giving continued to provide updates on where its donors’ money was helping, in partnership with seven NGOs in Japan.

In contrast to the response to the Haiti earthquake, there has been some hesitation to give on the part of donors as well as agencies such as Doctors Without Borders, to mount a fundraising campaign specifically for Japan. The devastation in Haiti, however, was so vast, in an impoverished country clearly unable to recover and rebuild unaided, that a swift, strong response was unquestionably needed.

With buildings in Japan designed to withstand even as powerful an earthquake as that of March 11, and the nation’s reputation for preparedness, it seemed possible at first that a more limited international response would be needed. Nevertheless, well-known relief agencies such as the American Red Cross and Americares were among the first to announce that they were receiving donations for the Japan relief effort. In a post on its site yesterday, UNICEF reported that it had held off on appeals for contributions at first, in view of Japan’s historic role as a donor nation rather than recipient, but that conversations with Japanese colleagues had led to a decision to accept donations targeted at getting aid to the many children affected by the crisis. Save the Children, likewise, is dedicating its efforts to the thousands of children impacted by the disasters.

Other critics went farther. At his Reuters blog, Felix Salmon started a testy discussion in the philanthropy world when he urged: Don’t donate money to Japan:

Japan is a wealthy country which is responding to the disaster, among other things, by printing hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of new money. Money is not the bottleneck here: if money is needed, Japan can raise it. On top of that, it’s still extremely unclear how or where organizations like globalgiving intend on spending the money that they’re currently raising for Japan — so far we’re just told that the money “will help survivors and victims get necessary services,” which is basically code for “we have no idea what we’re going to do with the money, but we’ll probably think of something.”

The post inspired both outrage – understandable with 8,000 dead, thousands missing, and an ongoing nuclear disaster in a nation with close ties to the United States and Europe – and some discussion. Of course, many donated in the aftermath of 9/11, even though the attacks happened a stone’s throw from Wall Street in the largest economy on earth. And millions donate to, for example, U.S. social services agencies, who help the non-rich in that largest economy on earth. (Salmon revised his post with a new one, with links to some thoughtful pieces elsewhere).

Yet people are giving: the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that total charitable giving has surpassed $160 million. And the Japanese clearly welcome some assistance. In a report posted by National Public Radio, an official of the Japan-America Society expressed hope that American aid groups could partner with relief agencies in Japan. He conceded that a major cultural hurdle would have to be overcome as Japan faced the enormity of the crisis:

“America and Japan have been great friends and allies for 65 years,” Malott says. “If there is any cultural hesitation in accepting aid, it’s that Japan, with one of the largest foreign aid budgets in the world, sees itself as a donor rather than a recipient.”

“But this is overwhelming.”

The likelihood that international humanitarian aid is not needed diminishes with every passing day and each new revelation about the destruction and displacement of thousands, even if the nuclear disaster can be curtailed.

Donors who feel they would like to learn more or to reach out to the victims in Japan can do so clicking on one of the following links:

Global Giving

American Red Cross

Save the Children

World Vision


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