Japan has been hit by a devastating earthquake and tsunami, and our hearts go out to those affected and responding.
Charities have been quick to solicit funding for the relief/recovery effort. Here we present our recommendations to donors, both in terms of which charities should be preferred and in terms of whether giving to this relief effort is a good opportunity overall.
At this point we strongly recommend holding off on giving to this relief/recovery effort. We believe that money isn’t a cure-all, and that there can be such a thing as an “overfunded” relief effort even in a devastating disaster. We don’t know yet whether that is the case with Japan, but we believe that the next few days will bring valuable information about it (and we will be providing updates in this space). We also believe that waiting a few days will not diminish the impact of your donations.
Over the last year, we’ve been examining the responses of major relief organizations to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Our report grades these organizations on their transparency; the ones that stand out most are Direct Relief International, Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health. Of these three, the first two appear to be responding to the Japan events (see these links for Doctors Without Borders and Direct Relief International).
Therefore, for donors determined to give to Japan relief/recovery, our top recommendation goes to Doctors Without Borders, followed by Direct Relief International. The reason we prefer Doctors Without Borders is because of its past decision to stop accepting donations for Haiti relief; this greatly reduces the risk in our eyes that it will over-solicit, a very important concern in this case (see immediately below).
We have also done substantial work assessing the overall spending and progress of the Haiti relief/recovery effort, and we feel that it provides an illustration of the fact that
- Disaster relief can face many challenges other than money.
- More money isn’t necessarily helpful.
- Overfunding a relief effort can be much less cost-effective than everyday international aid.
This disaster is very different from other recent headline-making disasters. The 2005 Asian tsunami and 2010 Haiti earthquake took place in very poor countries; by contrast, Japan is a very wealthy country, with the 2nd- or 3rd-biggest economy in the world and per-person income in the same ballpark as that of the U.S.
This matters for several reasons.
- Much better infrastructure and fewer logistical challenges. The The New York Times reports that
Over the years, Japan has spent billions of dollars developing the most advanced technology against earthquakes and tsunamis. The Japanese, who regularly experience smaller earthquakes and have lived through major ones, know how to react to quakes and tsunamis because of regular drills — unlike Southeast Asians, many of whom died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami because they lingered near the coast despite clear warnings to flee.
This factor could cut both ways for donors. Facing fewer challenges could mean needing less money to respond and rebuild; however, it could also mean that there’s more of what we call room for more funding. (In the case of Haiti, logistical hurdles appear to have created many non-monetary bottlenecks to relief and recovery, as discussed above.)
- Relief agencies are unlikely to have a strong existing local presence, and we find a local presence less relevant in general. From what we’ve seen major relief organizations (including the ones we recommend) do not have substantial existing presences in Japan, as they focus on working in less wealthy countries. Due to the likely smaller logistical challenges, we don’t think this should be a major factor in donors’ decisions.
- There may be some challenges that are quite different from those seen in less wealthy countries, such as keeping nuclear reactors under control.
- Most importantly, this relief effort will probably be far better-funded than those in less wealthy countries. We expect to have more specifics about this in the coming weeks, possibly even days.
We believe that the vast majority of disaster relief funding is spent well after the initial crisis (example: Haiti). We also believe that the coming weeks (possibly days) will bring better information about the size of the need and the funds available to meet it. We will be posting any updates on the situation here.