The situation in Japan is tragic and worrying, and our hearts continue to go out to those affected and responding.
On Friday, we recommended that donors wait to see how the situation unfolds before giving. At this point we are ready to make a recommendation, though of course this is subject to change as the situation changes.
We believe that
- Those affected have requested very little, limited aid. Aid being offered far exceeds aid being requested. (Details below.)
- Charities are aggressively soliciting donations, often in ways we feel are misleading (more on this in future posts).
- Any donation you make will probably be used (a) by the charity you give it to, for activities in a different country; (b) for non-disaster-relief-and-recovery efforts in Japan.
- If you’re looking to pursue (a) and help people in need all over the world, we recommend giving to the best charity you can, rather than basing your giving on who is appealing to you most aggressively with images and language regarding Japan.
- If you prefer (b), a gift to the Japanese Red Cross seems reasonable.
Overall, though, a gift to Doctors Without Borders seems to us like the best way to effectively “respond to this disaster”. We feel they are a leader in transparency, honesty and integrity in relief organizations, and the fact that they’re not soliciting funds for Japan is a testament to this. Rewarding Doctors Without Borders is a move toward improving incentives and improving disaster relief in general.
Below, we give the evidence we’ve found that the relief/recovery effort does not have room for more funding.
Because the situation is changing rapidly, we often include archived versions of the pages we link to (these archives will retain their content even if the pages themselves are changed).
- First see whether a significant gap exists between requested and pledged/committed aid. Requests for money are, in our view, a necessary (though not sufficient) indicator that there is room for more funding.
- Next, collect whatever information is available about the progress of the relief effort, and look for signs that money is or isn’t a primary bottleneck to a better effort. In the case of Haiti, we’ve found signs that non-monetary issues have been primary obstacles to progress.
- If it seems that more money is both requested and needed, look at what is being spent, and on how many people, and make an assessment of how this giving compares to everyday relief for the world’s poor. In the case of Haiti and the Asian tsunami, we concluded that relief appeared less cost-effective than everyday international aid. The story might be very different in less-publicized disasters that have more trouble attracting funding.
At this stage, we don’t believe that this crisis passes the first test above. It looks to us like more aid is being offered than requested.
One of the first places we look in a situation like this is to U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which is “the arm of the UN Secretariat that is responsible for bringing together humanitarian actors to ensure coherent response to emergencies,” as well as its affiliated site ReliefWeb. ReliefWeb is especially useful because in addition to consolidating official updates on an unfolding crisis, it consolidates official appeals for funding. Here’s what we observe from these sources:
- There is no official appeal for Japan at this time. See the list of appeals (archived) and appeals page for Japan specifically (archived), which includes funding information but no appeal.
- Very limited assistance (and even more limited funding) has been deployed by Reliefweb-reporting sources. Both the latest situation report (PDF) and latest funding summary (both updated as of today) make it clear that
- Most assistance being provided is in the form of specialized relief teams, not cash.
- Committed or gifted cash from Reliefweb-reporting sources includes $1 million from Sri Lanka, about $750,000 from the U.S., and other gifts bringing the total to about $2.2 million – about twice what Zynga has raised for Save the Children through social gaming.
- Contrast with Haiti: a comparable situation report (PDF) 3 days after the disaster announced an appeal for $562 million, with $66 million already gifted and $359 million pledged.
The latest official update from any Red Cross appears to be a March 12 information bulletin from the Japanese Red Cross (archived). This bulletin opens with the following:
This bulletin is being issued for information only, and reflects the current situation and details available at this time. The Japanese Red Cross Society, with the support of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, has determined that external assistance is not required, and is therefore not seeking funding or other assistance from donors at this time.
If you wish your fund to be distributed directly among the affected population of the earthquake and tsunami, please direct your fund to the following bank account. If you need the receipt of your fund, please state so clearly in the comment section of the bank transfer order. All the fund received under this account will be transferred to the Distribution Committee, which is formed around the local government of the disaster-affected prefecture and to administer the distribution of fund.
One possible interpretation is that funds will be given directly to those affected by the earthquake, but funds are not needed for the relief effort itself.
Japan’s government has received offers for assistance from 91 countries, and has accepted assistance from about 15 based on assessed needs, mostly for specialized international urban search and rescue (USAR) teams and medical teams.
Charities seem to be sending a very different message from the above sources. By and large, they seem to be aggressively soliciting donations, and we feel that many are implying these donations will be used in the relief/recovery effort. (Details in a future post.)
However, a close look at the language they’re using reveals that their actual involvement in relief/recovery may be very limited and they are seeking donations for other activities. Gizmodo’s Mark Wilson did a good early analysis of this phenomenon, and a look at the up-to-date descriptions of activities from the Chronicle of Philanthropy (archived) and InterAction (archived) still appears to me to indicate limited involvement, and to be full of language that raises questions about whether involvement is forthcoming. A few examples:
- “Catholic Relief Services: The organization said Friday it has personnel standing by throughout the pacific, waiting for requests for help from Caritas Japan.”
- “Oxfam America: The organization’s Web site this morning displayed the headline “Worst Quake in Japan on Record” and asked visitors to donate to its Saving Lives 24/7 Fund.” The Saving Lives 24/7 fund (archived) appears global in focus.
- “Save the Children: The charity said Friday it is mobilizing people and supplies to respond to the earthquake. The organization has worked in Japan for 25 years. On Saturday, it announced it had partnered with online game company Zynga to add calls to donate in the company’s games. On Sunday, the charity said it has sent an emergency team to assess needs in the worst-affected areas.”
- ” World Vision: The charity this morning reported that its offices in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, and the Solomon Islands are on alert to assist in tsunami response. A team is also on standby for possible deployment.”
One notable exception is Doctors Without Borders, which has been completely explicit that it is not seeking funding for Japan relief. Its note on funding for Japan (archived) states
At this point, we are drawing on unrestricted donations given to MSF to fund our efforts, and we are not accepting donations specifically earmarked for recovery efforts in Japan. We greatly appreciate your generosity and encourage your support of our work. We will continue to post updates on our homepage, Facebook, and Twitter as new information becomes available.
Many other organizations may also be soliciting donations only for global efforts, but Doctors Without Borders has the most clear and explicit note that we’ve seen.
On Friday, we stated that “we prefer Doctors Without Borders … 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.” It appears that Doctors Without Borders has, in fact, not over-solicited.
This may cause Doctors Without Borders to raise less money in this disaster, but we’re hoping at least some donors will reward it.
I wouldn’t want anyone to take this post as an argument that (a) the situation in Japan is anything other than extremely tragic and extremely challenging; (b) you shouldn’t give to charity.
My interpretation, rather, is that
- the people and government of Japan are extraordinarily well-prepared, as well as competent and well-resourced, and do not need significant external assistance in order to mount a maximally effective relief and recovery effort.
- Therefore, you as a donor do not have the power to improve the relief and recovery effort in Japan. If you do give, your gift will probably be used (a) by the charity you give it to, for activities in a different country; (b) for non-disaster-relief-and-recovery efforts in Japan.
- Of the above two possibilities, I find (a) more appealing, because Japan is a wealthy country and everyday needs are greater elsewhere. But if you’re looking to pursue (a) and help people in need all over the world, I’d highly recommend giving to the best charity you can, rather than basing your giving on who is appealing to you most aggressively with images and language regarding Japan.
- If you prefer (b), a gift to the Japanese Red Cross seems reasonable.
Overall, though, a gift to Doctors Without Borders seems to me like the best way to effectively “respond to this disaster”. We feel they are a leader in transparency, honesty and integrity in relief organizations, and the fact that they’re not soliciting funds for Japan is a testament to this. Rewarding Doctors Without Borders is a move toward improving incentives and improving disaster relief in general.
- Brigid Slipka makes the excellent suggestion of putting aside a donation and giving it later.
- Saundra Schimmelpfennig further defends this idea.
- Felix Salmon urges unrestricted gifts to help people in general, not donations targeting Japan.