The GiveWell Blog

Japan earthquake/tsunami relief donations

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.

Where should you give? Lessons from Haiti

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

Why Japan is different

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.

Our advice: hold off for now

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.

For more advice, see Good Intentions are Not Enough. We particularly agree with the recommendations to (a) refrain from showing up as a volunteer; (b) give cash, not goods.


  • Event360 on March 11, 2011 at 5:32 pm said:

    We are also keeping our eye on Japan and send our hearts out to victims of the earthquake and tsunami. We think your post comes at a crucial time when emotions are running high and the need to help is strong. This is great, level-headed and pragmatic advice for those who desire to donate and assist in relief efforts. Being informed and knowing the right moves to make or not to make are imperative to good aid. Make sure to keep an eye out and decide when the time is right to start donating funds!

  • Dee Morris on March 13, 2011 at 6:24 pm said:

    What a terrible blow to Japan. Much love and prayer for the Japanese people at this time. But I really feel that the best thing the countries of the world can do is keep all their donations for their own disasters, thus ceasing all this meaningless to-ing and fro-ing of monies across the world. It seems to be a waste of time, when all we have to do is donate to our own respective horrors! For isn’t it true that most countries of this planet are copping THEIR OWN share of disasters lately?! Karma much?

  • I see the Japanese Red Cross (currently working in Relief Effort) did not even get a mention.

  • I agree with meh. Why recommend international organisations without even suggesting Japanese ones? I would have thought that the Japanese Red Cross is a safe bet.

    @ Dee Morris: yes, sending money to rich Japan may not be needed but asking countries of the world to keep donations to themselves is harsh on poor ones like Haiti.

  • Karen on March 15, 2011 at 4:43 pm said:

    The Japanese Red Cross is not recommended for donations in that they are suffering the same plight as every one else in Japan. Try the American Red Cross instead– they can get water, food, and goods into Japan.

    I think people primarily feel frustrated with how to help. Honestly, if we could send donations to the U.S. Marines to cover the cost of food/water/blanket deliveries, we’d do so. They have the resources to help, and are doing a fantastic job– reimbursing the outlay of goods would help them.

  • Autoblogging on March 15, 2011 at 6:38 pm said:

    The Marines are their helping as we always have. I have been out for 12 years but I remeber back in 1990 going to help the in Baguio City Philippines for a 7.0 quake that devastated their city.

  • Reinou Groen, MD on March 16, 2011 at 7:10 am said:

    i would say that with this nuclear-reactor you should want the international experts over there immediatelly to reduce the damage as soon as possible. This is the biggestneed i guess. because in the long run that can turn Japan into a middle income country, or at least a country with alot of health needs.

  • My prayers go out to Japan

  • Sarah canfield on March 17, 2011 at 1:20 am said:

    Japan requires the aid of our global community to help provide health care, fresh clean water, warm clothing, food and shelter. Please Help Donate to Japan’s Earthquake Victims

  • FYI – Wikipedia’s info on Japan’s aid to Katrina victims…

    The Japanese Foreign Ministry said that it would provide $10,000 in cash to the American Red Cross to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina. Japan also identified needs in affected regions via the U.S. government and provided up to $10,000 in emergency supplies such as tents, blankets and power generators if they receive requests from the U.S. for such assistance. Private and corporate donations totaled over $13 million.[33] One Japanese individual, Takashi Endo, donated USD $1 million from his personal funds to Katrina relief efforts.

  • Leslie Stanick on March 22, 2011 at 3:41 am said:

    Hello friends,
    I am concerned about people saying Japan is a wealthy country and doesn’t need financial assistance. They have tremendous debt right now, and are facing evacuations from nuclear contamination on top of the earthquake and tsunami devastation. It will take a long time to rebuild their country and economy. If money for MSF can purchase food and transportation to deliver it to Sendai, and other towns decimated by the quake and tsunami, then why wait? Those people, by all reports are still without service, food, clean water, warm clothing, or sleeping bags. They have no services to deal with the shock, cold and hunger. Its absolutely shocking. They feel abandoned by their own government. I encourage people to donate, if the funds can’t be used right now (which seems improbable), then they can certainly be used later. I trust that MSF, who is familiar with emergency aid around the world, will know how to disburse aid with the funds they receive for maximum benefit.

  • Chuck Smith on March 22, 2011 at 11:30 pm said:

    A musical tribute to Japan.

  • Holden on March 25, 2011 at 4:21 pm said:

    Thanks for all the thoughts. I believe that objections to and questions about our position have been addressed in later posts on the matter. If you disagree, of course, you are welcome to say so and continue the conversation in the blog comments.

  • Jonah Afi on April 20, 2011 at 12:14 pm said:

    If your in the so cal area you might want to help Japan by attending the SullenTV relief for Japan.

  • I believe Japan may have deserved a catastrophic event such as the tsunami. If you don’t believe me, watch this movie called The Cove. Japan has been raping the ocean for years and it finally fought back.

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