The GiveWell Blog

Update on how to help Japan: No room for more funding. We recommend giving to Doctors Without Borders to promote better disaster relief in general

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.

Donate to Doctors Without Borders
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).

Determining room for more funding in a disaster
As argued previously, we think it’s an open question whether a given disaster has room for more funding. Our basic (evolving) process for assessing the needs in a disaster situation is:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Info from OCHA and ReliefWeb
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:

Japanese Red Cross
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.

I’m not exactly sure how to square this with the donate page for the Japanese Red Cross (archived), which states:

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.

Japanese government
This quote from Reuters (archived) is consistent with the above picture:

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.

The bottom line
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.

Others with similar sentiments


  • Dan McCarrel on March 17, 2011 at 12:29 am said:

    I am impressed by your analysis, but I question whether basing it upon the lack of a request is reliable in this circumstance. The government of Japan (for whatever reason – culture, or the impact of the crisis) has NOT been forthcoming about the reality of the situation. There obviously are far more people killed and injured than official estimates. The situation with the damaged nuclear power facilities is far more critical (and deteriorating by the minute) than the official position will admit. I have lived in Japan and I agree that the people are resilient and prepared; their planning and organization, in spite of the devastating circumstances, are admirable. This situation is extremely serious and requires monitoring. I strongly suspect that the country needs much more help than the Japanese are willing to admit today.

  • i’m of the opinion that it is not within the japanese cultural norm to outright ask for help. what you’re revealing is a cultural disconnect between japan and the West.Whereas the westerners more easily speak up for what they need or desire, the japanese tend to speak around such topics and issues. Just because they are not outright asking for help doesn’t mean they don’t need it.

  • Waheeb on March 17, 2011 at 4:07 am said:

    Japan is, yes, wealthy but is heavily indebted nation.

    The destruction and damage is huge and although the Japanese seemed prepared, this does not mean contributions to relief is useless.

    There are many people who are in shelters. Those people have a lot of needs and post disaster rehabilitation. The story is not over. There is a lot of work ahead in affected areas to get life back to normal.

    I do know there are many poor areas in the world and that it is always good to donate to other charities but I also believe it is an ethical issue to show help and support to the people of Japan.

    This country has been in the forefront of foreign aid to help many impoverished countries and people around the world and they deserve a needed help.

    If you are worried that your funds will not reach Japan, then do some search and there will be a way to get them through.

    I am donating for Japan through the Japanese red cross.

  • Ian Turner on March 17, 2011 at 10:17 am said:

    I think Network for Good deserves some flack for encouraging (archive) the kind of misleading fundraising appeals discussed in this post. Worse, this campaign has gotten significant play in the popular media, such as a link from (archive)

  • Ross Moncrief on March 17, 2011 at 6:39 pm said:

    I agree that their culture may inhibit requests for donations. I heard on NPR that the American Red Cross received around 50 million in donations for this effort but have given the Japanese Red Cross only 10 million. When I called a Red Cross rep. they stated they were a 4-star rated charity by Charity Navigator (which actually rates them as a 3-star) and could not answer my questions with regard to how much of the Japanese donations have been disbursed. I told them I would donate to another organization e.g., the search dog foundation.

  • re the american red cross.. yeah i’m kind of not happy with them. i’m not sure they said this or living social said it but note the fine print on this site:

    “On those rare occasions when donations exceed American Red Cross expenses for a specific disaster, contributions are used to prepare for and serve victims of other disasters.”

  • Saliency on March 18, 2011 at 12:36 am said:

    If you don’t like the amarican red cross send to:

    Name of Bank: Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation
     Name of Branch: Ginza
     Account No.: 8047670 (Ordinary Account)
     Payee Name: The Japanese Red Cross Society
     Payee Address: 1-1-3 Shiba-Daimon Minato-ku, Tokyo JAPAN

  • Saliency on March 18, 2011 at 12:39 am said:

    I personally like

    They take no administration overhead and will do their best to funnel the money to places it is needed. Warning though they have not chosen what sub organizations they will choose! They may make a bad choice. I trust them though.

  • andrew on March 18, 2011 at 3:32 am said:

    This is an interesting article and was informative, but I think it doesn’t address two very critical components before coming to the conclusion that there is no room for donations.

    1) As previous commenters have noted, there’s a huge cultural variable (pride, humility, optimism?) as to whether a country asks for help and is up front on how severe a situation is. A country like Haiti has been accustomed to foreign support unfortunately, as a developing country. Japan is accustomed to being self sufficient. But if you’ve followed this from the beginning, you should be able to see a clear pattern in terms of what info is said or offered versus how things actually turn out. How can we trust that suddenly the government is accurate and precise in predicting their needs, when everything else has proved to be much worse than originally expected or communicated?

    2) There’s little actual math displayed in this article. Most experts say this is the worst EVER in terms of monetary destruction. What’s that number? What’s been pledged? What’s the financial health of the government to absorb those costs and deliver aid in a timely fashion?

    Neglecting these points to make a recommendation that many will read to mean “Japan doesn’t need help” seems awfully reckless when a half a million people are without homes, with little food and heat.

    That’s just my $.02.

  • David Lundeen on March 18, 2011 at 10:07 am said:

    It *is* a cultural difference–Japan refused, but needed, outside help during the Kobe quake. The Japan Society of New York is working to change that this time around. Judge for yourself, but please reconsider some of the above advice:

  • M Nakano on March 18, 2011 at 4:43 pm said:

    Embassy of Japan and Consulate-Generals do ask for donation for Japan earthquake relief. Japan Red Cross makes their best effort to provide blankets, foods, drinks and other commodities to people in the most affected area. And they do ask for donations.

    It would make sense for us to help Japan recover and restore their economy as quickly as possible, so that they can resume their financial aid for other countries. Japan asks for help now, but hopefully not so long – until they start functioning again.

    This country has offered over $100 million for Haiti relief up until last month. Japan’s ODA has been approx. $7 billion each year, depending on its economic status (setting aside the question of how properly it is used). Economic damage by this disaster is now said to be over $ 300 billion. Think about the impact of this to global economy and the resulting effects on our aid for Haiti and Africa. The question is how to most effectively circulate money to save more lives.

  • JohnBobMead on March 18, 2011 at 9:19 pm said:

    It seems to me that what is being said in the article is that a) Japan has not requested aid, b) the organizations soliciting relief-related funding are “poised to act” but cannot act until invited in, so c) if you want to provide funds to assist Japan give to native Japanese institutions such as the Japanese Red Cross Society.

    Those who question this article for not delimiting the needs of Japan in this situation, that isn’t the purpose of this article. What has been requested, and what is needed to meet that request is what they are analyzing. There may be cultural barriers to requesting assistance; then again, there may not be barriers to requesting assistance. They may be waiting to determine the true extent of the situation prior to asking for aid, not wanting to flood the area with more relief workers than can be properly utilized, or as it appears being more interested in specific types of workers than general funds.

    The article lists means of giving which will get monies to Japan for assistance in this and other emergencies. The article makes recommendations for giving if you are interested in more general giving, non-Japan specific but enabling of assistance in other areas of need, their endorsement being based on being a good and worthy organization which is not waving the Japan flag for fundraising; reward them for their honesty.

    Struck me as a good article.

  • Holden on March 25, 2011 at 4:22 pm said:

    Thanks for all the thoughts. I believe that objections to and questions about our position have been addressed in our March 24 update. If you disagree, of course, you are welcome to say so and continue the conversation in the blog comments.

  • 2 additional points to contemplate:
    1. people should donate (to a reputable organization) if they want to, regardless of need. perhaps that money will go to Japan, perhaps elsewhere. but the act of giving itself is a human instinct that should not be restrained. we know that organizations need to be financial prepared for the next disaster. people who donate simply need to be aware of this.
    2. it seems to me that the act of giving is part of a broader psychological process of healing for people around the world that have seen and been affected by the unimaginable devastation. often it is the only way they feel they can show support and empathy for those that are living through this tragedy.

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