The Gates Foundation’s grant for Japan relief: Our questions and its response

Previously, we went through all the evidence we could find regarding whether Japan disaster relief has what we call room for more funding. One of our observations was that

The Gates Foundation, in particular, gave two grants within a week of the Haiti earthquake but doesn’t appear to have given anything for Japan so far.

Since then, The Gates Foundation has announced (archived) a $1 million grant to Mercy Corps. The situation in Japan is confusing to donors, and the Gates Foundation is better positioned than individuals (and better positioned than we are) to sort through the confusions. If it posted a substantive explanation of its grant – and answers to the natural questions this grant raises – it could be a great help to individual donors, who have given over$161 million (U.S. donors only) to the relief effort.

We are therefore disappointed with its communications to date. On its website, it has put out only a short statement, with no explanation of the decision other than “While the emergency in Japan falls outside the typical scope of the foundation’s Emergency Response grantmaking, the magnitude of the crisis called for a response.” It provided an additional statement in response to our questions, which is posted below.

The Gates Foundation grant raises the following questions:

• Out of all the organizations soliciting funding for Japan disaster relief/recovery, how and why was Mercy Corps chosen?
• In particular, why was Mercy Corps chosen over:
• A Mercy Corps representative has made it clear that it does not intend to spend all allocated funds on emergency relief: (archived):

We are going to do post-trauma work with kids, and we are looking at how to make that really culturally appropriate … We are also going to get involved in the local economy. We are probably going to distribute vouchers that people can use to get into the stores as they reopen and buy goods, and pump up the local economy. We are going to look at small businesses that don’t have insurance and don’t have access to government funding, and may need support.

How does this square with the Gates Foundation’s emphasis on emergency relief in its release? (It discusses Peace Winds’s work in emergency services but does not mention these less emergency-relief-oriented activities.)

• Why did the Gates Foundation make a grant to Mercy Corps specifically for Japan, instead of giving it a grant to be allocated where most needed (as Mercy Corps requested (archived))?
• How does this grant square with the statement by OCHA that “the need for any further international humanitarian presence or internationally procured relief supplies is limited and any such assistance should only be provided upon the request of the Japanese Government and in accordance with their stated criteria”? Has the aid of Mercy Corps been requested by the Japanese Government?
• Why was the grant for \$1 million and not more or less?
• Does the Gates Foundation have advice for individual donors interested in doing as much good as possible? Should they give to Mercy Corps rather than to a Red Cross organization? Should they give to help Japan rather than another of the many urgent situations worldwide (archived)?We sent a draft of this post to the Gates Foundation last Friday, and after some back-and-forth we received the following statement as its response (posted with permission):
The emergency in Japan falls outside the scope of the foundation’s usual emergency response grantmaking, since our work is largely focused on developing nations, but the foundation felt the severity of the earthquake and tsunami called for a response.
Mercy Corps is experienced in delivering humanitarian aid to wide geographic areas and in complex logistic situations. In addition, they also have a long-standing partnership with Peace Wind Japan, which is actively involved in the ongoing relief efforts.
We have also worked with Mercy Corps during a number of emergency relief operations, including last year’s earthquake in Haiti.
We are fully supportive of the work Mercy Corps and Peace Wind are doing in Japan. We will continue to monitor the situation and would urge people interested in making a donation to the relief efforts there to contact one of many international organizations working in Japan. A list of our partners who do emergency relief work, many of whom are already involved with Japanese relief efforts, can be found on the emergency response page on our website.

Our takeaway is that the Gates Foundation grant doesn’t provide much reason to change our existing view of the situation. We believe that Mercy Corps’s apparent plans (quoted above) fall firmly within the category of “restitution” (and we have questioned the appropriateness of these plans, relative to giving out cash to survivors).