The GiveWell Blog

Revisiting the 2011 Japan disaster relief effort

Last year, Japan was hit by a severe earthquake and tsunami, and we recommended giving to Doctors Without Borders specifically because it was not soliciting funds for Japan. We reasoned that the relief effort did not appear to have room for more funding – i.e., we believed that additional funding would not lead to a better emergency relief effort. We made our case based on factors including the lack of an official appeal on ReliefWeb, reports from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, statements by the Japanese Red Cross, the behavior of major funders including the U.S. government, and the language used by charities in describing their activities. We acknowledged that donations may have beneficial humanitarian impact in Japan, as donations could have beneficial humanitarian impact anywhere, but felt that the nature of the impact was likely to fall under what we characterized as “restitution” and “everyday aid” activities, as opposed to “relief” or “recovery” activities.

Since it’s now been over a year since the disaster, we made an effort to find one-year reports from relevant organizations and get a sense of how donations have been spent.

We have published a detailed and sourced set of notes on what reports we could find and what they revealed about activities. Our takeaways:

  • Very little information on expenditures was provided. Out of 11 organizations we examined, there were only 6 that prominently reported (such that we could find it) the total amount raised or spent for Japan disaster relief. Out of these, only Save the Children, the American Red Cross, and the Japanese Red Cross provided any breakdown of spending by category. Breakdowns provided by Save the Children and American Red Cross were very broad, with 5 and 3 categories respectively; the Japanese Red Cross provided more detail.
  • The Japanese Red Cross spent most of the funds it received on two categories of expense: (1) cash transfers and (2) electrical appliances for those affected. It reports the equivalent of ~$4.2 billion in cash grants. Out of its ~$676 million budget for recovery activities, 49% was spent specifically on “sets of six electronic household appliances … distributed to 18,840 households in Iwate, 48,638 in Miyagi, 61,464 in Fukushima and 1,820 in other prefectures.” (This quote was the extent of the information provided on this activity.) The Japanese Red Cross also spent significant funds on reconstruction/rehabilitation of health centers and services and pneumonia vaccinations for the elderly.

    A relatively small amount of funding (the equivalent of ~$5.6 million) is reported for activities that the Japanese Red Cross puts under its “emergency” categories in its budget. (These include distribution of supplies, medical services, and psychosocial counseling). It is possible that there was a separate budget for emergency relief that is not included in the report.

    Note that the Japanese Red Cross raised and spent substantially more money than the other nonprofits we’ve listed, and also gave substantially more detail on its activities and expenses.

  • Other nonprofits reported a mix of traditional “relief” activities, cash-transfer-type activities, and entertainment/recreation-related activities. Of the groups that provide some concrete description of their activities (not all did), all reported engaging in distribution of basic supplies and/or provision of psychosocial counseling. Most reported some cash-transfer-type activities: cash-for-work; scholarships; grants to community organizations; support for fisheries, including re-branding efforts and provision of fishing vessels. And most reported some entertainment/recreation activities: festivals, performing arts groups, community-building activities, sporting equipment and sports programs for youth, weekend and summer camps. None reported only traditional “relief” activities. (We concede that all of these activities may have had substantial humanitarian impact, and that some may have been complementary to more traditional “relief” activities; however, we think it is important to note these distinctions, for reasons discussed below.)
  • Currently, Oxfam’s page on the Japan disaster states, “Oxfam has been ready to assist further but is not launching a major humanitarian response at this time. We usually focus our resources on communities where governments have been unable – or, in some cases, unwilling – to provide for their people. But the Japanese government has a tremendous capacity for responding in crises, and a clear commitment to using its resources to the fullest.” Note that on the day of the disaster, Oxfam featured a solicitation for this disaster on its front page.

Based on our earlier conclusion that the relief effort did not have “room for more funding,” we expected to find (a) reports of the sort of activities that nonprofits could spend money on in non-disaster-relief settings (including cash-transfer-type programs, giving out either cash itself or items that could easily be resold, which could likely be carried out in any setting without objections); (b) reports that were relatively light on details and financial breakdowns. We observed both of these things in the reports discussed above, in nearly every case. In isolation, nothing about the above-described activities rules out the idea that nonprofits were carrying out important, beneficial activities that were core to recovery; but when combined with our earlier evidence of no “room for more funding,” we feel that the overall picture is consistent.

We were somewhat surprised to see the degree to which many nonprofits funded entertainment/recreation activities; these sort of activities aren’t what we think of as the core competency of international NGOs working mostly in the developing world, and we continue to feel that in a situation such as Japan’s, direct unconditional cash transfers make more sense than activities such as these. (This is a point in favor of the Japanese Red Cross, which – unlike other nonprofits – reported significant spending on cash transfers.)

We therefore stand by the conclusions we reached last year: that the relief and recovery effort did not have room for more funding, that those interested in emergency relief should have donated to Doctors Without Borders, and that those determined to help Japan specifically should have donated to the Japanese Red Cross.


  • Aaron Swartz on August 10, 2012 at 2:13 pm said:

    Your comment about Oxfam strikes me as somewhat misleading. The solicitation you highlight clearly says that Oxfam will spend money on the disaster if “disaster strikes vulnerable countries” (i.e. presumably not Japan). Your comment led me to believe they were soliciting money to spend on Japan and then decided not to give any money to Japan.

  • Ian Turner on August 11, 2012 at 8:49 am said:


    If someone was being misleading here, it’s Oxfam. They are clearly using the Japan earthquake for fundraising; if they know they aren’t going to help there, then the page amounts to a dishonest exploitation of the tragedy.


  • Holden on August 13, 2012 at 3:09 pm said:

    Aaron, you’re right – read carefully, the Oxfam frontpage did communicate that Oxfam did not intend to use donations directly for Japan relief. I missed this in my own glance at the screenshot – what was salient to me was the graphic, the large heading “Worst quake in Japan on record” and the prominent “Donate now” button. My conclusion here is that Oxfam’s early message was technically consistent with its later message, but its early message was delivered in a misleading way.

  • Sara Simons on October 4, 2012 at 9:18 pm said:

    Entertainment/recreational activities do have a place in humanitarian efforts, especially in the lives of young children who are affected by disasters. Real humanitarian efforts however should ensure that all physical needs are meet first, such as clothes, medical needs, shelter and food! It would be interested to get more detailed information.

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