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Does Japan need your donation?

Many aid bloggers and journalists are doing a good job communicating a nuanced message about how to respond to the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

From Stephanie Strom, writing in the New York Times:

The Japanese Red Cross…has said repeatedly since the day after the earthquake that it does not want or need outside assistance. But that has not stopped the American Red Cross from raising $34 million through Tuesday afternoon in the name of Japan’s disaster victims…

The Japanese government so far has accepted help from only 15 of the 102 countries that have volunteered aid, and from small teams with special expertise from a handful of nonprofit groups…

…[M]any of the groups raising money in Japan’s name are still uncertain to whom or to where the money will go…

Holden Karnofsky, a founder of GiveWell, a Web site that researches charities, said he was struck by how quickly many nonprofit groups had moved to create ads using keywords like “Japan,” “earthquake,” “disaster,” and “help” to improve the chances of their ads showing up on Google when the words were used in search queries.

“Charities are aggressively soliciting donations around this disaster, and I don’t believe these donations necessarily are going to be used for relief or recovery in Japan because they aren’t needed for that,” Mr. Karnofsky said. “The Japanese government has made it clear it has the resources it needs for this disaster.”

Robert Ottenhoff, president and chief executive of GuideStar, a Web site that provides charity tax forms and other resources for donors, said donors themselves were to blame for the fund-raising frenzy.

People who really want to support charitable organizations and good works, Mr. Ottenhoff said, should base it on a desire to support something they already understand and believe in.

The Japanese are world-renowned experts in disaster preparedness, relief and recovery, and Japan is the third largest economy in the world. There should be no mistake that the Japanese government and Japanese organizations are well-equipped to take the lead.

Our best advice for people who feel moved to give by the tragedy in Japan: Give generously, in cash, to an organization that you trust, and don’t restrict your donation. This way, your charity can use the funds for Japan if it turns out they are needed. If not, then it is free to use your donation for another purpose, like the dozens of under-reported, large-scale disasters that CNN isn’t featuring today.

This entry was posted in Aid policies and approaches, Disaster relief and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Alex wrote:

    This sensible view isn’t being heard by everyone unfortunately; some enterprising individual has launched a crusade to give free SOCKS (from America) to the people affected by the disaster.

    That’s right, socks. I don’t even know where to begin.

    Posted March 17, 2011 at 3:41 am | Permalink
  2. XavierM wrote:

    The same view has been expressed by Felix Salmon (Reuters) :

    Posted March 17, 2011 at 4:30 am | Permalink
  3. Marc wrote:

    Spot on. Of course, there’s also a need to be sensitive, as Felix Salmon’s Reuters blog shows. He’s getting pilloried!

    The issue, though, isn’t whether Japan needs the money or not. Mercenary fundraising by NGOs marks our descent into the sort of fine print tactics one expects from a used car company. NGOs have abandoned ethical standards and constructed a legally defensible escape clause, usually well hidden compared to the appeal itself, that says any unused funds for Japan will be used elsewhere. Right now, what percentage of the collected funds do they reasonably expect to ever go to Japan? Is it even 50%? In the end, the genuine outpouring of empathy for Japan will pay for office in quite some other locations.

    Posted March 17, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink
  4. Dan Kyba wrote:

    The aid industry is an unregulated industry subject to the free-rider problem. This why you see this ‘feeding frenzy’ of NGO fund-raising which is dragging in the bona fide operations along with the predatory.

    Posted March 17, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink
  5. Roger wrote:

    and have you seen World Vision campaign to help the children of Japan? They want us to believe that Japan is not only unprepared but unequiped to deal with the disaster. Can we still believe World Visiob after the 100K T-shirts GIK story?

    Posted March 17, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  6. July wrote:

    Bill, what are you thoughts on fancy bracelets?!

    Posted March 17, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  7. Quicksilversurfer wrote:

    Using the logic of some of the comments regarding the previous post on World Vision T-shirts: But everybody needs socks and, thanks to you, Japanese are going to go sockless! 😀

    Posted March 17, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  8. nikki wrote:

    I read this & then looked at the Japanese Red Cross site:

    They say: “We heartily appreciate your kind offer of donation…. Thank you once again for your generous offer. It is surely the source of encouragement for the affected population in Japan.” and I couldn’t find anywhere that they DIDN’T want donations… where did you get that info from?

    Posted March 17, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  9. Jorge wrote:

    On March 15th, 2011 launched it’s online giving website in hopes of providing organizations and individuals with a revolutionary online fundraising tool that would change the way people across the United States fundraise. We had always envisioned sponsoring our own causes however, we had absolutely no idea that we would be doing just that so quickly. We have launched our first cause, Japan Disaster Relief, in hopes of helping the thousands of Japanese people who have been affected by the devastating earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. 100% of each donation to Japan Disaster Relief will be sent directly to Japan., Inc. will cover the transaction fee. Please support Japan Disaster Relief below. Thanks, The Team

    Click the link below to donate

    Posted March 17, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  10. s lee wrote:

    I’m very grateful for the critique of NGOs and non-profits that use disasters as a means to build their coffers while not actually doing any direct aid work.

    However, I do take issue with these claims: “The Japanese are world-renowned experts in disaster preparedness, relief and recovery, and Japan is the third largest economy in the world. There should be no mistake that the Japanese government and Japanese organizations are well-equipped to take the lead.” Japan’s advanced economy does not disqualify the need for aid for the people who live there. I think we can understand that when we remember how the US mismanaged and willfully ignored (mostly black/african american) people after Hurricane Katrina. As does the US, Japan has historical and current issues with extreme racism and ‘xeno’phobia of its residents (e.g. Zainichi Koreans, burakumin, Ainu, Okinawans, migrant workers, etc) that have affected the disbursement of aid in past such disasters. I think it’s important for us in the US (and elsewhere) to avoid reinforcing these conditions by assuming a national homogeneity and a stewardship by the government that will take care of all the people who live there and are affected.

    I have personally donated through a group that I trust, Eclipse Rising, an organization of Zainichi Koreans who are currently in the US and work to build transnational alliances for justice for minorities in Japan. They have established a fund to give directly to marginalized communities doing aid work:

    Posted March 17, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink
  11. Nela wrote:

    While I agree with some aspects of the original post, I have to say that I do not share the feeling that this is a worthless or deceptive cause. Sure, Japan is capable of supporting its own relief efforts due to various disaster relief programs that are in place. Japan is also in a decent financial position to sustain the necessary relief effort. However, it is important for aid organizations to find unifying causes which rally support from donors. Once the money is collected by Red Cross, it can be used for other purposes for which there would be little or no support. If nothing else, Japan itself could send the excess aid to countries that need it more. I am not fully condoning these practices; however, I feel that it is important for aid organizations to implement effective business practices such as the ones mentioned in this article. In other words, if Japan can be used as a motivator to help obtain donations which can help even more people in the end, then I feel that this is a justified cause. I am strongly amazed that individuals who have commented thus far would rather have no aid money collected at all, as one would assume from some of the flippant comments above.

    Posted March 17, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  12. Japan Resident wrote:

    @s lee: “As does the US, Japan has historical and current issues with extreme racism and ‘xeno’phobia of its residents (e.g. Zainichi Koreans, burakumin, Ainu, Okinawans, migrant workers, etc) that have affected the disbursement of aid in past such disasters.”

    Please enlighten me – in which disasters was the distribution of aid inappropriate for the groups you mentioned, as a result of their ethnic differences from the Japanese? Would be very curious to hear what specific, documented evidence you cite to support this.

    Posted March 17, 2011 at 11:53 pm | Permalink
  13. Instead of being resistant to the help other countries offer, Japan Government should openly accept the aid i feel! Its not the time to hold on to their ego but its about millions of people, of not only in Japan but in the world!! When will countries learn that becoming the super power is not one need to do but creating a healthy environment for all..

    Posted March 18, 2011 at 6:38 am | Permalink
  14. joe wrote:

    @Kevin – it isn’t an issue of ego. Think about it – Japan is one of the most advanced economies in the world. They have tremendous wealth, they have enormous skills, they have great healthcare. They have a military which is mobilised and involved.

    In addition, their currency is very strong so they can buy anything they need.

    In those circumstances, what exactly do you think the INGOs could do in addition and/or better?

    Posted March 18, 2011 at 7:51 am | Permalink
  15. SJB wrote:

    I have Japanese friends who live near the affected zone and they tell me they do not trust their government, and very little is being done. In the immediate aftermath of a crisis, EVERYBODY needs extra help. When foreigners are willing to come in and help, it keeps needed resources on the ground in other areas. For example, if everyone with rescue expertise in Osaka went to the tsunami zone to do search and recovery, and a disaster happened in Osaka, that city would be un-prepared.

    My friends tell me the Japanese put a great deal of importance on “saving face” and accepting outside help would make them lose face, in their opinion. Rather than lose face, the Japanese government is struggling with a less than stellar response, communicating opaquely, and their people are suffering needlessly while the rest of the world watches in frustration.

    My friends have evacuated on their own to stay with family in Osaka, and say they’ve been told at every step of the way “everything’s OK” while there is no gasoline, no food in stores, and no sign of urgency among the authorities.

    Posted March 18, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  16. Sachiko wrote:

    I’ve contacted Japan Red Cross as we were organizing event to rise some money….

    Japan Red Cross said, as you can see on the page I have posted the link below,
    they are accepting the fund for Japan earthquake and tunami relief and will use them for the victim of this disaster. They also said, that they are aware of the post on information bulletin about JRCS not accepting fund and they are asking to change the post as it… is misleading and they are actually accepting the funds.

    I also asked them if they really gonna use the money for Japan. They said, they have no saying in how American Red Cross use the fund they received, so if you are donating through other countries Red cross, then you have to contact them, but JRCS accept fond directly as well.

    Posted March 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink
  17. Graham Simmons wrote:

    Japan, like most developed countries, is capable of handling a catastrophe even of this size with little outside assistance. Sure, they may need some technical assistance probably particularly relating to the nuclear problem but not much else. This is typical of aid agencies to rush to help when help isn’t needed. The argument is made and I agree that the Red Cross and others are using the Japan earthquake/tsunami to raise money that may not even be used for disaster relief in Japan but used elsewhere. I think this is deceitful on the part of the aid organizations because well intentioned donors think they are giving to one cause but may actually be funding some other project. This is just another of example of big NGO’s committing SWEDOW in the name of saving a country.

    Posted March 23, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  18. Laura Freschi wrote:

    Here’s the latest from the International Red Cross Federation:

    The Japanese Red Cross Society (JRCS) has mobilized its staff and resources nation-wide and domestic donations are being received to assist affected communities. While no international appeal has been launched at the moment, JRCS is receiving cash contributions from some Red Cross Red Crescent National Societies in the spirit of solidarity.

    Read more here:$File/full_report.pdf

    This sounds to me as though they are not turning away donations from other Red Cross branches, but they have not specifically asked for them.

    Posted March 23, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  19. Nela wrote:

    @Graham Simmons: Why is it so bad if charities are collecting money for other causes through the Japan funds? Who cares if it is somewhat deceitful – it is not like the charities are stealing money for their personal use or for non-charity purposes. The aid money is still going to somewhere where it is needed, but just may not be receiving enough attention at this moment. The charities are still doing an overall good. I find it disgusting for people to say that money should not be donated to Japan funds because it may go elsewhere. Doesn’t anyone agree with this?

    Posted March 23, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Permalink
  20. Michael Natividad wrote:

    It’s not just the redcross that are crooks we the people of this world only want to make our pockets bigger from the small man to the big man we only think about our selfs god is get so upset and this is why all this disaters are here. It’s each and ever one of us. Think about it money is the root of all bad things. The devil is here this is.

    Posted March 24, 2011 at 6:08 am | Permalink
  21. Teach wrote:

    @Nela: No, I don’t agree with that. To play on people’s heartstrings about the Japan disaster and then use that money for some other purpose is stealing. If you say to me, “Give me money because I want to help people in Japan.” and I give you money because I want to help people in Japan, then you are stealing if you then help people in Chicago with that money.

    If I want to help people in other places, then I will give an undesignated donation.

    Charities should be honest about how they spend other people’s money. They don’t have the right to use the money for an unintended cause.

    Posted March 24, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink
  22. Sean Akamine wrote:

    Laura Freschi,
    Will you be updating this article? It is having a negative impact on driving donations to the American Red Cross Japan Tsunami Relief fund.


    Posted March 24, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  23. Zach wrote:

    I think it is important for aid organizations to use events like what happened in Japan to their advantage. When something this catastrophic happens it gets a lot of media coverage and kind of pulls at the heart strings a little bit. As long as you give to a group that you trust will do good with the money I don’t think it is important that it goes to a specific place. But that the organization use the funds in the best way possible. And the further into this crisis we get Japan may find itself in over its head and then request aid, at which point the funds will already be there. But if not they wont be wasted either.

    Posted March 24, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  24. Whitman wrote:

    If the Japanese Red Cross doesn’t want any outside assistance, we should know by them saying that, that they are well capable of handling this disaster on their own. As Americans, it is our human nature to help those in need, but with Japan having the third largest economy in the world, shows that they have obviously been doing something right; and will be fine on their own, even during this tragic time. Also @Nela: I disagree with you as well, if someone is intentionally sending money to Japan, it should go to Japan. Instead of some other project the donator could have no interest in. Last but not least, that is false advertising, which in my opinion is very unethical.

    Posted March 24, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  25. Matt wrote:

    I have mixed feelings about the whole topic. I think it’s great that NGO’s are raising money along with Red Cross to help support the Japan victims. Although a lot of money has been raised there is not a sure way of knowing exactly where your money will go; it could go to another project of the Red Cross. Also, I understand that Japan does not want our help and claims to have all the resources to help such a disaster. I don’t see why they are doing this when we are practically giving them money, why wouldn’t they just take it. I do think it’s bad on our part to keep donating when we don’t know for sure yet if it will even go to Japan.

    Posted March 25, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  26. Josh wrote:

    I honestly cannot figure out if and why someone would give to a charity disaster relief organization, and then be offended if the money did not go to the exact location that they intended. I do agree there are lots of real uses for donations worldwide that often get zero to little media coverage.
    So my question is, should charities even have qualifications and restriction abilities on donations? It seems strange that anyone with true charitable intentions would prefer that a specific geographic region of people receive aid and help while others are not worthy of it. I think charities should focus their efforts and tactics to regional or event based situations, but I do not think charities should allow people should qualify their donations to specific occurrences, even if that is what motivated them to donate.

    Posted March 25, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink
  27. Kyle wrote:

    I completely agree with this post; it seems all too often that people only donate money in times of crisis or emergency, when in fact there are hundreds of places that could use these resources to prevent said possible crises/emergencies. The recent development of the increase of nonprofit charities trying to profit from this disaster seems disturbing. Often in these situations, the money being collected gets skimmed off the top by the collection company and sometimes the money can take months to get to an area that has been affected. It would be somewhat ideal if a watchdog group were created to monitor these nonprofit charities to ensure that all the resources gathered are dispensed properly.

    Posted March 25, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  28. mico wrote:

    Here are reasons why you should donate to Japan.

    Some people are saying you shouldn’t donate Japan because Japan is
    such a wealthy country. Its true that Japan is one of the wealthiest
    countrys and there are some poor countrys who are suffering.
    But, Japan needs to rebuild and get back to normal as soon as possible
    for the world.
    There are a lot of people related to Japan all over the world.
    Billions of people work for Japanese companies like SONY, NISSAN,
    If those companies goes to bankrupt, it would cause a lot of economic
    damage all over the world including the US. Not only people who work
    for Japanese companies, but there are also a lot of people related to
    Japan. BESTBUY makes a lot of benefit from selling PS3, A lot of
    artists go to Japan tour and sell a lot of tickets and CDs, Japanese
    people spend a lot of money for traveling outside of Japan (in fact,
    after the earthquake, its so quiet in Hawaii because of no tourist
    from Japan), and many book stores and TV companies make benefits for
    selling Japanese comic books, and playing Anime.

    Some people say its not fair to help rich country, but why not? Japan
    has been helping so many countries, but they don’t get helped when
    they are in crisis? Because of they are rich?

    Its like if you are a doctor, and there are 2 patients waiting for
    your operation. You can only help one. One is always been your client
    and support you a lot, and the other is poor. You choose poor one only
    because you feel more sorry for the poor one?
    If you help Japan, Japan will be able to help Africa after they get
    back to normal and work hard again.

    Japanese people have strong obligation. I’m not saying those people in
    poor countries don’t have such things, but there are not much they can

    31million dollars donated to Africa from Japan last year. It won’t be
    that much until Japan will get back to normal.
    Also in economy side, Japan needs to get back to normal as soon as possible.

    The money you were going to spend for Japan is definitely worth it if
    you choose right organization.

    There is a news that American red cross gathers all money for Japan,
    but they decided to send it to Japan for only 10%, and rest of the
    money goes to other places.
    It’s just not fair. People who donate money were wishing it goes to
    Japan. They can’t decide where money should go. What if your kid is in
    some other country, and you send money to the school the kid goes to,
    and the school decided to give these money to other kids because they
    are poor even though your kid is in crisis and need money.

    I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t donate money to other country, but
    it doesn’t make sense that you don’t need to help Japan because Japan
    is a wealthy country. They weren’t naturally wealthy, (look their
    products, its all creativness) they made effort to be wealthy. They do
    have rights to get donated. And you don’t have rights to stop people
    to donate to Japan.

    By the way, people in Japan don’t say “DONATE US”. They are not just
    begging help or appealing. They are trying to stand up by themselves.
    Is it too bad to help them?

    Don’t get me wrong, donating to Africa is still good thing. If you
    have money to give and you are willing to do it, go ahead. But I
    disagree that money that supposed to go to Japan is taken for other

    Posted March 27, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

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  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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