Why Waiting To Give to the Japanese Recovery Efforts Is a Good Idea

03/17/2011 06:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's natural to want to immediately give to Japan's recovery efforts. With all the destruction wrought by a major earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant failing, it would seem they could use all the help they can get. So my suggestion is going to seem counter-intuitive, but I agree with GiveWell's recommendation:

At this point we strongly recommend holding off on giving to this relief/recovery effort.

And Brigid Slipka's decision:

So here's what I'm doing: I'm taking that impetus to give and pulling out $100. Then I'm putting it aside for a month or so. After a bit more information is out there, I'll figure out where and how to give.

The reason I suggest you wait is because Japan has thus far only allowed/requested very limited international assistance.

The Government of Japan has received offers for assistance from 91 countries, and has accepted assistance from about 15 countries based on assessed needs, which is mostly specialized international urban search and rescue (USAR) teams and medical teams.

If you read the fine print in most nonprofits appeals for this disaster, you'll see phrases such as: "prepared to assist," "readying a team," "stand at the ready," "assessing the situation." But few have actually deployed staff. And there is the very real possibility that many of the organizations currently collecting donations for the recovery efforts might not be allowed to operate in Japan.

There's a good reason for this. Just because a major disaster has occurred, does not mean that the country is not capable of responding to it themselves. Just as Chile was able to respond to their earthquake far better than Haiti.

While it might seem like the more organizations helping the better, it's not actually true. Having organizations pour in from all over the world, with different regulations, priorities, donors, and governing boards can lead to confusion, duplications and gaps in assistance, and a slower response. After the 2004 tsunami, the flood of aid organizations and people arriving to help was often called "the second tsunami." It was like the Wild West, very chaotic and no one knew what anyone else was doing, which was why I was brought in. Trying to get organizations to coordinate and cooperate was like herding cats. Haiti faced even more problems with the 1,000, 4,000, 12,000, many more than 12,000 (all numbers told to me by people operating in Haiti) nonprofits.

While coordination after disasters continues to improve, there are still some major issues and roadblocks. I've often felt that if a country has the resources to coordinate, monitor, and guide the work of hundreds of aid organizations, then they have the resources to just handle the relief efforts themselves.

Another common issue after disasters is the competition for space in airports and seaports to bring in staff and relief supplies. There can be some major problems getting goods into port and then clearing them through customs. Goods that are not properly cleared and moved away form port quickly clog the damaged ports. Limiting the number and types of organizations allowed to assist reduces problems and critical delays at the ports.

Problems can even arise when one organizations collects donations for a sister organization. For the sake of this example, let's call them Organization USA and Organization Japan. Donating to Organization USA is generally not the same as donating to Organization Japan, even though they're sister nonprofits. This is because Organization USA has the responsibility to ensure that the donations they receive are spent properly. To do this, they often hold back a percentage of your donation to pay for monitoring the work of Organization Japan. Organization USA may require Organization Japan to do certain types of projects that Organization Japan wouldn't otherwise do, or Organization USA may require special financial or project reporting from Organization Japan. This extra layer of bureaucracy can be very unappealing and even burdensome to Organization Japan. It may be preferable to them to not accept donations from Organization USA and instead just work with the money they raise on their own. So even though Organization USA is raising funds for the recovery, they may not be accepted by Organization Japan.

Right now, from all accounts, the Japanese government is doing a good job of leading the relief efforts. It's wise to give them time to assess the needs and determine which organization can best meet those needs. Once a nonprofit has official permission to work in the country, then you can donate to them.

Also, consider donating to Japanese nonprofits. They're just as capable as U.S. ones and it cuts out that extra layer of bureaucracy and expectations.


For further reading on this issue see:

The ugly game of relief for Japan -- Humanosphere
Guest post from an aid worker

How Do We Help Japan? -- UN Dispatch
Suggests waiting, along with a few other ideas.