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Relief agencies respond with restraint in Japan aid efforts

Thursday, March 17, 2011 | 12:35 p.m. CDT

NEW YORK  — The images from Japan's earthquake and tsunami are as staggering as those from the quake 14 months ago in Haiti. Yet relief agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere are responding with far more restraint as they defer decision-making to the Japanese.

InterAction, an umbrella group for U.S. relief agencies active abroad, advises donors to give to agencies with partner organizations in Japan that would be best placed to spend funds wisely. It says there is minimal need at this stage either for donated goods or throngs of foreign volunteers.

"We need to be humble, so this is not about Japan being overrun by foreigners and having to deal with all kinds of wild and wacky goods showing up at Tokyo airport," said Joel Charney, InterAction's vice president for humanitarian policy.

"Find an organization that can demonstrate to your satisfaction that they have meaningful links in Japan, and give money to them," he said. "It's that simple."

Thus far, the pace of donations by Americans is comparable to the response after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, but lags far behind the response after the Haiti earthquake. Through Wednesday, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, donations for Japan had surpassed $64 million — less than one-third the response for Haiti at the same stage.

One reason for the gap, relief experts said, is that Haiti was known to many Americans as one of the world's poorest countries, while Japan is among the most affluent and renowned for its disaster-preparedness expertise.

Japan has taken the lead thus far in search-and-rescue efforts, and positioning relief supplies to assist displaced people, though it has welcomed help from the U.S. military and other selected foreign sources.

Over the coming months of rebuilding, Charney said he expects the Japanese to remain largely self-sufficient. "I don't see this as a kind of Haiti-style mega-emergency, in terms of a substantial international presence for an extended period of time."

Several large U.S. nonprofits have the benefit of working with an affiliate or partner organization in Japan, and are channeling donations to those groups.

Among them is the American Red Cross, which through Wednesday had received gifts or pledges of $47 million from U.S. donors for relief efforts in Japan. It has already sent $10 million of that total to the Japanese Red Cross Society, an experienced organization with about 2 million volunteers and an ongoing role running scores of hospitals in Japan.

"They said they would be most grateful for our help," said Suzy DeFrancis, chief public affairs officer for the American Red Cross. "The needs are immense — they are still determining where they would spend the money we sent."

She noted that the Japanese Red Cross had been generous toward America — sending $17 million after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and $12 million after Hurricane Katrina.

The U.S. branch of the Salvation Army also is providing support to its Japanese counterpart, which has been active since 1895 and currently has three response teams active in the disaster zone distributing blankets, hot meals and other relief items.

Major George Hood, a spokesman at the charity's U.S. headquarters, said it had received about $2 million in donations from Americans earmarked for the Japanese relief effort.

Like the Salvation Army, the U.S. branch of Save the Children is part of a worldwide network that includes a branch in Japan engaged in the disaster response.

"Before we send in staff to help, we're relying on the team on the ground for feedback," said Lane Hartill, a U.S.-based spokesman. "We don't want to rush in and start reacting prematurely, doing more harm than good."

As of Wednesday, Save the Children had raised more than $5 million worldwide for relief efforts in Japan, more than 90 percent from the United States.

World Vision, a global Christian aid organization headquartered in Federal Way, Wash., has a Japanese affiliate with a 75-member staff that customarily focuses on disasters in other countries but is now plunging into home-front relief efforts.

Kenjiro Ban, World Vision's emergency affairs manager in Japan, has worked on disaster relief in Haiti, Pakistan, India and elsewhere. He said the needs in Japan "are as bad as anything I've seen globally."

World Vision often focuses its efforts on children. Geraldine Ryerson-Cruz, a spokeswoman at the U.S. headquarters, said one immediate initiative would be to establish zones in hard-hit areas where children could safely enjoy supervised play and other activities.

She said World Vision, as of Wednesday, had received $2.25 million in donations for relief efforts in Japan.

Compared to the Haiti quake aftermath, U.S. relief agencies have sent relatively few American staffers to the disaster area, figuring that Japan — for the most part — has enough professionals and volunteers on the scene.

Among those in the disaster zone are two California doctors sent by the International Medical Corps, based in Santa Monica, Calif. A corps spokeswoman, Margaret Aguirre, said the doctors are trying to assess possible gaps in health care supplies that could be filled with help from the U.S.

Medical needs also are the priority for AmeriCares, a Stamford, Conn. based organization, which has raised $1.5 million for the Japanese disaster and deployed one of its relief experts to Tokyo to assess what sort of shortages might emerge.

Christoph Gorder, AmeriCares' senior vice president of global programs, noted that Japan has a relatively large elderly population, including many people with chronic health problems that require medication.

"Keeping the continuity of care for them is a real challenge," Gorder said. "It has to be highly precise."

Gorder said he was struck by the contrast between the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan.

"Most of Japan's health system has survived to a reasonable degree — the hospitals are functioning," he said. "The challenge will be coordination, meeting those needs in an agile way. But it's not like Haiti, where thousands of U.S. medical professionals had to go there."

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