Japan: Our impulse to help vs. How we can actually help

We’ve all felt compelled to do something about the horrors unfolding in Japan. This is by far the worst disaster in the modern history of the country, and it’s difficult to not feel moved by the tragic images of destruction and human suffering.

As you’ve likely heard, Japan is probably the best equipped nation in the world to deal with this disaster. It is amazing to think that the size of the disaster has been larger the government’s capacity to deal with the crisis completely, but that is the nature of a tsunami generated by a 9.0 quake (the fifth most powerful ever recorded on earth). Don’t forget, however that Japan still has a very effective centralized system for a coordinated response: distributing aid and providing the services necessary to take care of its displaced population. The channels are still in place, and any aid organization that isn’t yet established on the ground trying to help has the potential to duplicate efforts.

There are a few basic things we should remember when we consider our response:

When you give to disasters, do not expect to know how your money is being spent. Focus instead on giving to highly reputable organizations with the following:

1. A track record of working in the country.

2. A track record of dealing with disasters.

Disasters often become a proxy for our realization that there is tremendous suffering in the world. The reality is that there is always tremendous need, and the organizations that are best equipped to deal with disasters usually already have established programs that have been funded partially by the flood of disaster giving in the past. Unrestricted giving to reputable organizations is the best way to ensure that disasters as a whole are managed properly when they occur. I’ll post some links to organizations that are doing this well shortly.

If you’re interested in actually having an impact that you can track and understand with photos and pictures, consider giving to an organization that is working on non-disaster related development interventions elsewhere, with a much longer window of opportunity. Disaster giving is notoriously ineffective when it goes to the wrong organizations. Ensure that your dollars are making an impact by giving to the right ones.