WASHINGTON - When disaster strikes, the natural impulse for many is to donate their hard-earned money to help, whether it is in a poor nation like Haiti or an industrialized country such as Japan. The headline on Felix Salmon's column last week, "Don't donate to Japan" was jarring, to say the least, and sent a confused message to millions wanting to be compassionate.
The 8.9 magnitude earthquake, ensuing tsunami, and threat from nuclear reactors dealt a trio of misery that even Japan, a highly organized, wealthy and efficient nation, needs help to overcome. Help does not always come through governments but via its caring and generous citizens. In the United States, when a tornado destroys a small town, for example, it is often local and other national charities who step in to fill gaps.
USAID has been directing potential donors to my organization's website, where we list members of our alliance who are either working in Japan, have sister organizations there or Japanese partners responding to this calamity. By compiling this list, we give donors an opportunity to look at who is doing what, where and with whom and make an educated choice over which charity to support.
International NGOs are not just "parachuting" in to help in Japan. Assistance is being done in a coordinated way, with Japan's government and local groups leading the person-to-person relief effort and international NGOs responding to Japanese requests.
Mr. Salmon raises the issue of restricted (or earmarked money) and non-restricted funds. Whether to restrict your donation or put it in a general pot of emergency funds is not new. It is a question of personal choice. Donors who give regularly know this and they usually have a preferred charity to which they give often, both to special appeals and to general funds. When you restrict funds, you have made a personal choice where you would like the money spent. When you give to unrestricted funds, you trust an institution to spend that money where the needs are greatest. This might mean, money you donated because you felt strongly about Japanese suffering, could ultimately cure a sick child in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Darfur. Either way, a vulnerable person has been helped.
Reputable charities are clear up front where the money will go. Our member NGOs are committed to a set of standards governing fund-raising and their finances, which includes that contributions made during an emergency appeal "shall be used as promised or implied". We also publish guidelines for the public on our web site, telling potential donors to "do their homework" and treat this as an investment.
So what should people do?
It may sound crass, but cash really is the best option as it gives U.S.-based international NGOs and their Japanese partners the flexibility to buy what is needed. Since the earthquake, we have received many calls from people wanting either to volunteer or to donate bulk shipments of items. While well-intentioned, these donated items can actually be a hindrance as they clog up airports and ports and could be bought at a fraction of the cost locally. We also caution people against hopping on planes to volunteer. What a disaster of this magnitude requires, is professionals, much like U.S. firefighters and search and rescue teams sent by USAID to help.
When Hurricane Katrina struck America in 2005, many of the victims of that disaster were comforted from the emotional and monetary support that came from abroad. Just as in Hurricane Katrina, there will sadly be thousands of people who will likely fall through the cracks of Japan's social security net. Japanese civil society, with funds from U.S. and other donors, will help fill that gap. That is where the generosity of the American people and many other nations, make a difference.