Who cares?—NGOs challenges in providing aid to post-disaster areas
Photo Credit To Sheila Sund

Who cares?—NGOs challenges in providing aid to post-disaster areas

As we mark 5 years of relief and rehabilitation after the disasters of the Great East Japan Earthquake, its more severely damaging Tsunami and the attending nuclear disaster caused by destruction of the three nuclear reactors in Fukushima, we should review the relief funding that has enabled Japan to reach its current level of recovery.


More than 160 nations provided more than 1 billion USD in support with 750 million USD originating from the US alone. While the number of entities supporting the recovery process and total contributions themselves are remarkable, there are several trends in the flow of funds to this disaster that are distinctly different to preceding international disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

More than 160 nations provided more than 1 billion USD in support with 750 million USD originating from the US alone.

The first and most striking difference is the lack of an apparent coordinated public appeal for support to the disaster relief. In the immediate aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami and again in the Haiti earthquake international news coverage showed US presidents standing with notable public figures making an appeal to support the disaster relief efforts to those areas. These appeals were made repeatedly and followed with high profile visits to the affected areas in an effort to keep the calamities in the public eye. Immediate action by major NGOs accustomed to dispatching teams to assess needs and deliver aid spearheaded private sector efforts as well.

This masked the reality of the type of funding and assistance that was actually building within the US and elsewhere.

In the case of the Great East Japan Earthquake, none of this was apparent. Rather, the reaction was similar to the 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile the preceding year, where official condolences and aid was offered. According to Sarajean Rossitto, NGO consultant in Tokyo, the government of Japan initially requested that agencies wait until it had fully assessed the situation and needs of the disaster before making relief strategies. Within the US an apparent lack of donations and action on the US side made headlines, resulting in a public debate by pundits as to whether it was appropriate or even necessary to send assistance to such a wealthy nation. This masked the reality of the type of funding and assistance that was actually building within the US and elsewhere. Fundraising by individuals, businesses and societies with personal, business and cultural connections to Japan, even cities with sister city relationships to cities in Japan were moving to help but each without knowledge of the others who were similarly active.

In their lack of knowledge of appropriate entities in Japan to reach out to, the additional cultural and linguistic barriers, and the underdeveloped charitable culture within Japan, foreign NGO’s encountered unforeseen difficulties in their efforts to support the disaster relief. Although in 2010, there were more than 40,000 registered non-profit organizations in Japan, 50% had less than one full time staff member and an annual operating budget smaller than 100,000 USD, which limited their operational capacity and the scope of their activities. These factors significantly slowed the flow of funds to Japan resulting in these funds being put to use later in the rebuilding process which has proven to be more beneficial to the devastated areas in the long run.

However, the complexities of the disaster itself and the pre-existing social problems of the area necessitated great sensitivity and flexibility in consideration of local viewpoints and culture differences on the part of relief providers.

The complexity and ongoing nature of the disaster coupled with the sheer vastness of the affected area and the number of displaced persons inhibited an immediate and effective response by the government, civil society, and international community and required a rethinking of strategies in every aspect. The triple catastrophes affected several million people. Close to 500,000 people were evacuated, 15,890 died, 2,589 went missing, and 6,152 were injured.

Different than the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake in which NGO participation was seen as a challenge to the government’s authority, this time it was seen as a given. However, the complexities of the disaster itself and the pre-existing social problems of the area necessitated great sensitivity and flexibility in consideration of local viewpoints and culture differences on the part of relief providers. While short-term relief efforts were more easily implemented, the long term effects of the disaster require specialized and ongoing long-term commitments that Japanese NPOs are not capable of providing on their own. With this in mind foreign NGOs have been providing training and support to the local NGO/ NPOs as part of their disaster relief capacity building projects. Additionally, as the 3/11 disasters revealed the immense complexities developed nations face in disaster recovery and recognizing the need for greater information sharing internationally between NGO/ NPO entities, forums and workshops have been carried out with disaster relief to developed countries as their focus.

Japanese citizens gave more for this disaster than ever in history, but nearly 85% of domestic contributions were made to government agencies or the country’s traditional Gienkin and Shienkin funds. Shienkin funds are allocated to support efforts while Gienkin are distributions of cash given directly to survivors of the disaster. Both funds are created in direct response to disasters, in this case by The Japan Red Cross, Central Community Chest of Japan, NHK, and NHK Public Welfare Organization. Public announcements of the start of collections are made to inform the country of the funds and donation methods. Although the gienkin funds are meant to be distributed directly to the survivors immediately following the disaster there were lengthy delays before the funds were actually made available to survivors of the triple disasters. The usual practice of establishing a committee to determine a fair distribution ratio based on the amount available versus the specific, stated needs of the affected municipalities or prefectures was severely hampered by the loss of official records and government officials who normally would have been in charge of the process on both levels underscoring the differences in scope and magnitude of the disasters and the government’s limited capacity to cope with it.

After the 2011 multiple disasters, Japan saw another rapid increase in the number of new organizations. As of June 2015, more than 50,000 organizations have been incorporated under the NPO Law.

Sendai Airport after the tsunami. / Credits: U.S. Air Force Photo/ Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse.
Sendai Airport after the tsunami. / Credits: U.S. Air Force Photo/ Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse.

Not only were there differences in culture and dialects between the people of Tohoku and outsiders from other regions of Japan, there were differences in NGO culture between foreign and Japanese NGOs which resulted in added frustration on both sides as each tried to acknowledge and adapt to the needs of the other in terms of documentation, transparency, and accountability to stakeholders while trying to provide as immediate as possible alleviation of suffering to the victims of the disaster. In the long run, the disaster has provided a rich learning experience for NGO’s both inside and out of Japan in the provision of aid to a developed country.

The outpouring of donations also helped give birth to an extraordinary number of US-Japan exchange programs. A JCIE study found that more than 150 grassroots exchanges, many of which had the goal of helping children and other survivors deal with the psychosocial impact of the disaster, were created after the disaster, often with funds raised by US groups.

Although funding into the disaster zone has slowed remarkably, hundreds of Japanese groups continue working to support the recovery. Today, the role of international donors has decreased and most non-Japanese organizations have wound down their fundraising efforts with only a handful of groups still raising funds. What has become clear is that more than government initiatives, more than humanitarian agencies, it is the strong web of ties between individuals and societies across national borders that has significantly contributed to the recovery process in Japan. What remains to be seen is whether this type of broad-based organic movement in disaster relief is a globally sustainable movement.


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