By Quentin Fottrell
It seems like an odd question with, perhaps, an obvious answer. Should you donate to the relief efforts in Japan, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami? Answer: Yes, if you wish.
But some commentators disagree. A growing chorus of critics and websites is now saying Japan doesn’t need your money. Messages from charitable organizations have been unclear. And now well-meaning, compassionate consumers are understandably confused.
The Red Cross is a case in point.
Bulletins, like this early one (PDF), from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, or IFRC, are still being picked up by newspapers and online media outlets as evidence that charities working in Japan don’t need your assistance. The truth is a little more complex than that.
Paul Conneally, spokesman for the IFRC in Geneva, says that the bulletin was issued in the immediate aftermath of the disaster to “institutional donors” – like the European Union – and does not cover the long recovery phase, which he says will take years.
Others in the organization say the bulletin has been widely misinterpreted. Naoki Kokawa, director of the International Department at the Japanese Red Cross in Tokyo, says the Japanese Red Cross didn’t issue an “international appeal” as a specific tool to fundraise, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t want or need your assistance.
“The statement is certainly misleading and will be misunderstood by those outside of Red Cross/Red Crescent who do not know our system,” he says.
An international appeal would be centralized in Geneva, Switzerland as it was when the Red Cross raised money in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, Kokawa says, but media reports that charities working in Japan don’t need or welcome money are untrue.
“This message that the Japanese Red Cross was not asking or accepting money was disseminated around the world,” he tells Pay Dirt. “That’s not true. We don’t need Geneva to manage external funding. We can manage it alone. But we need lots of money.”
This is reflected in the IFRC’s latest bulletin (pdf), which clarifies, “JRCS is receiving cash contributions from some Red Cross Red Crescent National Societies in the spirit of solidarity.”
For now, Kokawa says that cash is better than – say – socks: “We appreciate external support and we do accept support in the form of cash, in principle. An overwhelming amount of in-kind donations and influx of human support often create more confusion and problems than help.”
Not everyone is so sure. Elie Hassenfeld, co-founder of the New York-based non-profit foundation Give Well, says it’s not entirely clear that Japan requires funds. “The economy is one of the largest in the world and one of the richest in the world. It has a good system in place to be prepared for disasters.”
Give Well evaluates charities and specifically recommends Doctors Without Borders, a non-profit international medical humanitarian organization whose work spans 60 countries. Hassenfeld says it’s honest and transparent. “There are so many other organizations out there pushing donors to give to Japan. In the event that people give too much, the money goes to the general organization.”
In the meantime, consumer groups continue to warn against suspect charities and express caution when giving online, but also encourage those who wish to donate to be aware that charities may have set targets for specific disasters, and have fundraising and administrative costs too. If in doubt, take the time to do research online or pick up the phone and ask questions. If you do decide to donate to Japan, make sure your money is going through a legitimate organization.
Are you unsure about whether Japan needs your help?