Don’t give money to Japan

So pleads Felix Salmon:

We went through this after the Haiti earthquake, and all of the arguments which applied there apply to Japan as well. Earmarking funds is a really good way of hobbling relief organizations and ensuring that they have to leave large piles of money unspent in one place while facing urgent needs in other places. And as Matthew Bishop and Michael Green said last year, we are all better at responding to human suffering caused by dramatic, telegenic emergencies than to the much greater loss of life from ongoing hunger, disease and conflict. That often results in a mess of uncoordinated NGOs parachuting in to emergency areas with lots of good intentions, where a strategic official sector response would be much more effective. Meanwhile, the smaller and less visible emergencies where NGOs can do the most good are left unfunded.

In the specific case of Japan, there’s all the more reason not to donate money. Japan is a wealthy country which is responding to the disaster, among other things, by printing hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of new money. Money is not the bottleneck here: if money is needed, Japan can raise it. On top of that, it’s still extremely unclear how or where organizations like globalgiving intend on spending the money that they’re currently raising for Japan — so far we’re just told that the money “will help survivors and victims get necessary services,” which is basically code for “we have no idea what we’re going to do with the money, but we’ll probably think of something.”

Reader thoughts?

15 thoughts on “Don’t give money to Japan

  1. Felix is not arguing against donating to aid agencies which are helping out in the Japanese crisis. In fact he is encouraging it. He is only arguing against earmarking your donations so that they can only be spent in Japan. Seems reasonable to me.

  2. I heard a speaker from the Red Cross once speak about this. You would not believe how many earmarked donations they got on 9/11… (ok, maybe you would)

  3. Bottom line – aid agencies want to spend your money on their administrative overhead. Please don’t require them to spend it on actual aid!

  4. I read this article yesterday and really wanted to ask globalgiving what their response would be. Wasn’t quite in me to. But I did receive an email from them today that they sent out to their whole group asking us to “help japan.” There was no real indication of how, where, when… They simply mentioned International Medical Corps and Save the Children and “other organizations.” And from what I understand International Medical Corps would then also redistribute the funds to smaller organizations. There was a promise to inform us later but there’s already been so much money raised. It might even concern me more that people are giving and giving to this disaster and not really caring how it will be spent.

    Its hard not to feel as though some aid agencies are taking advantage of the crisis. Especially when 15% of donations are taken as fees.

    And looking again today. Their goal for fundraising keeps increasing. Yesterday it was $800,000 and today its $2 million.

    For an organization that prides itself on due diligence and asks that all funds be allocated to specific projects and specific things.. this just doesn’t seem to fit.

  5. I think it is quite admiral to preach restraint with regard to aid contributions. Nonetheless, intelligent aid and donor’s heart strings are often mutually exclusive. How can NPO’s provide meaningful ways for their constituents to feel connected to the Japanese people right now without asking for money?

  6. Hi,
    My name is Kevin Conroy and I work for Thank you for raising these questions as we also agree it’s important to make sure that international aid, be it for a disaster or another cause, is done in an efficient, transparent manner.

    GlobalGiving has a long history of raising funds for international disasters and disbursing them to high-impact organizations. For instance, here are all of the projects we supported after the Haiti earthquake. As a part of our platform, we require all projects to post reports noting what we’ve done with the funds. You can read about the impact these projects had here:

    For Japan, we set up a fund to collect donations from the public and will be distributing those funds to a variety of organizations on the ground. As of this moment, some of these funds will go to International Medical Corp and Save the Children. We are also sourcing grassroots organizations in Japan that are NOT getting the same kind of media coverage that the Red Cross is getting. It is our goal to support community-based efforts around the world and provide transparent updates. We will be posting more details to our fund as they become available.

    We have been increasing our goal as the need for aid has become more clear. We are focusing our efforts on finding high impact organizations that will use these funds responsibly. We have several more organizations in addition to International Medical Corps and Save the Children that we are hoping to disburse funds to. I don’t want to name them at this moment as we’re still finalizing details, but once they are finalized, we will be posting and sending updates out.

    We are very happy to discuss this with anyone. Feel free to email me at [email protected] or tweet at us at

    Kevin Conroy

  7. While I can understand the emotional desire to “help” by donating funds, the reality is, as the author points out, far removed from any need for such donations.

    Instead, perhaps the rest of us should make a real donation and attempt to learn some important lessons about energy consumption and energy production. If we truly want to balance environmental sustainability with a high level of energy consumption then we’re going to have to spend more on energy production. Nuclear was one means of doing so, and of moving away from fossil fuels, renewables are another. Yet our current abhorrence towards increased taxation leaves government little able to direct the kind of investment towards such projects that is necessary to make a meaningful shift. In short, unless we’re willing to foot the bill on investing in new forms of energy production, and unless the even more improbable happens and we cut down on consumption, then we’ll increasingly miss the lesson that Japan is providing us.

  8. I made an unrestricted donation to Peace Winds this morning (the US affiliate so I get my tax deduction).

    I figure 1) if I’m going to donate I want to donate to a Japanese org. They’re on the ground, they have skilled staff and they understand better than anyone else what is needed. I’ve seen Peace Winds work around the world and I’ve been impressed.

    2) I wanted to give an unrestricted contribution because Peace Winds does a lot of great DRR work throughout Asia and if they don’t need the funds for relief in Japan I’d like to see them go to helping other countries in the region step up their preparedness.

    (my disclosure, I work for an NGO that is fundraising for Japan and has a Japanese affiliate).

  9. My wife is japanese and the report she gets from there is that Japan *does* need the *monetary* help. The extend of damage is almost immeasurable, and the local organizations are not only overwhelmed, but it requires a lot of money to try to help all those who have lost their home, and all fund can help.

    I’ve just seen what D wrote. I don’t need to add much more. Do give, but give to a Japanese org or an organization that has a local branch, it’s a costly nonsense for an organization that isn’t locally implanted to try go there, but your money will be hugely useful to those that are.

    The red cross has already given some money to Japon, but at the moment it’s still minuscule with regards to what is needed. If you don’t trust a smaller org, you can give to them, they have a large network locally that’s already fully committed.

  10. @jmdesp: Do you know of other locally based organizations? The only three I have been able to get information about are Peace Winds, Japanese Red Cross Society and Second Harvest Japan. Thanks.

  11. @Anne : I’m sorry I’m not an expert on the other locally based organizations. I just wanted to get through the message that saying “it’s Japan, do they actually need the help ?” would be as stupid as saying “It’s the USA, do these Katrina affected people actually need the help ?”. Right now for those people life is freezing under the snow, no electricity, no gaz, hours long lines for food and water.

    But like for Katrina, on the long term, the most costly will be to aid them reconstruct their live, so you may chose to keep some of what you intend to give now, and give it once you find a way to help for that.

  12. The Japan Society of the UK are collecting donations for local Japanese NPO’s on the ground
    I’m not sure if cash is the answer right now because there is nothing to buy locally. I beleive the Japanese government need to establish infrastructure and effective supply routes first.

  13. If the US goes through a similar natural disaster wouldn’t you like developed nations to help. People from outside of the country may say but the US is a rich country, they don’t need our help. But that is not true, all countries need the solidarity of others in time of need.

  14. Just thought y’all would like to know that earlier today I received an email from Global Giving, describing in detail exactly where donations through them were being designated (i.e. to which aid orgs). I found it amusing after having read Salmon’s post and all of the subsequent comments…