Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Disasters and Dollars

It's not always easy, but most journalists try to keep an emotional arms' length distance from a story.

Emotional involvement can cloud one's judgment. So we set aside personal feelings when the need arises.

But we're not soulless automatons. When I witnessed the apocalyptic disaster that is Japan this past week, I reached for my checkbook and contacted the Red Cross.

I've done it before. After Katrina. After Haiti.

But this time I felt a twinge of donor's remorse. Primarily, I wondered how much of my donation would get to the people in need.

I remembered an Associated Press report from Haiti on the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake reporting that "a year after the quake, workers are still finding bodies in the rubble. About a million people remain homeless. ... A cholera epidemic that erupted outside the quake zone has killed more than 3,600 people. Less than 5 percent of the debris has been cleared."

And this was after donations that by some estimates exceeded a billion dollars. Then there was something else.

Katrina struck my country. It hurt my people. My family lived in New Orleans for a number of years so the feelings ran deep.

I didn't hesitate on Haiti, a nation so dirt poor that it needed humanitarian relief on an unprecedented scale. Hundreds of thousands died. Some 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial structures collapsed.

But Japan is a wealthy nation. It's a highly developed and educated country whose GDP is similar to the United States. And like the U.S., it's not a place one thinks of as needing international aid.

Did they really need my donation?

Apparently I wasn't alone in asking that question. Through midweek, charities raised more than $47 million in the first four days after the disaster struck in Japan. By contrast, four days after the earthquake struck in Haiti last year, more than $150million had been raised.

Some organizations aren't event asking for money. Nicole Wallace, a senior writer for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, told MSNBC that 14 relief organizations her publication spoke with were not actively raising funds, either because they focus only on developing countries or because they were holding off to see if they were needed.

And while U.S. corporations have promised $50 million in donations, it's largely because many have close business ties to Japan and have employees there. But the money has to come from somewhere and the cost will probably be passed on to you.

Finally, Japan rejected most international offers of help following the Kobe earthquake in 1995 that killed more than 6,000 people.

So are we foolish to donate to Japan earthquake/tsunami relief?


First of all, it fulfills an emotional need. We cannot watch the innocent victims of a disaster without the feeling that we need to do something, anything to help. It's what makes us human. That applies globally as well. Foreign countries offered the U.S. $854 million following Katrina.

Second, donations to a reputable charity do some good. The American Red Cross is channeling donations to the Japanese Red Cross which, in the first 24 hours, dispatched 62 response teams. These medical relief teams - made up of about 400 doctors, nurses and support staff - are already providing assistance in affected areas through mobile medical clinics.

And if your donation isn't put to work in Japan, it will be used for the next disaster whenever and wherever that will occur.

Finally, the nuclear component of this disaster makes it unparalleled in recent history.

A massive earthquake followed by a killer tsunami that may trigger a nuclear meltdown would be rejected as unrealistic for a movie script.

And yet it happened. Real people suffer and die. Entire cities are demolished. Hundreds of thousands are displaced.

It will take all of us to put Japan back together again.

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