Japan: How To (and Not To) Help

by Michael Mullaney on March 16, 2011

Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson said in a campus-wide memo yesterday that the university will make a $10,000 contribution to three agencies, AmeriCares, Save the Children, and the American Red Cross, for a total of $30,000. In addition, she announced that the Institute would match any donations made to these organizations by members of the RPI community, through March 23. Click here for details.

Rensselaer students – even though they’re on spring break this week – are also mobilizing. Students in the Japanese Cultural Association and in the Pi Delta Psi fraternity, with families and friends in Japan, along with the Community Advocates worked with the Dean of Students Office to re-activate RPI Relief, an organization established to raise money for survivors in times of disaster. More information, including details of a few fundraising events next week, can be found here.

As we always endeavor to do at The Approach, I’d like to bring the discussion back to research. Professor Jose Holguin-Veras is a global leader in the study of humanitarian logistics. Last year we wrote about his visits to Haiti in the wake of the tragic earthquake. We reached out to him yesterday, to ask how one even begins the conversation about relief efforts in a situation as dire as the one currently befalling Japan.

Here’s what Jose had to say:

In moments like this, while the tragedy in Japan unfolds, many of us ponder how to help. However, in order to ensure that our efforts actually help, we need to be aware of what are the best ways to achieve that. Not following the rules and insight gained by social scientists and disaster researchers in their field work can produce more harm than good. The main objective of this message is to share with you the hard lessons from disaster research.

I would like to make clear that it is not my intention to hurt anyone’s feelings. If I do offend anyone, please accept my apologies in advance. However, I do have a message to convey for what people can do in trying to help disaster victims.

Rule #1: Do not send physical donations because:

  • In most cases they produce more harm than good
  • It is a waste of money: once you factor in transportation costs sending physical donations deprive victims of the goods relief agencies could have purchased locally with the money spent in transportation
  • They could depress the local markets, negatively impacting local producers

Rule #2: Donate money to reputable relief organizations with a local presence in the area:

  • They know what is needed
  • Could purchase locally providing a boost to local economies
  • If you know of a reputable and local relief organization, try to help (these are almost always overlooked and tend to do great work)

Rule #3: For those thinking about becoming volunteers, do not make things worse by becoming a volunteer victim:

  • Join reputable relief groups, they know how to best use your help
  • Be self supported (at least a week of supplies, water, medicine)
  • Arrange local support before going to the disaster site
  • Do not be a disaster tourist
  • If you are not willing to commit at least to a month of work, do not go

Below is some additional detail, as provided by Jose:

RULE #1: Do not send physical donations

I know that this will surprise you – If you ask emergency responders involved in humanitarian logistics, what is the most difficult part of disaster response? The typical answer is “unsolicited donations.” Here’s why: More often than not, well-meaning individuals and social/religious groups respond to disasters by organizing donation drives. Regrettably, 90-98 percent of these efforts go completely to waste and produce more harm than good.

Often times the donations are not appropriate to the event, time, social context, population (e.g., pork meat donated to Muslim victims in Turkey, ten containers of refrigerators – requiring a different voltage than the one used in Haiti – donated to Haiti). A significant portion of the donated materials, particularly clothing, are in poor condition. In essence, people tend to empty their closets and send all their old clothes to the victims. In most cases, these donations end up as rotting piles of garbage in disaster sites More troubling are the shipments of food items, medicines, etc, that are past the expiration date.

Sometimes the donations arrive unsorted or in a condition impossible to efficiently inventory and therefore difficult to identify in a timely manner. It is impossible for relief staff to rearrange their logistical systems to be able to use the donations received in small amounts, particularly because each box will contain different items. Standardized donations, of the kind the large relief agencies bring to the disaster site, are the way to go.

Handling the humongous flows of unsolicited donations end up distracting critical resources from more important tasks. When these trucks, planes, and ships arrive to the disaster site the emergency responders face a tough choice: unloading the goods consumes considerable man-power and resources; but if they do not unload the cargo, access to transportation facilities could be blocked. In essence, they have no choice but unloading the donations.

RULE #2: Donate money to reputable relief organizations

This is the absolute best because these agencies: (1) know what the needs are; (2) know how to use the funds in the best ways possible; and (3) have the experience and resources to use your donation in the most effective manner. Please give them flexibility on how to use the funds. Earmarking your donations to a cause prevents them from using these resources to help in other worthy causes.

I also encourage you to consider local (at the disaster site) relief agencies. It frequently happens that these local agencies/NGOs and the like are completely overlooked by donors. The irony is that they are the ones best positioned to help the victims.

RULE #3: Do not make things worse by becoming a volunteer victim

Disaster response is a risky undertaking that must be taken seriously as you could put your life in danger. If you want to volunteer – which is a noble and important thing to do – join a reputable relief group. They will know how best to use your help. Under no circumstances should you take a plane to help as an individual volunteer. It is highly probable you will be a burden to others. During my trip to Haiti last year, days after the tragic earthquake, my wife and I ended up giving our dinner to two well-intentioned undergraduate students from Mount Holyoke College who were literally begging for food at the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

For other examples of supply chain research by Holguin-Veras, see traffic congestion in Manhattan and supply chains in the relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina.