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Charity To Japan: A Better Way?

Damaged houses, cars and debris after the earthquake
Sankei | Getty Images
Damaged houses, cars and debris after the earthquake

Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, volcanoes and even chemical or nuclear disasters can provoke a strong urge on the part of people to want to provide disaster relief in the form of charitable donations directed at those afflicted by the most recent disaster.

These floods of ‘earmarked’ charity dollars are not always recipe for an effective relief effort. They result in a rush of funds to organizations that often do not know how they will spend the money, or even if it will be needed.

For example, the Japanese Red Cross has said repeatedly that it does not need and does not want outside aid, according to the New York Times. Nonetheless, the American Red Cross has raised tens of millions of dollars in the name of Japanese disaster victims.

The American Red Cross itself gently warns donors that some funds may not be able to be used for aid to earthquake victims in Japan.

"Your gift to the American Red Cross will support our disaster relief efforts to help those affected by the earthquake in Japan and tsunami throughout the Pacific. On those rare occasions when donations exceed American Red Cross expenses for a specific disaster, contributions are used to prepare for and serve victims of other disasters," the Red Cross says on its website.

Felix Salmon, who agrees that we shouldn’t be donating to Japanese disaster relief, points out another factor that should come into play—Japan is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It doesn't need your money.

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.

We’d do far better to use these occasions to reflect on the unpredictability and fragility of our lives. If we’re charitably minded, we can turn to local charities and churches. If it’s international charity that interests you, donate to your local Red Cross or Doctors without Borders—with dollars unrestricted to any particular disaster.

Here's Salmon again:

That said, it’s entirely possible that organizations like the Red Cross or Save the Children will find themselves with important and useful roles to play in Japan. It’s also certain that they have important and useful roles to play elsewhere. So do give money to them — and give generously! And give money to other NGOs, too, like Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which don’t jump on natural disasters and use them as opportunistic marketing devices. Just make sure it’s unrestricted.

There are worthy things you can do, to help. Click here to find out how to help Japan.

(Editor's Note:This story was updated on March 16th to provide more attribution and to correct a headline.)

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