How to Help Japan

Rescue workers carry a body from the rubble of a village destroyed by the devastating earthquake, fires and tsunami March 16, 2011 in Kesennuma, Miyagi province, Japan.
Paula Bronstein | Getty Images
Rescue workers carry a body from the rubble of a village destroyed by the devastating earthquake, fires and tsunami March 16, 2011 in Kesennuma, Miyagi province, Japan.

The international outpouring of support for the people of Japan has been a truly wondrous thing to behold.

It’s heart-warming to see so many individuals around the world seek out ways to help in the wake of the serial disasters Japan has suffered. The noble charitable instinct at work behind things like the “help Japan” poster campaign should be applauded.

It’s difficult in these situations to be the one trying to provide some sober thoughts about how we can most effectively respond and channel our charity. Unfortunately, the truth is that ear-marking donations in response to disasters is largely counter-productive. It would be far better if those who feel drawn to help use this as an occasion to make a general donation to international aid agencies.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) specifically avoids support campaigns based around specific emergencies. Here is their logic:

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has sent medical teams to support the government-led earthquake and tsunami response in Japan. Our teams are running mobile clinics and conducting needs assessments, which will determine the full scope of MSF's response.

At this point, we are drawing on unrestricted donations given to MSF to fund our efforts, and we are not accepting donations specifically earmarked for recovery efforts in Japan. We greatly appreciate your generosity and encourage your support of our work. We will continue to post updates on our homepage, Facebook, and Twitter as new information becomes available.

The ability of MSF teams to provide rapid and targeted medical care to those most in need in more than 60 countries around the world – whether in the media spotlight or not – depends on the generous general contributions of our donors worldwide. For this reason, MSF does not issue appeals for support for specific emergencies and this is why we do not include an area to specify a donation purpose on our on-line donation form. MSF would not have been able to act so swiftly in response to the emergency in Haiti, as an example, if not for the ongoing general support from our donors. So we always ask our supporters to consider making an unrestricted contribution.

To learn more about the organization's efforts or make a donation, visit

Clicking here will take you to the American Red Cross donation page.

It gives you the option to donate specifically to help Japan. You’d do better, however, by choosing to donate to your local chapter or clicking the “where the need is the greatest” box.

People with specific skills or goods that Japan needs may want to become even more involved. But the problems Japan faces will likely be logistical—getting needed aid and supplies to the right places—rather than the lack of financial resources to purchase the supplies.

Japan is facing an ongoing national tragedy. No doubt many aid organizations will have a role to play there. But your best move here is general donations to the organizations. And, perhaps, to consider becoming a regular donor—rather than someone who responds to headline crises.


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