Cram Session

Disasters, Culture, and Aid

CARE JAPANIt has been heartbreaking to see the horrific images coming out of Japan’s recent devastation: pictures of unrecognizable landscapes, stories of loved ones whisked away by surging waves, and home videos of water devouring buildings and people. The whole world waits with baited breath to see what will become of the damaged nuclear reactors.

Beyond the shock of destruction, the reactions of Japan and its people speaks leaps and bounds about the underlying culture. Let’s look at a few that have been the most compelling.


Perhaps the biggest surprise for those looking in from the outside is the remarkable maintenance of order. Disasters are notoriously accompanied by hoarding, looting, and a dramatic rise in crime. The earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Katrina are certainly potent reminders of how human nature can run amok, but the Japanese have for the most part maintained composure. Some grocery stores are running empty in the wake of disrupted supply chains, but the general sense is that you shouldn’t take too much for yourself or there will not be enough for others. Indeed, the biggest problem in this regard has been the dramatic rise in the demand (and thus price) for iodine pills, which are thought to counteract exposure to radiation.

Trust and preparation may be the underlying cause. With regular earthquake drills and top of the line seismic technology, a great deal of potential damage and death was avoided. Domestic aid organizations and emergency tactics are well-organized and well-oiled and have a clear commitment to prevention and efficient response. Perhaps people may not feel the need to hoard or resort to criminal activities because they have confidence in Japanese authorities to restore order and respond responsibly and effectively.

This same calm extends to the humanitarian dimension. The Japanese Red Cross was immediately clear that it neither wanted or needed outside assistance. Of 102 countries offering aid, Japan has accepted the help of only 15. Only a few outside NGOs have been approved for assistance, and mostly only for the loan of highly specialized teams. Overall, the response has been calm, steady, and without hysterics. Even as a potential nuclear crisis continues, Japanese stoicism rules the day.


The ongoing nuclear crisis has had a different effect in neighboring China. Despite assurances from the government that radiation from a potential nuclear meltdown would not reach China, an urban myth of an oncoming cloud has swept the country.  Panicked citizens are now hoarding iodized salt and Merchants have raised prices. The readily available product has now become a scarce good. The acute attention to an environmental concern is quite unusual. As Joshua Keating from Foreign Policy points out, “an estimated 760,000 people die prematurely every year because of air and water pollution” in China. By his estimates, “that’s more than seven Chernobyl disasters every year”.

Global Markets

Disasters result in market volatility, but there was one massive market drop that shows just how absurd markets can be. “Loose lips sink ships” apparently never caught on with EU energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger, who publicly gave his condolences for the ongoing nuclear situation using all the wrong words. The Economist reports that within 15 minutes of Oettinger’s remarks that the situation was “out of control” and speculation that there could be other coming catastrophic events, the value of global markets dropped by $430 billion. The markets will most likely make back up the difference, but it is remarkable to see how the comments of one man can cause such a fuss despite assurances from nuclear agencies and officials that hope is not yet lost.

The United States

Officially, the U.S. response has been generous and appropriate. President Obama has thrown his full support behind Japan and offered whatever assistance is needed. Public response has also been generous, though it reflects an important part of the American culture that does not transpose well to aid.

Aid is big business. As previously mentioned, the Japanese Red Cross has explicitly expressed that it doesn’t need or want help. And yet, as Stephanie Strom points out in the New York Times, the American Red Cross has aggressively raised far into the multi-millions, including large donations from prolific celebrities. Popular companies like LivingSocial, who don’t have established interests in Japan, have set up similar programs, while Japanese authorities insist they have sufficient resources.

The entrepreneurial spirit further complicates matters. Saundra Schimmelpfennig of the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough writes about the enormous number of applications for new non-profits that are supposedly flooding the IRS. The same phenomenon occurs surrounding most disasters: well-intentioned people want to do something good and as per the American way, form a start up. Unfortunately, they usually do more harm than good and if they end up on the ground in disaster zones, get in the way of aid professionals and often generate more work than necessary. Who can forget the aid chaos in Haiti and well-intentioned volunteers that tried to help children but ended up in jail for kidnapping? The Guardian reports on some such volunteer groups that have automatically been ejected from Japan.

So what can we do to really help? If you want to donate money, do so to trusted and effective organizations that are actually contributing. Never earmark your donation for a specific cause so that if it your money is not needed, the organization can use it for future situations. Look for groups that purchase emergency supplies in Japan itself or in neighboring areas so that their contribution also boosts the local economy and not corporate partners.

You can also help by gathering information. At OCHA’s request, Crisis Commons has opened a Japan Data Profile as a place to consolidate information and data sets helpful in assessing the situation and engaging appropriate response. There are still many gaps in information that need to be filled. Of course, any information added should be verifiable.

In the meantime, we send our support and goodwill to the people of Japan as they face a long and difficult recovery. For updated information on the situation on the ground, see OCHA’s situation reports. New reports are released every few days. Linked is the report for March 17.