Knee-Jerk Reaction: Japan   2 comments

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I was very busy with final papers when the disaster in Japan occurred. Since then, the death toll has climbed, survivors are in need, radiation has leaked, and the international community has sprung into action to assist. As a young child, I was taught to never do anything unless one does it correctly; aid is no different. I am aware that in a post-disaster situation (similar to a post-conflict one) food, water, shelter and medical supplies are required on the spot now, that is a given. But it is the way in which people do so that disheartens me. As with most things, there is a right way to do it, and a wrong way.

Right after the tsunami hit Japan, members of the Asian community at my university (if you know where I attend, great, please keep it to yourself) gathered and planned out a course of action to assist their counterparts in need: “Japanese students at [the university] have ordered some 2000 bracelets and they will be selling them for $3 each or $5 for two” for the Japanese Red Cross (JRC) and/or the American Red Cross. (I’ll remind my audience that within my graduate school – who fully supports these actions – there is a MA program in Sustainable International Development; apparently I am the only one that sees the irony here).

When I asked the team selling the bracelets if they had received any backlash from their international development classmates and/or any aid-savvy person, their response was, “Everyone’s been supportive so far. There’s always a concern about relief aid versus long-term aid, which is healthy I would say”. I’ll let that reply roll around in your heads for a bit.

So, here’s what we know so far:

  • On March 11, a  9.0 earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Japan near the city of Sendai.
  • The earthquake generated a massive tsunami with waves as high as 30 feet, immediately resulting in floods, fires and the closure of airports and transit systems.
  • More than 10,000 of people are either dead or missing, and homes, fields and towns have been destroyed by flooding.
  • The damages from Japan’s multiple disasters are estimated to exceed $170 billion (most of which self-supported), double that of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (estimated at $81 billion).
  • Depending on how the ongoing nuclear crisis turns out at the Fukushima nuclear reactor, and  this estimate may go up.

So, why wasn’t Japan prepared for a scenario like this? Most likely the Japanese government were aware that its islands are within a major fault line. Let’s examine each scenario aspect.

  • They had walls, but couldn’t prepare enough..?
  • Japan is one of the top three global superpowers. However even the richest of nations possible can never financially prepare for an earthquake like the one off the coast of Japan; true or false statement? Or even possible post-earthquake that created the tsunami? On this note, does an economic superpower really need international aid, as opposed to a developing nation?
  • The Red Cross even said that countries are not equipped with this type of scenario.
  • Building codes, but “[p]erhaps no country in the world is better prepared to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis than Japan.”

The international response to Japan is tremendous; how can a handful of bracelets do anything? A disaster happens, and people want to help. Most understand they cannot be there on the ground to assist so they offer GIK (gift in kind)-like aid or straight cash. But are the folks at NYTs the best analyst of effective aid? In these situations, people not directly affected by the situation act with their hearts and not logic. Yes, people in Japan need assistance but I question in what form, from whom, and in what fashion.

Why not donate to Japan? How can we go about our good intentions? These are good questions to ask yourself before giving, not after. Do people know that the Japanese Red Cross does not want your money, period, on top of there are now 4,500 new charities focused on Japan alone with the number growing.

Japan’s disaster could have not been predicted but the aftermath has stemmed other initiatives, for example altering the world’s view on our energy policy. However, it is sad that once a disaster or conflict has happened, it is then and only then that countries and agencies rethink their planning and policy, for example:

  • However, Japan was at least taking some precautions after the event in Chernobyl 1986.

Aid post-disaster is one thing, but this is about scenarios and preparation not being put in place prior for an event like this, hence the fundamental flaw of ‘humanitarian aid’. Funds and fundraising is needed for post-disasters, yes, but those funds should be available pre-disaster and not derived from selling silly material goods. The influx of money and blood donations to the Red Cross sky rocket when there is a dire need, leaving wasted money and blood. How can one properly prepare? Japan was…wasn’t it?

  • Japan is leading the way for architecture built to withstand seismic activity, and some of the towns greatly affected by the tsunami had sea barriers.
  • No one country, however rich and powerful, is prepared to deal with a disaster of the magnitude that Japan is facing right now.

However the Japanese government could have put funds in a bank in full preparation for an inevitable event like this.

We must rethink how we perform aid, if not, we are delivering the status quo. On top of that, we must not go with our knee-jerk reaction, but to quickly assess, inform ourselves, take precaution; based on these actions, we resume our intentions are the best for that situation (as seen here). Even the likes of Chris Blattman would agree with me on this one. Raising funds after the fact leaves Westerners feeling good about that themselves (which is a good feeling I agree) but their ignorance of what is really needed or themselves ‘knowing’ as ‘experts’ of actions to take leaves more in-need people suffering. As professionals and practitioners, we must be ever critical of actions taken to evolve the field in which we work in.

*Thanks to my classmates who contributed to this piece, and thanks to Tara Steinmetz for editing.

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Posted March 23, 2011 by Travis Warrington in Development

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2 responses to Knee-Jerk Reaction: Japan

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  1. I think there is a really interesting topic here, mainly why does it take a disaster to get societies to think seriously about it’s causes and consequences? I mean, do we live in a world where it takes an increase in hurricanes to get us to believe in global warming? And in this case, we need serious nuclear disasters to see that nuclear energy is not sustainable and/or safe?

    From a philosophical point of view, what is it about our human condition where is takes a serious tragedy to get our attention, especially, it seems, to environmental issues? I’m not sure…

    Anthony Ferrucci
  2. I greatly appreciate your awareness of pre and post disaster financial readiness, especially as you stated in a country in which a natural disaster is likely. I would be interested in an examination of the allocation of such funds if they were to exist pre-disaster/conflict. These funds would most likely come from privileged business people who have a high financial stake in remaining a super power, this still leaves the gap for most working-class Japanese who depend upon the ocean for their livelihood, whose boats were destroyed and fields were flooded. What is your reaction to the underlying privilege that exists within humanitarian aid and restoration efforts? Finally, if you are up for the challenge, I would be curious to know how your ideas of aid are shaped by your social standing: as an educated, American male who is not currently faced with a natural disaster?
    I greatly appreciate reading your blog, it has opened my eyes to the idea of Western aid as an oppressive social system and your reflections are most welcome.

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