Catastrophe, compassion and the hard realities of mounting a mercy mission

Japan has been devastated by a tsunami and threat of nuclear meltdown, so why aren’t the aid agencies rushing to help, asks Kate Whiting.

Images of the devastation wreaked in Japan by the massive earthquake of March 11 have touched the world. But shocking pictures of whole towns reduced to rubble by a 30ft tsunami have now given way to those of shivering elderly survivors sheltering from the snow, and crying children in long queues for food handouts.

Around 452,000 people are living in makeshift shelters after their homes were swept away and approximately 200,000 people have been evacuated out of the area surrounding the stricken nuclear power plant. Fuel, medicines and other necessities are running scarce. To us in the UK, the message seems clear: Japan Needs Our Help.

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Yet, according to the Disasters Emergency Committee, an umbrella organisation made up of 13 leading UK humanitarian aid agencies, the country has not asked for international humanitarian assistance,

When an earthquake last year destroyed the city of Port au Prince in Haiti, known to be the poorest country in the Western world, the picture was very different. Thousands of foreign aid workers flooded in, many of them from agencies that were already based there.

The Japanese government has accepted assistance from foreign search and rescue teams – including a team of 63 from the UK – and the Japanese Red Cross is playing a lead role in the recovery effort, with some specialised help from the local arms of charities like World Vision and Save The Children.

To the outside world, it may seem strange that a country apparently in dire straits isn’t begging for more help. But the DEC points out that throwing money and people at a problem is not always the answer.

“The public see people having a tough time and assume something has gone wrong with the response,” says Brendan Paddy, communications manager at the DEC, which commissioned the report Urban Disasters – Lessons From Haiti, following the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people in the Caribbean island. “But you cannot meet all needs immediately. There are huge logistical challenges. The question you have to ask is: Who is best placed to meet the needs of the country? It makes sense for the Japanese government to meet those needs with the help of specialised support provided through sister agencies of the Red Cross, Save The Children, Oxfam and World Vision.

“They’re playing a specialised and very limited role. In a place like Haiti, our agencies would be helping to meet a far larger range of very fundamental needs.”

The fact is, if you’re going to organise a very effective disaster response in a developed country with a strong government, having 10,000 international aid organisations to deal with – as we saw in Haiti – is probably not the best way to do it.

“There was a much bigger response from the Red Cross movement to Haiti,” says Barry Armstrong, disaster response manager for the British Red Cross. “Quite a number of Emergency Response Units went in and we supplied logistics and sanitation. But the national society didn’t have a huge amount of resources and very significantly, many of the managers were lost during the earthquake.”

Dealing with disasters is a growing problem. Earthquakes, hurricanes and floods are becoming more frequent, with the international disaster database (EM-DAT) recording a sharp spike from around 50 per year in the early 1970s to more than 500 a year in the early years of the 21st-century. They are also becoming more powerful – five of the biggest earthquakes since 1900 (8.5+ on the Richter scale) have happened in the last six years.

The increase is partly due to changes in our living habits – collectively cities around the world are growing by something like a million people a week and many are in poorer countries and places already vulnerable to natural disasters. The issue is not just that there are more disasters, but that there are more people living in these dangerous places.

However, while aid relief is often vital, Haiti is an example of what can go wrong. Since its earthquake, the island has been dubbed a “kingdom of NGOs” by critics.

“If Non-Governmental Organisations are really strong, it can sometimes get local government off the hook,” says Professor David Sanderson, co-author of the DEC’s Urban Disasters report and director of the Centre for Development and Emergency Practice at Oxford Brookes University. “If NGOs provide the services with external funds, you create dependencies and that’s been a problem with Bangladesh and Haiti. After the earthquake, a lot of agencies rushed in. But it’s less of an issue in Japan and developed economies where NGOs are less operational in that way.”

More urban disasters (the DEC predicts as many as five over the next 10 years) has meant a greater need for aid agencies, and more funding. Since the 2004 tsunami, the aid sector has “undoubtedly become an industry in its own right”, according to a report in the medical journal The Lancet last year.

It criticised large aid agencies and humanitarian organisations for being “highly competitive” and “obsessed with raising money through their own appeal efforts”.The DEC’s Urban Disasters report recommended NGOs should “take care not to compete unfairly with the local private sector” and “assume professional skills and resources might be found locally”.

Armstrong concedes that “occasionally mistakes are made” but adds: “In the days immediately after these events, it’s a very changeable environment, in which it’s very difficult to operate – so you’re making decisions very rapidly and trying to provide life-saving support.

“Sometimes you have to make a decision in the absence of all the information that would be ideal. You can’t really afford to leave it a couple of days, you have to act.”

Sadly the speed of recovery in Haiti has been painfully slow – a year on, Professor Sanderson says there are still a million people living in tents in the centre of Port au Prince.

“It’s like it was six weeks after the earthquake, and the NGOs are in a holding operation. That won’t happen in Japan, because it’s a sophisticated economy.”

In the first hours after the Sendai quake, the Japanese government mobilised 100,000 troops and is being supported by its own national non-governmental organisations. Professor Sanderson explains that developed countries may understand their own problems better than others.

“The mindset of the NGO world is still pretty rural. Almost all the tools the aid agencies use are based on rural thinking. They work great in the field – but there aren’t fields anymore in rural areas.”

Paddy adds: “Some people are surprised that the DEC hasn’t set up an appeal and of course, we are extremely concerned about what has happened in Japan. But we believe that the Japanese government and Japanese organisations are best placed to meet the needs of those affected.”

While the process of rebuilding Japan will take months, if not years, Professor Sanderson believes some lessons may eventually be learned.

“Maybe we’re going to learn how urban reconstruction can take place in a country that’s so attuned to disaster,” he says. “I think we’ll be looking at them for how to do it in other countries, so out of this appalling tragedy there may be good lessons.”