Something unimaginably horrible has happened in Japan and we all want to help. The question is, how? What’s the best way to give in a disaster like this? I’d argue that right now, we wait.

First, let’s talk about what not to do. All the usual good-giving-after-disaster guidelines apply to this disaster in Japan. Don’t send used – or new – stuff; giving money is always better than paying to ship goods. Don’t go to Japan to be a set of hands to rebuild the country. Don’t adopt orphans or support establishment of new orphanages. Don’t donate to organizations that sprang up overnight in response to the disaster, or ones that solicit you by phone. Don’t support donations of baby formula, or donate formula.

And what we do? Wait a little. My heart hurts for Japan right now, but I don’t see a useful way to give right now. Japan is a wealthy, developed country and it is still in its immediate recovery phase. It needs search and rescue teams – and is getting them, from its own preparedness efforts and from other governments – and it needs immediate support to the people affected. There is no way to move money fast enough right now to provide immediate support to survivors.

There are, as far as I can tell, no international relief NGOs active in Japan. There is no real there would be – Japan isn’t a developing country that depends on relief work from overseas. The international NGOs in Japan are geared at fundraising and support work outside Japan. If Washington, DC had an earthquake tomorrow, the Doctors Without Borders office couldn’t set up an emergency clinic in its corporate headquarters, because the people who work in DC aren’t the ones with that skill set. The same is true for Japan.

What we need to do is support the Japanese organizations who will be rebuilding once search and rescue is over. And right now, those Japanese organizations aren’t asking for money. The Japanese Red Cross has explicitly stated they don’t need assistance right now.

The key word there is “right now.” It is going to take a long, long time to restore Japan after this catastrophe. We don’t have to help today in order to help. Our help will be a lot more useful in a couple of months, when Japanese organizations have a sense of what they need.

Edited to add:

The World Food Programme reports that at the request of the Japanese government, they are already on the ground providing logistical support to the distribution of water, tents, and blankets. WFP is known for its logistics capacity, so this seems like a logical fit to me, and a good place to donate if you do want to donate right now.

Architecture for Humanity is collecting funds in preparation for eventual small building projects.

For more background:

Saundra Schimmelpfennig at Good Intentions Are Not Enough has an excellent post on the role that international relief groups are playing as fundraisers.

Felix Salmon recommends never giving to a specific emergency, but instead to an organizations general disaster fund. I think this is an excellent approach.

GiveWell also favors not giving at this point. (Update: GiveWell wrote to tell me they now recommend giving to Medecins sans Frontieres to help in Japan.)

Women Deliver suggests donating to a Japanese health organization that is requesting donations.

(photo credit: Roberto Maxwell)

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