Japan disaster: Where are the donations?

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March 17, 2011, 7:41 pm
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(NECN: Peter Howe, Chestnut Hill, Mass.) No two disasters are ever the same of course, but in their response to Japan's earthquake and tsunami, Americans are proving to be far less immediately generous than they were after the Haiti earthquake last year, Hurricane Katrina, or the December 2004 South Asian tsunami.

Back when the earthquake hit Haiti last year, Americans rushed to open their hearts and wallets. Supermodel and Patriots wife Gisele Bundchen pledged $1 million, actress Sandra Bullock, another $1 million. Presidential daughter Chelsea Clinton scrambled to lead a fundraiser, and within a week after the quake hit Port-au-Prince, U.S. citizens had donated $296 million, according to Indiana University experts. It was an outpouring similar to the $245 million in donations inspired within the week after the 2004 South Asian tsunami devastated communities from Sri Lanka to Indonesia.

But this time around, with the Japan earthquake, a much different story: Just $49 million in U.S. donations so far through Thursday morning.

"There are many reasons for that,'' says Boston College sociology professor Paul Schervish (SURE-vish), who runs a BC center on wealth and philanthropy. "Japan's a wealthy nation ... The others have essentially been poorer countries.''

As a sociologist, Schervish also sees something unique to Japanese character. "The government itself, perhaps because of its tradition of saving face, has not explicitly asked for as much assistance.''

To be sure, celebrities are stepping up. Lady Gaga commissioned and has sold thousands of $5 Japan-benefit bracelets. The New York Yankees came through with $100,000 in gifts to charities. Hollywood train-wreck Charlie Sheen has promised to earmark $1 per ticket from his upcoming comedy tour for Japan relief efforts. Bullock has come through with another $1 million gift.

Late Thursday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center identified $137 million in cash and in-kind contributions -- products and services -- from businesses, rather than individual donors, that would make this the fourth-largest corporate response to a natural disaster.

Experts say if you're inclined to give money in response to the Japan tragedy to the American Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders or Partners In Health or a group like that, good advice that always applies is: Make it an unrestricted gift, so its use is not necessarily tied to the current tragedy but is available for suffering people wherever they are.

BC's Schervish said with Japan, the slower pace giving may show that Americans have become savvier donors after disasters like this.

"People are so connected through the media about what is actually happening on the ground during these catastrophes,'' Schervish said. "One of the things that people have learned from Katrina, tsunami aid, Haiti aid, is that it can go into a dark hole with nobody watching very quickly.'' He thinks Americans aren't cheap or mean, but see in Japan that "there isn't a plan yet, where these organizations would go to do what? So why give them money? That has not been laid out yet in an organized way.'' His advice is "to pace your aid according to a plan of needs being met. You would wait, in my recommendation, for the Red Cross to tell you its plan.''

Concluded Schervish: "There's a good wait and see for what needs to be done.'' And if and when the need is clear, Schervish is sure: Americans will give generously as they always do.

Two other good piece of advice:
- Be very, very wary of Internet appeals from groups you've never heard of. Just assume there are lots of scams out there, because, sadly, there are.
- Remember that Japan is indeed a rich and well-developed country, and roughly 93 percent of the economy is still more or less intact despite the disaster raging in the northeastern part of the country. Accordingly, look for ways to donate to Japanese organizations that were already active in Japan long before the earthquake and have the human and logistical infrastructure in place to put aid funds and supplies to work quickly. In many ways, the last thing Japan needs right now is hordes of well-intentioned foreigners coming in who need translators and support staff to accomplish anything.

With videographer David Jacobs

Tags: Japan, Haiti, donations , Peter Howe, Japan earthquake
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