For the first time in a long time, I’ve been checking the news sites online before I log into my Facebook – (at least I’m honest). The media coverage coming out of Japan has had me ultimately consumed for the last seven days. I had been back and forth on the idea of coming forward with a blog post on the disaster, one that wouldn’t have a point expressed a thousand times already, one that didn’t indulge in my own charitable intentions, which I’ll admit, as of right now, I have done absolutely nothing about. I’m also pretty aware of how inappropriate a post like this looks on my homepage next to an article about a must-g0-to vintage shopping fair in Paris this weekend.
In the end, it was some comments following what must have been the 100th online article I had read about the devastation that gave me a reason to blog. One reader had posted a comment expressing her sympathy for the people of Japan, adding that her thoughts were with them. A second reader responded with this:
“Constantly dwelling on the subject and looking at endless footage of the disaster is not helpful to anyone. Send money to a charity then get on with your life. What possible use is all this ‘sympathy and thinking about’. I wouldn’t feel the least bit impressed to know that the Japanese were ‘thinking about me’ if the situation had been reversed.”
The argument goes that we are forced to dwell on images of disaster and human suffering. Such saturation takes us far beyond the point at which we are capable of responding on any meaningful level.
It’s true that over-exposure to anything is ultimately desensitising — which is precisely why we argue that the effects of ography and violence are damaging. At a time of disaster, a lot of us will choose to switch off the news or turn the page, not because we are indifferent to the suffering, but because we just can’t bear to see it any more.
This is not to say one is uncaring. It’s more a fatigue of the feeling of helplessness faced with horror.
I myself, after scouring my bookmarked news outlets for updates on what is only and expectantly bad news in Japan, have instinctively turned to my entertainment pages or Facebook newsfeed for some rather contrasting viewing. While the people in the pictures and video footage that I’ve been observing with an open jaw continue to live the reality of their devastating situation, I am sat safely behind my laptop, switching off.
No one can be blamed for escaping into a favourite movie or gossip magazine when the world seems even more depressing than usual.
But what of the argument that ‘thinking about’ suffering across the world is a pointless activity? Better just donate your money to the Red Cross and ‘get on with life’?
There are two things wrong with this argument.
- ‘Thinking’ (in this context) means exercising compassion. It’s instinctive. Knee-jerk sympathy is thankfully a part of the human condition.
Individuals ‘thinking’ about the suffering of others can make them reach for their credit cards and donate to charity, influence friends to do the same as well as put pressure on governments to spur international co-operation. ’Thinking’ can be the motivation that changes lives. Of course,’thinking’ is useless in isolation. It has to be combined with action– well thought out action that is.
- When it comes to charity, you need to do your homework…
In the wake of a major disaster, the pressure to donate is greater than ever. Natural disasters bring in donations. Hurricane Katrina brought $3.3 billion to date. Haiti has brought in $1.4 billion so far. And when is the best time to ask someone for money? When we can see floods, fires and other devastation on TV of course.
If you look at Twitter today, it’s full of anxious donors, retweeting to text REDCROSS to 90999 to make $10 donation. There’s nothing wrong with this donation, but the thing is, Japan hasn’t actually asked them for help just yet.
A press release on the American RedCross website reads:
“The American Red Cross stands ready and willing to assist following a magnitude 8.9 earthquake in Japan and the resulting tsunami…To date, the Red Cross has not received any requests for blood from the Japanese Red Cross, the Japanese government or the U.S. State Department.”
As of right now, very few US-based nonprofits are actually deploying to Japan yet. The chances are if you donated today to a major non-profit specifying that your gift go to Japan, your money wouldn’t actually reach the country. Not yet and probably not for a while. Giving charity to specific causes can often stifle relief organizations and leave them with large piles of money unspent in one place while facing urgent needs in other places. Nonprofits are most effective if they can choose how they spend their money.
Medecins Sans Frontieres says this on their website:
MSF does not issue appeals for support for specific emergencies and this is why we do not include an area to specify a donation purpose on our on-line donation form. MSF would not have been able to act so swiftly in response to the emergency in Haiti, as an example, if not for the ongoing general support from our donors. So we always ask our supporters to consider making an unrestricted contribution.
So does Japan even need our charity?
This may seem like a pretty inappropriate question if you’ve been looking at as many photos of devastated Japanese landscapes and grief-stricken survivors as I have. Nevertheless, Japan is a wealthy and well-organized country, and some have implicated it may not need foreign aid (that’s probably why it hasn’t asked for it yet). However, conditions keep getting worse, especially given rising panic of nuclear disaster. NGO, Medecins Sans Frontieres told a news source earlier this week that “there are definitely huge medical needs in the evacuation centre, and amongst the people who haven’t reached the evacuation centres”.
The point is, as donators, sitting behind the safety of our laptops, we’re not qualified to assess where our money is most needed.
Organizations like the American Red Cross could still provide relief a week, a month or a year (or more) down the line– Japan’s disaster zone has a long road to recovery after all, but giving specifically to disaster relief isn’t always the best way to help.
Sometimes finding a nonprofit you trust and giving an unrestricted gift can be a better way to aid the victims not just of this crisis, but of the next one. Your money will most likely help somewhere else that totally needs it if it doesn’t end up in Japan.
Disasters can be an important spur for donations. The immense media coverage may feel like over-exposure but it serves as a constant reminder that we need to be thinking outside of our bubble. Thinking about the people of Japan or thinking about who we can help if we can’t help Japan. Doctors sign up to work for organisations like Medecins Sans Frontieres only because they have thought hard about where they might put their skills to good use and want to help those who need them.
If all the images and footage from the devastation in Japan have got you thinking….
Spread the word: Encourage others to think about it too by spreading the word about the disaster through social media. Tweet about it, provide links to charities and information on Facebook, or share this article with friends and family.
Donate – but do your homework first…
Medecins Sans Frontieres is one of the best organisations you can help and know that some of it might go to Japan but all of it will go to areas where it’s sorely needed.
If you have a preference to ensure your donations go specifically to Japan, it would be advised to donate directly to the Japanese Red Cross. Alternatively, through Paypal, you can donate to Save the Children, a non-profit which recently announced is mobilizing teams and supplies to the disaster area. The organization has worked in Japan for 25 years. For a full list of charities actively working on the relief effort in Japan, go here.
Lastly, this may be a pretty inappropriate video to post in light of the 25,000 human deaths predicted by Japanese authorities… but this story of animal loyalty in the wake of a natural disaster had me thinking about even the smallest of creatures who ended up in the path of destruction. (You don’t need to speak Japanese to see what’s going on here).
You might like to support the work of World Vets, an NGO that currently has emergency relief teams on the ground in Japan.
I hope this inappropriate blog was useful to you in some way.