Sunday, March 13, 2011

The moral case for sending money to Japan (rather than somewhere else)

Japan is one of the richest countries in the world, both in absolute and per capita terms. The earthquake and tsunami have inflicted terrible damage on the country, leading most likely to thousands of deaths and many millions of dollars of property damage. However, as a nation, Japan has ample financial resources to recover from the disaster. Japan was a healthy and prosperous society one week ago, and a year from now the overwhelming majority of Japan's people will still be alive and healthy, and they will still be relatively prosperous in global terms.

By contrast, there are still hundreds of millions of other people around the globe living in conditions of persistent poverty and immiseration. Just to take one random example, one year after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, Haiti is still a complete basket case.

So, the Japanese earthquake has no doubt pricked your conscience. You have been reminded that there are people in faraway places who direly need assistance. Your moral intuitions are worthy, but if they lead you to donate money to Japanese relief, then you are probably doing something non-optimal from the point of view of improving human welfare. Donate, instead, to an international relief organization that consistently directs its efforts to the most needy worldwide: Oxfam International, Unicef, etc. It is even possible that these organizations will spend some of their resources to help Japan now; but they're in a much better position to analyze the situation and direct the appropriate quantity of resources in that direction than you are.

Accordingly, I just donated to Oxfam, and I urge you to do the same.

On the other hand, of course there are some forms of aid specific to the immediate aftermath of natural disasters for which money is not a substitute. Obama has directed the U.S. Navy to station aircraft carriers in Japan to help airlift relief supplies and such. Google has launched the People Finder for Japan. Etc. These organizations are uniquely situated to help in ways that no amount of money can purchase on the open market. And if you know of some similarly specific aid effort for which equivalents cannot be obtained via market mechanisms, then you should support that effort however you can.

A final caveat is that resources within Japan are unequally distributed. There are usually some very poor and miserable people even within rich societies. If you know of some specific subgroup within Japan which is unlikely to receive assistance due to the structure of Japanese society, then again go ahead and donate to help them as well.

But to a first approximation, the logical response to natural disasters in wealthy countries is to donate money to aid organizations generally, not to donate to aid for those countries. And yes, when The Big One hits the Bay Area (where I currently live), I'll say the same thing.

UPDATE 2011-03-16: Via MR, charity ratings organization GiveWell agrees that donations should not be sent to funds earmarked for Japanese disaster relief. See also F. Salmon, and F. Salmon again.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. My first response was to donate to American Red Cross, but the more I'm reading and thinking about the situation, the more I'm wondering: 1) what the best way is to actually help the Japanese, 2) how people only seem to donate immediately after disasters, then forget about the suffering in the world as a whole -- myself included.

    1) It seems as though Japan has yet to call on foreign aid apart from the US Navy and other rescue teams. American Red Cross has raised $8 mil and is READY at any moment to help, but Japanese Red Cross is really the one handling it currently.

    But although they're just stocking up the money for now, I'm sure ARC would put the funds to good use even if it isn't all used on Japan in the end. Which is a good thing, because might as well take advantage of the only time the whole world feels empathy and are willing to pour out donations, rather than ask for donations later when things get calmer and Japan (or people in need in general) is no longer on everyone's minds.(I think that's what most charities are thinking now and why they're all asking for donations even though there is little chance the money they collect will actually reach the Japanese.) Like you said, who's talking about Haiti now? But they still definitely need the help.

    Still, I'm a little annoyed to find that almost every related article has a "DONATE NOW" link but no one is really explaining the situation for donators to be of most help. Even just pointing people to donate directly to JRC rather than ARC would've been helpful. Or more articles like yours taking advantage of this time to capture people's attention on other tragedies going on around the world daily.

    I say all this b/c I'm definitely guilty of donating only when big events like this happen. Usually I walk past solicitors, say no on the phone, and in general do not have a habit of being especially charitable in everyday life. I just rarely think about it. There are so many causes that I've become numb to them. Apparently it took an earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown threat for me to notice/feel the need to help people. And I know there are many others like me. We should change that.

    Just my 2 cents,

    -a college student