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U.S. donations to Japan lag behind those after Katrina, Haiti

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Travers O’Leary, a freshman at St. Mary’s College in Southern Maryland, gave $10 last year to help victims of Haiti’s earthquake. But nearly a week after an earthquake and tsunami wiped out parts of northeastern Japan and badly damaged nuclear reactors, O’Leary had not donated to those relief efforts.

He feels bad saying it, he said, but he doesn’t think Japan needs the money.

“I look at Japan as such a developed country,” O’Leary, 19, said Thursday afternoon as he and a friend sipped drinks on a bench at Rockville Town Square. “In my mind, I feel like they have the funds to handle the disaster, where Haiti didn’t.”

If figures on U.S. charitable giving to Japan are any indication, plenty of people share O’Leary’s view. Philanthropy experts say the belief that a country with the world’s third-largest economy doesn’t need outside help is a key reason why private U.S. donations to Japan are lagging far behind those for other recent disasters, including the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina.

As of Wednesday, the American Red Cross had raised $47 million for victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. At the same point after the Haiti earthquake, it had raised $92.3 million. World Vision, a Christian humanitarian aid group, said it had raised $3 million for Japan from American donors as of noon Thursday, compared with $15.8 million within the week after the Haiti earthquake.

Charity Navigator, which ranks charities’ financial performance, said its survey of a dozen large U.S. charitable organizations found that they had raised $64 million for Japan. Six days after the Haiti earthquake, those organizations had raised $210 million. Six days after Hurricane Katrina hit, that figure was $457 million.

“Japan is a very developed nation, and its government hasn’t put out a huge call for assistance like they did in Haiti,” said Charity Navigator spokeswoman Sandra Miniutti. “But if you look at the images on TV, it’s clear there will be a role for charities to play.”

Donations within the first several days of a disaster are considered important, philanthropy experts said, because that’s when images of devastation saturate the media and pull at heartstrings.

Charity officials say people often give money internationally based on a sense of need and their familiarity with a country. Haiti hit hard on both: It was starkly poor before the quake hit and is a U.S. neighbor. Hurricane Katrina not only affected Americans, but they were some of the poorest in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast.

Japan, a highly industrialized country, is rich by comparison. Moreover, relief experts said, it has a sophisticated aid network developed over a long history of earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Even so, relief groups said, Japan needs immediate financial help, particularly to deliver blankets, bottled water and food to the hardest-hit areas where thousands have been left homeless.

“There are disasters that, regardless of the wealth of the country, are beyond the capacity of one country to respond,” said Roger Lowe, a spokesman for the American Red Cross. “That’s when the international community needs to come together to support them.”

That idea resonated differently among people who spent their lunch hour Thursday on sun-filled benches at Rockville Town Square.

Marina Israilevitch, a government computer contractor, said she would probably donate to Japan, even though “you just don’t hear organizations asking” like they did after Katrina and the Haiti earthquake. But her husband, Yuri Gorbach, who ate lunch next to her, said he didn’t see the need.

Although Haiti and Japan suffered major damage to their infrastructure, Gorbach said, the wealthier Japanese government has money to “fix it themselves.”

Bernadette Cummings, 54, a child-care worker, said she never considered Japan’s wealth when she recently donated $35 to Doctors Without Borders. She said she was moved by images of Japanese children being rescued.

“For me,” Cummings said, “it was the triple whammy of the earthquake, the tsunami and, on top of that, the nuclear problems they’re having.”

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