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Page last updated at 06:45 GMT, Wednesday, 30 March 2011 07:45 UK
Charities deny 'scramble' for Japan aid cash

By Tom Bateman
Today Programme

A man walks through boxes of emergency relief supplies in Onagawa

Some UK charities are facing criticism that they were too quick to start fundraising for Japan and did not have a clear idea about whether the money was actually needed.

With around 28,000 people dead or missing three weeks after the earthquake, the relief effort in Japan continues to support the survivors and those left homeless.

But unlike disasters in some less developed countries, the Japanese authorities have made no international appeal for funds and have asked foreign charities not to send help unless specifically requested.

A woman carries some belongings that she salvaged from her destroyed home
Poignant scenes in Japan have inspired international generosity

Japan is the world's third richest country, and is seen as a global leader in disaster relief and recovery.

Nevertheless, around the world many charities have been fundraising. Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan has said more than 670 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have offered assistance.

This has led to criticism among some experts in international aid.

"Non-profits (NGOs) will jump into the fundraising fray before there is any clear idea of what's happening on the ground," says former aid worker Saundra Schimmelpfennig.

"They'll start raising funds the same day that the disaster happened, before the government has even had a chance to get to most of the areas that have been hit, before you know what the government's capability is, before you know who else is going to be responding."


Ms Schimmelpfennig ran a mission coordinating work for the American Red Cross during the 2004 South Asian tsunami, and now writes the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough .

She is concerned that in the competitive world of fundraising, charities driven by honourable motives feel under pressure to raise money as soon as a disaster strikes, in what she calls a "scramble for donor dollars".

'Pretty confident'

Several of the UK's biggest charities have staff or sister organisations in Japan and have launched appeals, but other organisations have done so before establishing partners in the country.

The UK registered charity GlobalGiving was among those that launched a fundraising appeal after the earthquake and tsunami hit.

The front page of their website shows an image of rescue workers cradling a toddler amid the rubble of the quake and asks users to donate to 'disaster recovery'.

Chief executive Sharath Jeevan says they launched their campaign the day after the earthquake struck.

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"We had a couple of organisations that had got in touch with us saying that 'we are thinking of working in Japan'. We knew them well," he says.

"They were on the more international organisational side. We were pretty confident we would be able to find strong organisations locally."

GlobalGiving has raised more than £1.3m for Japan in international donations, but its online appeal didn't appear to tell donors what would happen to the money if it couldn't all be spent in Japan.

Mr Jeevan says the charity is "transparent with the community" about whether money is re-allocated or returned to donors if there is an "over-abundance of funds".

He says all the money raised from GlobalGiving's Japan appeal will be spent in Japan.

But the process of charities raising money before funds have a specific destination worries former aid worker Saundra Schimmelpfennig.

What happens when you have a major disaster like Japan, it often creates a shadow over those parts of the world where they're not getting the exposure
Brendan Gormley, DEC

She says money raised can sometimes have strings attached - so called 'donor reporting' conditions - meaning there is no guarantee organisations in Japan will accept it or be able to spend it efficiently.

"So to hedge their bets what [charities] do is they put an asterisk or fine print," she explains.

"[It] says 'if the money is not needed for this disaster or if we raise more money than is needed to be raised for this disaster the money will go into our general fund or the money will go into another disaster'."

Charity 'shadow'

Another organisation that launched an appeal for Japan is International Rescue Committee (IRC), which is also a registered charity in the UK.

A school board in an English class room reads ''help me'' at a relief centre in the tsunami-damaged city of Rikuzentakata
Some 300m has already been raised internationally for Japan

Their director of emergency response, Gillian Dunn, says they did not have a presence in Japan and did not have partners they had worked with before in the country.

The group has raised more than £1.2m for Japan.

Their website asks users to "Donate Now" under a picture of a child being carried through the rubble of the Japanese earthquake, but the charity says the money raised is from "unsolicited" donations.

"We knew that this was a large disaster and we know that there are existing organisations that are going to need to respond and that we were in a good position to help with that," she says.

Many charities have made a conscious decision not to fundraise for Japan.

In their modest first floor offices two streets away from London's Euston station, the phone lines at the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) are quiet.

The organisation coordinates the efforts of 13 UK charities during international crises, but didn't launch its own Japan appeal.

DEC chief executive Brendan Gormley says there was a simple reason for the decision.

"In this instance it is the Japanese government that is properly in the lead and they have not been looking for major additional support coming in from outside," he explains.

Mr Gormley is worried that unnecessary fundraising can prevent awareness being raised for victims elsewhere.

"What happens when you have a major disaster like Japan, it often creates a shadow over those parts of the world where they're not getting the exposure.

"We've just had a meeting of those people who are sitting on the frontiers around Ivory Coast and Liberia where literally hundreds of thousands of people are now on the move in very desperate straits and clearly we, the DEC agencies and others, are looking for more resources to be able to respond."

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