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One Year Later: Rebuilding After the Great Tōhoku Earthquake

March 09, 2012

James Gannon is executive director of the Japan Center for International Exchange/USA, which works to strengthen U.S.-Japan cooperation across a range of fields. Recently, Laura Cronin, a regular contributor to PhilanTopic, spoke with Gannon about the progress of rebuilding efforts in the quake- and tsunami-affected Tohoku region of the country.

James_gannon.jpgPhilanthropy News Digest: The earthquake and tsunami affected a four hundred-mile region along the northeastern coast of Japan -- an area roughly comparable to the BosWash corridor in the United States. What are conditions in the region like now, a year later? And how have people in the affected region, and the country at large, been changed as a result of the disaster?

James Gannon: Even now, some communities are still disposing of rubble, while things appear almost normal in other, less-hard-hit areas. Compared to the scenes of utter devastation we saw a year ago, there has been extraordinary progress. But if you spend any time in these communities, you realize the depth of the wounds. More than three hundred thousand people are still without homes, and that is weakening traditional community ties. Many of the jobs in the fishing industry, agriculture, and small business have not returned, resulting in high unemployment and all the social problems it brings.

Meanwhile, women who lost family members, men who are ashamed that they can no longer support their families, and children traumatized by the disaster are grappling with mental health issues. The stoicism of the people in the Tōhoku region is stunning -- even by Japanese standards -- but most acknowledge that the road to recovery will be long.

On the other hand, there has been a resurgence of ambition and a sense of mission in the country. Seeing what's at stake, many people -- especially young people -- are losing patience with the status quo, and that is bound to affect politics, business, and society in general. In particular, many young people are searching for ways to contribute to the recovery by seeking out careers in the nonprofit sector, partly because Japanese nonprofits have played such a visible and indispensable role in helping the nation recover from the disaster. It is not entirely accurate, but some people cite the 1995 Kobe earthquake, when thousands of volunteers streamed into the city to help, as the birth of civil society in Japan. To extend the analogy, the 3/11 disaster is likely to be seen by historians as the coming of age of Japanese civil society.

PND: U.S. nonprofits responded by collecting funds and then collaborating with Japanese groups. Can you describe what those partnerships have looked like and give donors a few tips about best practices for operating on an emergency basis with overseas partners?

JG: At JCIE, we just completed a survey which estimates that Americans donated $630 million for disaster recovery efforts -- the largest philanthropic outpouring in U.S. history to help another developed nation. And while forty different U.S. nonprofits raised more than $1 million for the disaster, it's clear that the ones which have been most effective are those that worked in close partnership with Japanese organizations on the ground. Those that succeeded tended to do one of two things: they fundraised specifically for Japanese organizations, giving those organizations wide latitude to use the funds as they saw fit; or they forged partnerships that involved intensive interactions with the organizations that eventually received their funds and based Japanese-speaking staff on the ground to help with coordination.

Partnerships are always hard. The U.S. side has been surprised at just how limited the capacity of Japan's relatively young nonprofit sector is, while the over-extended staff in Japanese NGOs have found it difficult to explain that things need to be done differently in Japan, even when it seems counterintuitive. The partnerships that have been most successful have had three characteristics. One is a strong level of mutual trust, ideally built up before the disaster. The second is the availability of funding to support personnel and overhead costs for Japanese partners, especially since domestic Japanese funders are reluctant to cover administrative expenses. And the third is a long time horizon. The situation in the disaster zone has been extraordinarily fluid, and that has been compounded by uncertainty about government policy as overburdened national and local
officials have scrambled to keep up with events. Many excellent NGO initiatives have been scuttled at the last minute just because national or local government funding suddenly became available for a competing project or because unanticipated policy shifts made a given course of action unwise.

PND: The Internet and social media bring a new immediacy to natural and human-made disasters. People see events unfolding in real time and can donate with the click of a mouse or instantly through their smartphones. How did the new environment enabling rapid-fire donations play out in the context of the Tōhoku quake?

JG: It was a great blessing and, frankly, it saved many lives. But it also created imbalances. While groups with and without expertise in Japan scrambled to react to the disaster, roughly 70 percent of U.S. funding ended up going to large American development and relief agencies with no specific country expertise. That's because they had the technological and fundraising expertise to quickly launch online appeals, the media savvy to get the word out, and the trust of the general public. While they often face pressure to disburse their funds quickly, they've done a good job of getting money into the hands of major disaster relief groups in Japan. Compared to groups with more Japan expertise, however, it has been harder for them to drill down to the community level and identify the types of small, local nonprofits that are indispensable to any long-term recovery. So, one can see how the turbocharged nature of the philanthropic response to the disaster may have skewed funding toward relief and away from recovery, where it is now sorely needed.

PND: JCIE is a small nonprofit by American standards. Yet because it was one of the few Japanese groups with a U.S. staff and cross-cultural experience, it had to take on a whole new role the afternoon of March 11. What did your team learn in the days and weeks that followed, and what recommendations do you have for NPOs that may find themselves faced with the same kind of "emergency mission drift"?

JG: At JCIE, we had to make a hard-nosed decision about whether we could contribute in a sustainable manner by launching a disaster fund. We were fortunate in that we had three decades of experience in philanthropic facilitation, and the decision to launch a fund was in keeping with our overall mission. Our fundraising efforts naturally evolved into a broader effort to advise other overseas donors and directly link them with Japanese organizations that needed and need help. Still, I think all U.S.-based groups responding to the disaster -- including JCIE -- underestimated the amount of staff time required to do this properly. Another thing many U.S. organizations overlooked is the fact that it is not necessary, and often not advisable, to spend time trying to identify the final beneficiary of a grant or award. There are a number of good intermediary organizations in Japan that are familiar with local conditions and are more than capable of re-granting to effective community-based organizations.

PND: Because Japan is a rich country with lots of high-tech infrastructure -- including nuclear plants and factories linked to the global just-in time manufacturing economy -- the experience of a massive disaster was very different for it than it would have been for a less industrialized country. A year after the quake and tsunami, what can we learn from Japan in terms of relief and recovery, as well as preparedness and emergency planning?

JG: We can learn so much. Japan's disaster preparedness is light years ahead of ours, and we would do well to study what worked. For example, all twenty-seven bullet trains that were operating in the region when the quake hit were stopped automatically by earthquake sensors so that not a single one derailed. Earthquake sensors also shut down elevators in Tokyo and elsewhere as the first rumblings were detected, so that only a hundred and sixty-three people needed to be rescued from stalled elevators. It's hard to imagine New York City faring so well.

Examining why some communities have been bounced back more quickly is also enlightening. The places where the recovery has really taken hold all tend to have strong local leaders, mechanisms in place to empower local citizens to help themselves, and a vibrant web of formal and informal community organizations.

Finally, it's the first time ever that Americans have tried to provide disaster aid to another developed country, at least on this scale. And the experience has clearly demonstrated the wisdom of strengthening ties between disaster relief organizations here and in other countries through regular interaction before disaster strikes. That's something all disaster relief organizations should keep in mind as they think about their capacity and plan for the future.

-- Laura Cronin

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