Follow The Money: Japan Disaster Relief

Jun 6, 2012

Over the past year, people and businesses in the Pacific Northwest have contributed tens of millions of dollars to Japanese earthquake and tsunami relief. It's an unfamiliar situation for a wealthy, industrialized country like Japan to be the recipient of international relief funds. Correspondent Tom

Banse visited Japan to see where the money went. He found widespread appreciation among Japanese people. At the same time, a poll shows they have less trust in the non-profit sector than they did a year ago.

Banse: "The huge tsunami waves that swept through Minamisanriku wiped out nearly 70 percent of the housing stock in this little bay front fishing town. It looks a little bit like a Roman ruin now, just the foundations sticking up on a wide plain. It's been nearly a year and a quarter now since the disaster and still behind me three backhoes are sorting through an enormous pile of gathered debris for future recycling."

There are few signs of rebuilding in this hard hit town besides the new seafood processing sheds on the harbor front. Thousands of local tsunami survivors still live in prefab temporary housing compounds. They look like barracks dropped on school playfields and empty lots.

In this distant, shattered place, there's a Pacific Northwest connection... a bunch of connections actually, including relief worker Mari Poorman. She works for the Seattle-based non-profit Peace Winds America along with its Japanese sister organization. Poorman says reviving the local fishing economy was a natural cause to gravitate to.

Poorman: "Especially from Seattle, we are from the marine industry. We are strong, we know how they feel. Coming from Seattle, I knew we needed to help the fishing industry and the fishermen."

Peace Winds is joined on scene by Portland-based Mercy Corps. It bought new tubs and harvesting equipment for growers of edible seaweed. Suburban Seattle-based World Vision also came. It replaced small boats and fish storage freezers that washed away. Numerous American donors collaborated to furnish the prefab temporary housing provided by the government. Mari Poorman says Peace Winds America also paid for a temporary office building for the local fishing cooperative.

Poorman: "We've been helping to revive their office capabilities so that they can start working and they can go back to the sea faster."

Seaweed grower Norio Sasaki says he lost almost everything in the tsunami. He says the Japanese government and many domestic volunteers provided assistance, but the international aid is much appreciated as well.

Sasaki: "To us, the damage was immense. It was a devastating situation and the aid from the Japanese government just wasn't enough. Which is why I think the circle of aid spread outside of the country."

At the same time, an opinion survey in Japan finds rising doubts in the capabilities of the government and non-profits. The global PR firm Edelman conducts an annual survey of trust in business and public institutions.

Tokyo-based director Ross Rowbury says the latest poll shows Japanese trust in non-governmental organizations fell sharply over the past year (from 54 percent to 28 percent who trust that sector "to do what is right").

Rowbury: "With all the good work being done by NGOs in the post disaster scenario, we felt that we would actually have seen a rise in credibility and trust in NGOs, but in fact, it fell. I think the issue has been one of transparency."

Rowbury explains by "transparency," he means concerns about how people's donations were used.

Rowbury: "We heard stories about warehouses full of stuff that wasn't really reaching the people it need to reach; NGOs coming out announcing that a large proportion of donations was actually going to administrative charges."

The American Red Cross confirms it held back 9 percent of the donations it collected for Japan as an administrative fee. In a statement, it claims that degree of overhead is quite efficient.

Peace Winds project director Mari Poorman says ensuring "accountability" is a big reason why she's still in Japan more than a year after the earthquake and tsunami struck.

Poorman: "How to present what we've done is very important, but I feel very good and confident that our relief projects are being very successful."

A one year anniversary report by western Washington-based World Vision describes other challenges it had to overcome. Initially, many Japanese officials were unfamiliar with international relief groups and how they could be useful. Also, in some hard hit coastal towns there simply wasn't much left of the local government to coordinate with. World Vision has budgeted for at least three years of disaster recovery assistance in Japan. Peace Winds' Mari Poorman says even in a first world country like Japan, a disaster this big requires a long-term commitment.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio