Disaster Relief: Contrasting Haiti and Japan

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An earthquake and tsunami struck Japan's northeastern Honshu island. credit: Corbis

Japan and Haiti are both islands that recently suffered massive earthquakes, though the disasters—and the responses to the devastation—have been very different.

In Japan, rescuers and relief workers who mobilized to treat thousands of badly injured victims soon discovered that their preparations were not needed. There were very few injured people to care for because most of those directly hit by the tsunami were killed outright.

According to New York Times writer Martin Fackler, "few of the survivors who crowded into schools and other makeshift shelters needed emergency medical attention. The Americans said they evacuated only a small number of injured."

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(A similar situation occurred in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. In the days following, the Red Cross collected hundreds of thousands of blood donations to treat survivors, though it was soon clear that much of the blood was going to be wasted; only five people were pulled alive from the Twin Tower rubble.)

This is a direct consequence of another contrast between Haiti and Japan: While Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, Japan is one of the richest. The government has billions of dollars at its disposal, not only to help its stricken citizens, but also to pay for earthquake-resistant buildings and bridges.

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Japan is perhaps the best-prepared country for such a disaster; in Haiti, the nature of the disaster was very different. Poorly-built structures across the island collapsed on people during the earthquake, leaving thousands of injured and maimed.

Of course just because Japan is rich does not mean that doesn't need help, for it surely does; any country, rich or poor, that has suffered such devastation should receive humanitarian aid—assuming they want it.

And this brings us to yet another difference: while Haiti immediately issued a plea for international assistance, the Japanese government and Red Cross made it clear from the first day that it does not need nor want assistance from other countries.

As of about a week ago, Japan had accepted aid from fewer than 20 of the over 100 countries that had offered it. Holden Karnofsky, a founder of GiveWell, a Web site that scrutinizes charities, told the New York Times, “The Japanese government has made it clear it has the resources it needs for this disaster.”

Eventually the outpouring of aid and good will broke down even the stoic Japanese; after nearly two weeks of pressure—and millions of dollars raised—the Japanese Red Cross eventually agreed to accept donations.

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