Gillian Yeoh is the Project Lead for disaster projects and the primary author of this blog. Since 2006, Ms. Yeoh has led coordination and grantmaking for Give2Asia’s disaster response in the Asia-Pacific region. She can be reached at email@example.com. In September 2011, Gillian authored a report on disaster philanthropy, which outlines lessons and best practices for disaster giving compiled by Give2Asia over the course of last 10 years. The full report is available for download. She also published a CNN opinion piece in 2010 with key disaster giving guidelines for donors wishing to give in response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti.
As I reflect on the past year of recovery efforts in Japan, and what I have learned from the site visits I conducted, I am inspired by the resilience of the many people I have met whose lives are forever changed by the disaster that started a year ago. One particular story of survival, and now of leadership, still resonates with me as Give2Asia continues to analyze and assess the situation in Tohoku and the ongoing needs of the affected communities.
When I first met Mr. Sato (Sato-san) in November, we were at a temporary housing area in Kitakamicho-jusanhama, Japan. With our Board Chairman, his guests, and our local advisor, we were welcomed warmly into his small temporary house to his living room. The small room was filled with photos of Sato-san’s wife and grandson. We solemnly sat around a kotatsu (a low, wooden table frame covered by a futon or heavy blanket) when Sato-san began to share his story.
“My wife and grandson are still missing,” Sato-san, a 70-year old Tohoku fisherman explained. “The tsunami was estimated at 6 meters, but was actually 20 meters high. My wife, my three brothers and I ran to a place that was 15 meters high because of the report. All I remember is holding on as the waves washed over me again and again. When I came to, my wife was missing. That night, I walked through 10 centimeters of snow to my wife’s hometown, but I could not find her.”
It is accounts like this that continue to motivate our work. In the immediate wake of the disaster, Give2Asia established the Japan Earthquake & Tsunami Fund to support affected communities. Thanks to our US-based partners such as the Japan Society of Northern California, Keizai Society, Artists Help Japan, JPRI at the University of San Francisco, and many corporations, Give2Asia raised US$5.64 million. In the past year, Give2Asia has supported 15 relief and recovery projects across Tohoku with $2.55 million in grants. Along with our donors, we plan to continue working with capable local organizations to make targeted, strategic impact in Tohoku over the next few years.
Give2Asia has responded to over 30 disasters in Asia since our founding in 2001, mobilizing over US$34.7 million in support. Based on our experience and prior work in Japan, we designed a disaster response strategy specifically in response to Tohoku. To ensure the best use of the our donors’ generosity, Give2Asia is supporting innovative ideas that require seed funding to demonstrate proof of concept, scale to expand, or graduate to public or corporate funding. We also encourage our local partners to effectively empower and involve the survivors in the recovery process and to share information and networking initiatives to strengthen and amplify recovery efforts. In addition, we work closely with local partners on finding creative solutions to problems of coordination and information gaps.
Due to the extent of the disasters, there are many needs still unmet. Philanthropy has an opportunity to fill these critical gaps. On my visits to Japan, I have learned a lot about these local needs from our on-the-ground partners. From my encounters with beneficiaries, such as Sato-san, I have also gained insight into opportunities for philanthropy to continue to meet the real needs of survivors.
As a general rule after disasters, previously vulnerable populations become more vulnerable and societal or systemic issues are exacerbated. Even prior to the tsunami, Tohoku was challenged with an aging population. Often, 30 to 40 percent of populations in affected coastal villages and towns were over 65 years old. At the moment, Japan, let alone rural Tohoku, lacks sufficient gerontologist and other elderly care providers. Many organizations working in the region still identify the elderly as one of the most vulnerable populations. Despite the clear needs there has been a dearth of funding support for services for the elderly and persons with disabilities. This presents an opportunity for philanthropy to support programs focused on the elderly in Tohoku. There are programs to help the elderly, including on-demand community buses for the elderly living in temporary houses, training for home care providers, or community building programs for the elderly.
Employment development programs are also very important to help sustainable recovery of the disaster affected region. In the early months after the disaster, Sato-san and his fellow fishermen and fisherwomen (in Tohoku, approximately 20 percent of people who make a living from fishing are women) were unable to rebuild their lives due to the destruction of their boats, aquaculture farms, ports, and the fishery-related factories. Thanks to the Pacific Asian Resource Center Interpeople’s Cooperative (PARCIC), a Give2Asia local partner, Sato-san is now leading his community’s new fishing cooperative. In that role he has helped rebuild the wakame seaweed farms and seen them through to their first post-tsunami harvest.
There is also an opportunity for philanthropy to step in to support organizations that are trying to revitalize the local economy in Tohoku. In addition to PARCIC, there are many other local organizations that have long-term recovery programs. Eat and Energize the East (EEE) for instance, is connecting local food producers with direct retailers, companies and food producers. EEE is also testing products to assuage the fear of radiation contaminated food from Tohoku caused by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Meanwhile, Peace Boat Disaster Volunteer Center is mobilizing its volunteers to help the affected communities recover their tools, desalinate their farms, and reopen ice factories. There are also 39 young social entrepreneurs in Tohoku with various innovative projects to revitalize the economy in Tohoku. These entrepreneurs are receiving support from Entrepreneurial Training for Innovative Communities (ETIC) through fellows and capacity building support.
Another unmet need is mental health care. There are concerns that there may be self-neglect, self-abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and suicide among the survivors. Due to the stigma of mental health in Japan, mental health professionals are worried that many who suffer are remaining silent. It is therefore important to recognize the real threat of mental illness and support organizations that advocate and educate victims about diagnosis and treatment. Organizations such as Miyagi Mental Health Welfare Association (MMHWA), an affiliate of Tohoku University, are striving to address this need. MMHWA is conducting outreach programs to provide free mental health services and raise awareness about mental health care for survivors. It is also providing disaster training and coordination for on-the-ground doctors, community organizations and mental health workers in Tohoku on detection and early intervention of alcohol abuse, PTSD and depression.
The effects of mental illness are not limited to those who suffer from it. The increase in stress, PTSD and depression may also lead to an increase in gender-based violence and an additional burden on women. As women typically have the responsibility to care for the children, the elderly, and manage the family’s meals, the disaster has increased their stress due to the disaster’s impact on childcare services, elderly care services, and their household income. Several organizations have recognized this need and are focused on women’s programs. Madre Bonita and Tokyo Satogaeri for instance, are supporting expectant and nursing mothers affected by the March 2011 disasters. These organizations are providing basic support and pre-natal care to affected women to combat the increased risk of miscarriage or labor complications and difficulty.
The Road Ahead
A lot has been accomplished in the year since the disaster struck. Still, most of the local groups that I have met estimate that the Tohoku recovery will take over a decade. Because it is unrealistic to expect international philanthropy to support Tohoku throughout the years, it is crucial to involve local communities in the programs that we support. This ensures that the affected community gains ownership of the program and will continue rebuilding their own lives, one step at a time. At the end of our meeting, Sato-san said he was much more motivated to rebuild his community and his livelihood because he met us and understood the compassion and support that he was receiving from donors across the world.
I strongly believe that philanthropy and the social sector have a crucial role in the long-term recovery of Tohoku. It is the risk capital of philanthropy and the innovation of the social sector that have the flexibility and expertise to test new ideas, pilot new initiatives and build the capacity of local leaders and catalysts for change. It is also philanthropy that can ensure unmet needs are addressed and survivors are neither forgotten nor ignored, but rather touched by the compassion that motivates individual donors to give.
Donors who are interested to continue supporting the long term recovery of Tohoku can learn more about the current needs and philanthropic opportunities in Tohoku at our website at http://give2asia.org/japantsunami-2011.