Charity begins at home, not in Japan

As search and rescue efforts continue in Japan, the police announced last Saturday that 7 197 people were confirmed dead since the monster earthquake and ensuing tsunami struck.

But over 10 905 people are still reported missing and over 2 600 more injured.

Such statistics involving human lives are surely distressing, but Japan has shown that emergency preparedness pays off and can mitigate the impact of disasters of any magnitude.

The size of that earthquake and ensuing tsunami had the potential to devour more lives and structures than currently reported.

Despite being in a traumatised state after being shaken by its worst disaster in recent memory, Japan is already battling to restore the basics of life for a shocked and vulnerable population, including hundreds of thousands crowded into evacuation centres, and slowly getting back on its feet.

As the events in Japan unfold, the plight of Japanese people drew sympathy from far and wide.

The rich, the poor, and the ambitious were compelled to play their part in lifting the burden off the shoulders of the Japanese.

If public sympathy from the past week is anything to go by, especially here in South Africa, one would be forgiven for concluding that this world has no shortage of well-wishing and well-meaning people bequeathed with the defiant spirit to save human lives.

Most aid development agencies here were inundated with calls and inquiries from people wanting to either donate or volunteer their services to alleviate the suffering of the people of Japan.

For the first time in the history of humanitarian aid, most agencies were caught in an unusually complicated situation.

Japan didn’t need extra manpower, whether in the form of aid workers or volunteers.

Secondly, Japan was not desperate for cash or material donations hence no major appeals were launched.

And for a disaster of that magnitude, surely that was one of the strangest phenomena ever faced by the humanitarian world?

Perhaps it is vital to underscore that Japan is one of the biggest economies in the world and they have enough to finance their relief and recovery.

Their prime minister was quoted recently saying his government is ready “to recreate Japan”.

Reports from Japan suggest that everyone in the country is trained in emergency preparedness and response as earthquakes are a common phenomenon.

This is done through programmes such as national youth service.

The Japanese Red Cross alone boasts over 2,5 million specialist and active volunteers which explains why the country did not need extra manpower.

The government also trains self-defence soldiers in addition to their traditional military.

And all these are activated during a disaster.

The only foreign rescue teams deployed in Japan so far are specialists on a government-to-government arrangement.

There are a number of lessons to be drawn from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami disaster.

Firstly, charity begins at home. It boggles the mind that individuals and corporates, especially in South Africa, are able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Japan (a country which does not need the money) when here in South Africa there are thousands of families that are still reeling under the effects of the recent flooding disasters.

If this is inspired by a genuine desire for a better world, then why not start with the person next to you?

Secondly, effective emergency preparedness and disaster response system begins with local people. Rescue and response efforts in Japan are being undertaken by Japanese citizens.

This does not only mitigate or reduce the disaster impact but it is cheap and hassle-free.

Thirdly, Japan has shown us that youth and volunteers are an important resource.

Over 2,5 million volunteers just for one organisation is a massive staff complement, good enough to handle a disaster of any size.

In most countries, Zimbabwe included, national youth service is used for political reasons.

And in an emergency, “Green Bombers” usually join my 90-year-old grandmother in the queue for a pack of food aid yet in Japan youth are the providers of aid.

It would be impossible to recommend deployment unless you are a member of an organisation
Finally, for those who wish to be deployed in emergencies, it is not easy to recommend the deployment of a stranger unless you are a member of a volunteer organisation.

Coincidentally, 2011 marks a decade of the international year of volunteers, a good opportunity to encourage people to participate in worthy causes.

Volunteerism is one way of empowering people to be an active part in the development of their own communities, to take responsibility for the needs of others, and to make an impact in their own lives.

Volunteering and charity often starts at home; but if we all work together, volunteerism can change the world.

Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa

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