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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Donations slow in finding way to victims


Staff writer

OSAKA — Of the more than ¥251.4 billion collected for survivors of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, only about 15 percent had been distributed by the beginning of this month, largely due to the scale of the disaster and the lack of local manpower to distribute the funds.

The fund distribution process starts with allocations decided by a government committee, then routed to prefectures, which then distribute funds to cities, towns and villages to pass out to the designated victims.

But the scale of the twin disasters wiped out many local governments, rendering them incapable of distributing all the money on their own.

Of the ¥251.4 billion collected, mostly through the Japanese Red Cross, the committee had sent ¥84.1 billion to 15 prefectures as of June 10. However, the actual amount that the prefectures and cities, towns and villages distributed further down the chain was about ¥37 billion — roughly 15 percent of the total.

"There are lots of problems with getting the money into the hands of people, due to reasons such as the fact that there is often no way to deposit the funds in somebody's account because their bank was wiped out," said Sayaka Matsumoto, a Japanese Red Cross spokeswoman. "The scale of the disaster means that time is needed [by local government authorities] to confirm if a person's house was fully or partially destroyed, and this is one of the reasons there has been a lag in distributing the funds."

The Japanese Red Cross is involved with the government committee and prefectural branches are members of the disbursement committee where criteria is decided. But it is not involved with actually dispensing the cash. That's a task entrusted to local towns and villages, all of which have been hit hard by the quake and tsunami and face manpower shortages.

At the first meeting, the committee decided that relatives of those killed or missing, or those who lived within a 30-km radius of the leaking Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, would receive ¥350,000 per household. Those whose homes were partially damaged would receive ¥180,000.

The casualty toll as of June 1 put the confirmed death toll at 15,300, with another 8,300 missing. The number of people who lost their homes came to about 100,000.

Of the ¥84.1 billion, Fukushima Prefecture had received ¥35 billion, Miyagi ¥34.4 billion and Iwate ¥10.4 billion as of Friday, with the remainder distributed to a dozen other prefectures from Hokkaido to Kanagawa.

The national committee consists of about two dozen representatives from academia, welfare organizations, the Japanese Red Cross and NHK, as well as representatives from 15 prefectures affected by the quake and tsunami.

After the national committee met on June 6, it was decided that the 15 prefectures will receive donations depending on the size of the damage of the sustained prefectures. A prefectural committee decides how much each household gets. The cash is then sent to the city or village for distribution to those households.

The Japanese Red Cross has a system for distributing the funds that looks straightforward on paper but is fraught with potential problems.

Donations received from individuals and corporations in and out of Japan that are sent directly to the Japanese Red Cross are managed by the national committee, which sets guidelines based largely on the advice it receives from 15 prefectural representatives.

Once the guidelines are decided, the prefectural representatives convey the committee's decisions to their prefectural governments, which then receive their allotted share of the donations promised by the committee. The prefectures, in turn, decide which of their cities, towns and villages are in greatest need of the money, and it is the local governments that actually hand over the cash to the survivors.

But in the past, there have been problems between victims, local governments and the Japanese Red Cross over a lack of transparency regarding the disbursement system.

A few years after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, Hyogo Prefecture and Kobe were found to have been keeping in reserve billions of yen in donations for long-term disaster-relief projects, rather than distributing the money sent for victims' immediate needs.

More of the money, but not all the funds, was distributed after groups of victims demanded the funds be turned directly over to the thousands who were still living in temporary shelters.

Then there are donations made by those overseas to their national Red Cross or Red Crescent organizations, which appealed for donations to help Japan. But unlike the funds it receives directly, donations gathered by overseas Red Cross organizations and handed over to the Japanese Red Cross are not distributed in cash.

Funds received in this manner are actually used to purchase six specific household electronic goods, as needed, for those made homeless and living in either temporary shelters or public housing — a washing machine, a refrigerator, a TV, a rice cooker, a microwave oven and an electric pot for coffee or tea.

But while the Japanese Red Cross website clearly spells out in Japanese how funds received from overseas Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are used, and while the English-language section of the site offers a general explanation of how direct donations to their organization are distributed, potential donors from overseas who click onto their own country's website may find less transparency.

For example, as of last Thursday, the "Donate Funds" section of the American Red Cross website read, "Your gift to the American Red Cross will support our disaster relief efforts to help those affected by the earthquake in Japan and tsunami throughout the Pacific."

There is no mention of what, exactly, the money is being used to purchase.

Kazuaki Omura, a 64-year-old Hyogo Prefecture resident involved in local efforts to get the Japanese Red Cross to disburse funds donated for Kobe quake victims, pointed out that transparency in the decision-making and distribution process is critical.

"While there are good reasons why distributing the money has been delayed, it's critical that the distribution process on the part of the Red Cross and the local governments be not only speedy, but also transparent," said Omura.

"Otherwise, Tohoku people may find they, like the Kobe quake victims, aren't receiving donations not because of logistics reasons but because of an opaque decision-making process and a lack of accountability," he said.



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