A World of Difference: Disaster Response in Japan and Haiti

April 4, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

A Japanese man finds his friend's car in the tsunami debris in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture, on April 2, 2011. (Yashuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)
A Japanese man finds his friend's car in the tsunami debris in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture, on April 2, 2011. (Yashuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)
Foreign humanitarian aid workers in Japan comment on two aspects of the disaster: the indescribable destruction the tsunami wrought, and the impressive response of the Japanese government.

“It’s hard to describe the desolation left by a tsunami, because there is so little left that is nameable. The word that comes to mind is wasteland: A static marsh of mud, wooden planks, torn up land, unidentifiable fragments of metal,” wrote Malka Older on her blog. She is team leader for Mercy Corps’ response in Japan.

Aid workers say how quickly that wasteland is changing is impressive. The progress of a few days is noticeable. Working in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture, the Japanese government was able to respond almost immediately after the tsunami, providing people affected with shelter, food, and water. Now, three weeks later, the government is already building temporary shelters, wrote Older.

“I find it refreshing to see a country that has this capacity with its own resources to provide such leadership and structure,” said Randy Martin, who directs Mercy Corps’ global emergency response. He is in Japan working with Mercy Corps’ Japan-based partner, Peace Winds.

But because the Japanese government is running the relief operations, Martin says foreign workers are out of the loop. Coordination meetings are held in Japanese, documents are in Japanese, and everyone is speaking Japanese.

He says this is very different from disaster relief in developing countries, where the United Nations and foreign aid workers are coordinating the response, they usually impose English as the language of aid—key information and coordination are in English.

This is what happened in French-speaking Haiti, where the International Council of Voluntary Agencies estimates that 3,000 to 20,000 aid groups were providing assistance after the earthquake.

The Haitian government had very little capacity to do anything. The government infrastructure was devastated in the capital of Port-au-Prince. And, as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti was already relying on international aid to provide many services to Haitians.

When the quake and tsunami struck Japan, about two dozen countries immediately sent search and rescue teams to help—but few have stayed for longer-term relief work.

Those groups still there are the ones that were already there to begin with. Organizations Red Cross, Save the Children, CARE, and World Vision have long-established Japan branches with local staff—although the focus of their work was fundraising and supporting aid in other countries.