Redeeming Disaster in Japan
Whose Story Counts?
Time and scale matter greatly in relief operations. They often determine how much it is going to cost to deliver results. But when relief groups focus only on metrics, saving lives is reduced to feeding the hungry, providing roofs over heads, and giving water to the thirsty.
The language of organizations drives what kinds of needs count most, what type of aid has functional value, and how an intervention should be delivered and its success measured. An organization's "story" shapes how they provide aid and how they measure results.
The paradigm that drives and controls this whole process is cost-effectiveness. It is the paradigm of faster and bigger is better. I call this the McDonaldization of human compassion: to deliver as much as possible, as fast as possible, to as many people as possible, at as low a cost as possible. (Sociologist George Ritzer, in his 1993 book, The McDonaldization of Society, claims that the fast-food industry's goals of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control have crept into other social sectors and dehumanized individuals.)
In the first year after the 2011 disaster, more than $5 billion in aid overwhelmed local leaders in the disaster zone. In hindsight, aid experts realized there were too many cases of mismatches between local need and available assistance, unwelcome cookie-cutter programs, and a leadership vacuum.
But there are grassroots counterexamples, and local Japanese Christians are pioneering new approaches. One is from Grace Garden Chapel in Koriyama, a midsized city 40 miles west of Fukushima Daiichi. The region's largest shelter was located near this church.
After the first few weeks of volunteering at the shelter, church leaders decided to help a limited number of families, only the ones that they could help while maintaining personal relationships. In the selection process, they chose to help the evacuees who clearly wanted to reestablish their lives permanently.
This was an "expensive" way of providing relief assistance, but church leaders wanted to ensure that family relationships were respected and adequate personal and emotional care was provided. Throughout the whole program operation, Grace Garden stuck to one principle: Keep the motivation genuine to love neighbors, and do not use material goods to win converts.
The husband-wife pastoral team was convicted by Jeremiah 29. (The name of their church is derived from the Jewish exiles' garden in Babylon, referenced in verses 4–5.) This Scripture passage influenced how volunteers responded to the needs of survivors, physically and spiritually.
Other counterexamples come from trained volunteers who used their imagination to develop new programs: massaging the hands of elderly evacuees, foot-washings, mobile coffeehouses, safe spaces for grief counseling, restoring flood-damaged photo albums, decontaminating farmland, posttrauma camps for young children, and a baseball festival. (See "Beauty From Broken Things.")
The temptation to take a utilitarian approach over a people-centered one is strong, say many relief experts. But when personal, even creative, attention gets sidelined by efficiency, broken communities cannot experience full restoration or lasting change after disaster.
Rapid intervention after disaster is excellent at producing measurable, short-term results, saving countless lives. But long-term restoration and sustainability are far more difficult.