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Are charities taking advantage of the urge to help Japan?

The earthquake in Japan has gripped Canadians for days and prompted many charities to issue urgent appeals for donations to fund relief work. So far almost $10-million has poured into organizations such as the Canadian Red Cross, World Vision Canada, Care Canada, Save the Children and Oxfam.

But it's not clear all of the money is actually needed and it appears some non-profits are using the earthquake to raise money for other programs.

"There are organizations that are using the Japan situation to raise funds, while kind of putting it in the fine print that [the money] might not go there," said Elie Hassenfeld, co-founder of GiveWell, a New York based non-profit organization that evaluates charities. "Our overall advice is that right now it doesn't appear that there is a real need for more funding in Japan."

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Mr. Hassenfeld points out that Japan is a major economy with a highly developed disaster-relief program that has little need of outside help. The Japanese government's response has involved more than 200,000 people and dozens of agencies. While 113 countries have offered to help in various ways, Japan has taken up just 14 offers, most involving specialized search and rescue teams.

The Japanese Red Cross has not issued an international appeal. The organization "has determined that external assistance is not required, and is therefore not seeking funding or other assistance from donors at this time," said a bulletin issued this week by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Even the United Nations conceded this week that while it has sent a disaster-response team to Japan, the deployment was unusual because "the government of Japan has a very strong disaster-preparedness and response mechanism in place."

None of that has stopped several Canadian charities from making pitches for donations. Many, such as Oxfam Canada, have put photos, videos and updates of disaster-relief efforts on their websites, coupled with requests for donations.

"We don't have a big appeal," said Mark Fried, a policy co-ordinator at Oxfam Canada. "We recognize that the government is able to do most of what needs to be done."

Even so, Oxfam has raised about $330,000 so far in conjunction with Care Canada and Save the Children. Mr. Fried said Oxfam does take the opportunity to ask donors if they would like to contribute to other programs. "We do provide that option for people when they call to give money," he said. "We are not trading on [the earthquake]. If you are concerned about people suffering overseas, you'll want to know what we are doing and where we are doing things."

Care Canada spokeswoman Alexandra Lopoukhine said the charity is prepared to shut down the Japan appeal "if it does become apparent that we have [raised] enough money." She defended the practice of asking for donations for other places. "Any time there's an opportunity to raise awareness of crises that are not being played out in the media, that's golden. That's what we're here for."

The Canadian Red Cross has raised $7.7-million so far. By law any money raised specifically for Japan relief must be spent on that cause, which means the Red Cross could be stuck with unspent donations. Spokeswoman Pam Aung Thin said the organization is working with the Japanese Red Cross and it is confident all donations will be used. "We don't know what the exact needs are going to be yet, but we do know there are going to be needs," she said.

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World Vision Canada has collected $800,000 for Japan relief and has a goal of $3-million. Some of that money, however, could go elsewhere, according to a disclaimer on the organization's online donation form. "In cases where donations exceed what is needed or where local conditions prevent program implementation, World Vision Canada will redirect funds to similar activities to help needy people," the disclaimer says.

Spokeswoman Caroline Riseboro said all money raised for Japan will be spent in that country. She acknowledged the disclaimer suggests otherwise, but said money will not be diverted. "I can definitely assure you that any money raised for Japan will be spent in Japan in order to address the emergency needs."

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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