6 months after earthquake
When the earthquake and tsunami hit the coast of Japan on March 11, it was clear the scale of this disaster, compounded by the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, was unprecedented ― even for Japan, which has some 20 percent of the world’s earthquakes.
We’ve all seen the photos and footage of the havoc wreaked on homes and schools. We’ve heard the stories of loss and desperation. We know that the crisis directly affected over 100,000 children through displacement, loss of family, high levels of stress and anxiety, and loss of education.
So what makes this disaster different than others? Save the Children has been responding to emergencies for over 90 years ― you’d think that we would have seen it all. The context in Japan, however, makes the situation here different than anything we’ve seen before.
Right after the crisis hit, the government began deploying resources to meet the needs of families whose homes had been destroyed. Despite all their best efforts, however, some needs were going unmet ― and that’s where aid agencies like Save the Children stepped in to fill the gaps.
In six months since the disaster, Save the Children has provided essential emergency items to hundreds of families and helped thousands of children to cope with emotional stress, to return to school, and to voice their hopes for the future of their communities. As one mother told us, “You have made my child smile again.”
Providing specific services and essential materials to children ― the most vulnerable in any emergency _ is what we do best. In this response, however, we’ve been working in a different environment, where the public is not used to aid agencies providing relief, traditionally seen as a government role.
Beyond the level of destruction, what really makes this crisis different is the role of the third sector in Japan ― from local-level community-based groups and parent-teacher associations, to national-level non-profits and even international NGOs like Save the Children.
In comparison to many areas where Save the Children responds to disasters, Japan has strong government structures and a relatively weak institutionalized civil society.
While the concept of civil society, or shimin shakai, has been a strong Japanese value for almost 400 years _ built on ideas around community solidarity, the concept of a formalized civil society only began to significantly evolve in 1995 with the Kobe earthquake, where the engagement of non-profits and volunteers in the response accelerated the growth of the third sector, building on the centuries-old values of community solidarity.
Even by early 2011, however, local civil society organizations in Japan had not yet taken a significant service provision role, and still relied heavily on government subsidies, reducing their ability to add to public debate. International NGOs like Save the Children received less state funding but concentrated their efforts on development assistance and emergency relief overseas.
This began to change in the months following the crisis on March 11. The earthquake and tsunami has highlighted a dramatic shift in the role of the third sector in Japan, illustrated by the huge surge in funding that came in from the public, compared to what civil society organizations received following the Kobe earthquake.
The extent of this funding increase to civil society illustrates a change in Japanese public perceptions and expectations of the role of the third sector in disaster response.
This is a turning point for Japanese civil society. The emergency and its aftermath have resulted in a shift in thinking about the role of civil society organizations and a realization that these actually formalize the idea of community solidarity.
We are seeing not the emergence of civil society in the public consciousness as an abstract idea, but as a formalized need, in a country where in the past the people had always expected ― and mostly received ― such services from government.
Observing this change in expectations, national and local governments, in addition to the corporate sector, have now begun recognizing NGOs as potential partners in relief and rehabilitation programs.
Six months after the crisis, international NGOs like Save the Children are growing into a unique role, beginning to facilitate interaction and develop partnerships across the three sectors ― government, corporations and civil society.
In the past six months, we have witnessed and experienced this growth first hand ― building partnerships with leading corporations and parent-teachers’ associations, ensuring that funds received allow us and our partners to be independent and implement our programs according to the need on the ground, as identified by the communities themselves.
We’ve also been providing the link between children’s clubs and government, ensuring that children’s voices are taken into account in government planning during the recovery process.
We know however, the first six months are only the beginning. From Save the Children’s experience responding to disasters around the world ― from Katrina and Christchurch to Pakistan and Haiti ― we know that recovering from a natural disaster of this scale is a long process that entails much more than brick and mortar.
Children and their communities need to recreate their social links and cope with the emotional wounds left behind by the disaster. This longer-term recovery period must be accompanied by a longer-term strengthening of the third sector, ensuring populations have someone they can turn to that will be there alongside them in months and years ahead as Japan recovers from this emergency, and prepares for the next.
Hironobu Shibuya is chief executive officer of the Save the Children Japan.