Disaster Relief? The Dangers of Excessive Outsider Reliance

Nathan Thompson explores the story of a monk who remains in the dangerous area of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in order to serve the people — and how local aid is often overlooked in the age of massive disaster relief from external sources.

Lighting candles for Japan A few days ago, I wrote about the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi’s questionable disaster fundraising decisions. This story,about a Soto Zen priest staying in his temple not too far from the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors, offers a few additional points I’d like to make about Soto Shu’s decision:

Mita is a kindly, round-faced man in his late sixties, and is not concerned with his own safety. His job — to tend to anyone who is suffering and in need of comfort — is a growth area in a shattered economy. “I would only leave if I were the last person standing in this town,” he says. Fear of radiation may make his prediction a reality. The temple, which is of the Sotoshu or Zen sect, is located about twenty-five miles from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The temple’s precise distance from the plant places it in bureaucratic limbo: outside the mandatory twelve-mile evacuation zone imposed by Japanese authorities, and just beyond the twelve-to-nineteen mile “stay indoors” zone. Skeptical of official pronouncements, residents at the twenty-five-mile mark have no particular reason to feel secure. And all the roads down from the temple, which is on a hill, lead to Iwaki; to get supplies, my relatives must cross into the “stay inside” zone.

Food, water, and gasoline in Iwaki City remain scarce. A few stores have supplies, but shopping requires standing in line outside for two to three hours at a time. Supply trucks reportedly refuse to enter the city for fear of radiation, forcing residents to find creative ways to cope. At the temple, the family survives in old ways and new. Mita’s wife, Ryoko, goes to her neighbor’s house once a day to pump water from a well and to fill up buckets and canisters so she is able to cook.

One of the things I have noticed with many of the natural disasters that have happened in recent years is that there is an over reliance on “outside experts.” Or, perhaps it might be more accurate to say that large organizations like the Red Cross have become so much the default that when something devastating happens, national leaders in a given country will automatically see these groups as the main responders — even the only ones — capable of handling the heavy, difficult work of finding missing people, and cleaning up the destruction.

Technicians scan Red Cross rescue workers for signs of radiation in Nagahama City, northern Japan, on Monday. A European bone marrow group is offering to help care for nuclear plant workers exposed to dangerous radiation. (Kyodo/Reuters)

Now, I bring this up not to diminish the importance of, and general goodwill of, outside groups aiding in situations like what happened in Japan. I bring it up to point out that those who are most intimate with the conditions on the ground — the people, culture, and the land: the locals — tend to be displaced. In fact, they themselves might discount their own skills and abilities to serve their neighbors, friends and family who are suffering, and/or are told by the powers that be that whatever they do must be subordinate to the directives of those “outside experts”.

Another issue that comes with this reliance on outsiders is that the most dangerous, devastated, and/or outlying areas often receive the least support. The story above demonstrates this, and I recall recently reading an article about more rural areas in Haiti that were left barely touched by aid work months after the earthquake that happened there in early 2010. Because conditions might be considered “too risky” for aid workers, or because the groups in charge simply don’t know about outlying villages or are approaching things from a numbers game — how can we help the most people? — others are left to fend for themselves under miserable conditions.

And at the same time, even with these miserable conditions, there might be individuals and groups who have the skills and wherewithal to do something, but their reach ends up being limited by the lack of resources and support.

When I wrote that the national Soto Shu could have used donated money to support their people on the ground, I wasn’t saying they should try to become like a mini-Red Cross. What I was saying is that they could have figured out ways to get money and relief goods (food, clothing, medical supplies) into the hands of those like Head Priest Mita, who are in the middle of it all, and are intimate with the current needs being presented.

I see all of this as part of a larger pattern of mistrust — internally and externally. National religious bodies like the Japanese Soto Shu not only decide that they aren’t capable of doing anything helpful, but also that they also can’t trust giving funds over to their local temples to distribute. Government officials, who tend to come from privileged backgrounds, don’t trust the “common people.” Outside groups, like the Red Cross, present an image of being trained to deal with everything in a disaster situation. And so collectively, being in the middle of the storm of suffering, the different forms of leadership turn their back on whatever wisdom and skills they have, believing that the outsiders must have a better sense of what to do.

The realities tend to be more complex. Outsider groups bring certain gifts, and insider groups bring certain gifts. When those two realities are recognized, wonderful things happen. However, too often, the insider groups — especially those made up of everyday people — are either considered of secondary importance, or are completely overwhelmed by the outside experts. In fact, sometimes their efforts to help their fellow neighbors are completely blocked, and considered wrongheaded by people who have little or no knowledge of the cultural norms of the community in question.

I fully support outsider groups offering skills, expertise, and a sense of calm in crisis situations. However, I believe it’s extremely important to support organizations that deliberately make partnerships with those who are of the communities impacts — that they exude a sense of trust in the people of the place to know what directions are most appropriate to go in, and which are not. That they know how to work with people whose communities have been destroyed in such a way that, through whatever they are doing, it’s more possible for the local leaders to tap into their wisdom and skills, and trust themselves enough to help lead the relief work.

In some ways, just blaming the Red Cross or Soto Shu, isn’t a deep enough analysis. The pattern of believing in outside experts isn’t limited to disaster relief — it’s a human trend, especially when issues become complicated. Sometimes, experts are the correct remedy. And sometimes they are a great hindrance. Consider the recent discussions about Zen teachers, and the teacher/student relationship. When students cling too much to their teacher, crappy shit tends to happen for everyone involved. It also seems to be the case that when students take the loner role, thinking they can do it all on their own, crappy things often happen.

Right relationship, whether you’re talking about disaster relief or teachers and students, requires more fluidity, shared wisdom, and a more intelligent form of intimacy.


Photo Credits

Technicians scan Red Cross rescue workers for signs of radiation in Nagahama City, northern Japan, on Monday. A European bone marrow group is offering to help care for nuclear plant workers exposed to dangerous radiation. (Kyodo/Reuters)












Recent Nathan Thompson Articles:

  • A Balm for Your Body and Mind
  • The Gifts of Comfrey
  • Learning in the Community Garden
  • Passionflowers
  • The Beautiful, Powerful Coneflower

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