Solidarity and support in Japan: An interview with Oxfam's Michael Delaney

By Elizabeth Stevens

Michael Delaney, Oxfam America’s director of humanitarian response, sat down this week with an OA staff member to discuss the emergencies in Japan and Oxfam’s response.

What is Oxfam doing in the Japan emergency?

We are providing funds to organizations in Japan that can assist people who might otherwise have difficulty accessing government aid. Migrant workers and immigrants, for example, who don’t speak Japanese. We’re also funding a partner focused on assisting nursing mothers and their babies. As the disaster response evolves, we'll continue to identify Japanese partners who can address unmet needs on the ground.

Why isn’t Oxfam launching a major humanitarian response in Japan?

The Japanese government is a world leader in humanitarian preparedness and response, and it is carrying out a huge aid effort involving its armed forces, police, firefighters, and local authorities. We’d like to complement that work in whatever ways we can. But our particular expertise involves delivering clean water and sanitation facilities, and in Japan—where there are good water and sewage systems and enough water engineers to repair those that are damaged—it is unlikely that our help will be needed. There are clearly serious obstacles to getting supplies to people in need, but the government is in a better position to handle those difficulties than most outside agencies would be.

What will Oxfam do in the event of widespread radiation exposure?

Oxfam doesn’t have a role in a nuclear catastrophe. The corporate and government authorities who are responsible for the power plants need to take full responsibility for preventing and responding to radiation releases.

Would you have expected Japan to be better prepared for this emergency?

When the earthquake struck, there were systems in place to warn people and protect them from what was coming, but the power of the events that followed went beyond everyone’s imagination.

What really amazes me is that a 9.0-magnitude earthquake has struck a densely populated island country, and people are not even talking about it. Clearly it triggered a tsunami and a nuclear crisis that have had far-reaching effects, but there’s very little mention of direct damage from the earthquake itself. I think that when all is said and done, Japan’s earthquake preparedness—such as its strict building codes—will turn out to have had a very positive effect.

How does Oxfam’s humanitarian work around the world relate to its mission to end poverty and injustice?

There is no time when poverty, vulnerability, and exclusion become so apparent as at the moment of an emergency. So often, the people who suffer the deepest losses in an event like an earthquake or cyclone are the ones who couldn’t afford to live in a safe house in a safe location. When Oxfam sets out to help a community recover from a disaster, we look for opportunities to help its most vulnerable members make long-term improvements in their social and economic conditions.

Any last thoughts?

When the world is hurting, you want to do something. In this case, Oxfam won’t mount a major humanitarian response, but I’m glad we’re able to offer our solidarity and support to the people of Japan.