The images are horrifying, surreal, and tragic. In the last week, Japan has dealt with massive earthquakes, tsunamis, and, now, nuclear catastrophe.

This video artfully captures the destruction, and the aftermath, of life-changing events:

Aftermath – The Japanese Tsunami from Dan Chung on Vimeo.

The events in Japan have prompted a good discussion in the aid community about, well, the aid community. Japan, the third richest nation, is facing a grave crisis. People want to help. Yet, many development professionals are asking tough questions, such as “does Japan need the kind of outpouring of support that occurred after the earthquake in Haiti?” or, perhaps the better question is, “what is the best way to help one of the richest countries in the world, and how can, or should, I help?”

Scenes of destruction tug at the heartstrings, and purse, of viewers, and all of a sudden there is a mad rush to donate and help; a situation some have called, “The CNN Effect.” As blogger Cynan at La VidAid Loca, writes,”Media attention on an emergency is a significant driver of the general public’s interest in giving to an emergency.”

This kind of introspection about how to give, and who to give to, is always refreshing. It raises challenging questions. How do people in non-profit aid work negotiate between the immediate, widely publicized disasters and the less novel human tragedies of poverty, lack of education, and persecution? To quote La VidAid Loca again, “Do you think the response to what’s going on in Cote D’Ivoire/ Liberia has been adequately funded? How about the DRC? Do you think right now that any appeal for humanitarian action in Cote D’Ivoire will attract enough attention to garner more than a few thousand at best, not the millions it needs?” As a non-profit that promotes education for girls, a goal and process that has long term benefits and requires work over a longer period, how do we respond to the immediate need of refugees in Liberia or the disaster in Japan?

Maybe it’s just because More than Me supports education, but education seems key in this situation. Education, and appealing to common humanity. Certainly, people should do what they can for those in need, whether it is in Japan or elsewhere. It has been said before, but when you donate, read up on how long the organization you are going to give to has been working in the country, and, if it is not very long, see what kind of measures of success and accountability they have in place. There are lots of great resources online (try here and here) to learn about smart aid in response to a disaster.

A least one aid group has already been kicked out of Japan, and there are reports that thousands of new charities have been registered since the earthquake. The New York Times reports, “The Japanese Red Cross, for example, has said repeatedly since the day after the earthquake that it does not want or need outside assistance.” Yet, with a rising death toll and the dangers of spreading radiation, it is difficult to watch and do nothing.

Deciding how to help and who to give to is always tough. Considering the impact that your money can have is also important. How much of your donation will go to overhead, delivery of service, or long-term needs? More than Me prides itself on having a contract of expectations for students, measures of accountability, and metrics for success. The debate about giving has been a good chance to reflect on how we are organized and function to help the girls of West Point. What do we do when a student is failing school? Are we working with parents and teachers enough? How do you provide non-monetary support to children who have no one to support them, to let them know that they can do well? These are some of the questions we constantly ask ourselves.

We hope that the unraveling situation in Japan ends soon, and with no more loss of life. We also recognize the precarious situation for donors. This is not a case of give to this group, not that group, or help long-term projects, not immediate need. Instead, this is a good chance to think about how to use resources effectively to aid the least well-off or imperiled.