It’s easy to empathize with the land of the rising sun. Horrific images of rubble, videos of cars afloat in city centers and tales of refugees displaced from their homes are just a mouse click away. But our captivation with natural disasters in foreign lands goes beyond shock and awe. Maybe we watch to learn how we can better ourselves should we face a similar fate.

The most recent events in Japan are all the more relevant considering Japan’s highly sophisticated disaster response infrastructure. Their earthquake detection and tsunami warning systems are leaps and bounds ahead of our own, their structural qualifications more stringent. Millions of Japanese citizens were notified of the impending quake approximately ten seconds before the trembling began, and residents of Tokyo had nearly a minute to prepare.

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“I’m convinced the system saved lives,” said Dr. Peggy Hellweg, a U.C. Berkeley seismologist. Although a comprehensive report assessing the effectiveness of the response is ongoing, early findings indicate she’s likely right.

But these developments are relatively recent. In 1995, Japan was struck with the 6.8 magnitude Kobe quake on the northern edge of the island of Awaji. Considered by many Japanese citizens as a low point in government ineptitude, the quake wrought a death toll of over 6,000 and served as a wake up call for the Japanese government to reassess its disaster preparedness. The most recent Japanese quake was one hundred times more powerful, yet its death toll is nearly comparable. Undoubtedly cataclysmic, the recent events in Japan may just have a silver lining. As the world leader in disaster response, Japan has shown the value of institutional self-reflection — efficiency in disaster relief saves lives.

Over the past year, the global human population has experienced a rather unlucky bout with Mother Nature. From the earthquake in Haiti to flooding in the Pakistani Indus River basin to the most recent seismological events in Japan, the past few years have tested both our resilience and our ability to cope with destruction and despair. Here in New Haven, far from the epicenters of natural disaster and abject poverty, Yalies find a variety of ways to reach out to international communities in need. While student groups have the energy and the initiative to provide aid all over the world, the infrastructure necessary for creative solutions lags behind.


The quake in Japan was not the first disaster to penetrate the Yale bubble, and campus mobilization was quick to jump to the cause. For Yale students, relief concerts, benefit dances and aid bracelets of all sorts and sizes have become part of our daily lives. With its religious roots and history of public service, Yale has developed a thriving culture of humanitarian aid to augment its role as an institution of higher learning. Of the 358 registered student organizations on campus, 64 are explicitly registered for service and/or outreach opportunities, and many others regularly take up charitable causes; what’s more, service and global outreach is often intertwined into the Yale educational experience.

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There are two basic avenues on campus for Yale students to directly contribute international aid to causes they deem worthy. First, students can raise money. According to Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer, student groups on campus are allowed to raise and donate funds freely with little interference from the University administration. Oftentimes the University serves to facilitate fundraising efforts by booking concert spaces that would normally be costly and supporting publicity campaigns that must be approved by the University, but the administration rarely takes direct action. Student groups are also free to consult faculty for advice or recruit them to their cause — when organizers needed an emcee for their Pakistani Flood Relief concert in Woolsey Hall, they recruited Director of Bands Dr. Thomas C. Duffy.

Second, students can volunteer their time directly. Volunteerism at Yale in the form of student service trips tend to target longstanding issues which, unlike natural disasters, may not have clear response methods or answers. For such service organizations, university involvement is more limited since the funds needed are for transportation costs for volunteers rather than direct aid to a cause.


Global outreach takes Yalies to the ends of the Earth, but much of Yale’s spirit of generosity is found right here in New Haven. In many cases, the most efficient method of providing aid abroad is simply fundraising. When disaster strikes, the grab bag of fundraising techniques is seemingly endless. Everything from benefit concerts, to the selling of merchandise, to the more morally ambiguous “parties for a cause” have proven to be successful methods of raising money in a timely and efficient manner. In a place like Yale, raising money isn’t always the most difficult aspect of providing international aid.

For example, last September the Pakistani Relief Benefit Concert held in Woolsey Hall raised $11,000 dollars in a single night. The more pressing challenge for student groups is the next step — upholding their responsibility to their donors to ensure the money is spent efficiently and in the manner for which the donation was intended.

“For people who are interested in geographically targeted relief programs, the university and members of [the] university can refer to specific organizations, but checking the accountability of those organizations is a daunting task,” assistant professor of political science Jun Saito said via email.

When aid reaches the point at which tracking money requires expertise, where should the responsibility ultimately lie?

The University does “not a have responsibility per se, beyond avoiding fraud,” said Professor of Economics Dean Karlan via email. “Yale doesn’t have the capacity to weigh in on the specifics of what exactly different charities do.”

The question of Yale’s responsibility to oversee student groups is part of a much larger question concerning the University’s role in giving and promoting international aid. According to Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs Thomas Pogge, international aid is best appropriated by nation states or non-governmental organizations (NGOs), not institutions of higher learning. Although many of the world’s richest countries allot part of their budget specifically to be invested in foreign development (In 2009, the US donated .19% of its GDP to foreign aid), Yale University has no such policy “except in some extraordinary circumstances,” said Donald Filer, Associate Secretary and Director of the Office of International Affairs.

“Firms (whether nonprofit or not) ought to focus on their comparative advantage. Yale need not be in the disaster relief business,” added Karlan. “However, instilling a sense of world-community and leadership in its students is part of Yale’s duty.”

From this perspective, the moral responsibility of the University does not exceed its borders. Direct regulation of these groups activities is outside of the administration’s mission. According to Lorimer, “the administration … wants to allow [student groups] freedom of choice in [choosing whom to give to].”

The direct donation of foreign aid is not part of the University’s philosophy as an institution of higher learning, and is therefore outside the realm of its responsibility.

When framed in the context of the recent events in Japan, Professor Saito brings to light other avenues of providing foreign aid within the parameters of Yale’s reach. One such proposal is to offer Yale’s research facilities to promising refugee researchers whose facilities were damaged by natural disaster. Another method of relief Saito suggests is to focus scholarship funding on disaster-stricken regions. Providing educational opportunities to worthy candidates within disaster zones is an immediate action with far reaching consequences and implications for the future renewal of the region. Finally, largely overlooked when considering foreign aid, the University has creative responsibility to develop policy relevant to real world issues and to lobby for its usage.

“What Yale has the ability to do is to influence people in government to do something about these issues,” said Pogge.


If the University’s facilities cultivate a community outlook, service is that perspective in action. Reach Out is one of the most popular and widely publicized student outreach groups at Yale. According to their website, the group seeks “to foster a sense of global responsibility and increase awareness of the struggles faced by citizens of developing countries around the world.” They organize international service trips to developing regions and partner with existing aid organizations to better understand and, if possible, help fix problems within a given community.

It’s naive to say we can change a country,” said Reach Out co-president Isobel Rosenthal ’12. “A more realistic goal is to expose students to international issues, to open their eyes to different cultures or causes they might be interested in in the future.”

Rosenthal, who is interested in pursuing public health, noted that most students who participate in Reach Out are generally interested in pursuing careers in international affairs. For Rosenthal, Reach Out is not designed to produce immediate change, but rather to inspire future generations of leaders to champion the causes understood through the Reach Out experience.

She added, “You need a first trip to have a second.”

But volunteering abroad is not as simple as signing up, and the service trips Reach Out offers often require the volunteers to foot the bill for expenditures. The cost of a service trip can range anywhere from $900 to $2,000. Much, if not most, of the money spent on a given trip goes towards the travel expenses, lodging and food for these student volunteers — little goes directly to the cause.

Reach Out offers a range of service trips to interested Yalies, and the variation of quality among the groups can vary greatly. According to many within the organization, less impactful trips are often characterized by fleeting relationships. These tend to be maiden voyages to regions where little is known about the local organization with which the volunteers are collaborating; bonds between the students and the organization, as well as the organization’s efficacy, are untested. Under these circumstances, trips can be disorganized, and the role of the zealous Yalie can feel inconsequential.

“Students sometimes have unrealistic expectations,” said Rosenthal. “You have to do what the organization allows you to do, even if you think it may not be the best use of your time and skills.”

“It’s obviously somewhat objective, but a quality Reach Out trip must have strong and knowledgeable leaders with students who are genuinely interested in remaining just that, students,” added former Reach Out co-president Cristina Constantini ’11. “Maintaining this quality is the most important thing Reach Out can do moving forward.”

Rosenthal added, “We learn from our mistakes, and are trying to improve our research of service opportunities and organizations. It’s hard to know what an organization is like in another country without visiting it first hand.”

Rosenthal says that Reach Out is hoping to create more repeat trips to places where trips have been particularly successful and to continue to build lasting relationships with organizations and the communities they service. Many trips are already well on their way.

In 2005, a Reach Out group visited Batey Libertad, a shanty town on the Haitian border in the Dominican Republic. Plagued with racism, lack of education, and a vicious poverty cycle, fixing the town’s problems would entail more than a two-week project.

After returning to Yale, group co-leader Cynthia So ’07 founded Yspaniola, a student group dedicated to the continued sponsorship of service trips to Batey Libertad. Soon after graduation, So and her Yspaniola became much more; with the help of friends who were similarly inspired, So and company nurtured Yspaniola to become a 501c3 non-profit organization with a more comprehensive and deep-seated presence in the Batey community. The new non-profit worked with community organizers in an attempt to end the cycle of poverty from within, an effort which resulted in the formation of the University Scholarship Fund — an initiative to facilitate the education of Batey Libertad’s most talented youth in the areas of community leadership and development.

“I would say these [undergraduate] experiences really cemented my understanding of issues in the Dominican Republic, in the bateys, and cemented my relationship to people in Batey Libertad,” said So. “Through my work with Yspaniola, I have tried to impart this excitement, and also anger, to others — to understand what is really at work in these communities that we visit, and to also feel that need that I felt that something must be done.”

This past spring break, a Yale Reach Out group made a trip to Batey Libertad under Yspaniola’s guidance. With scholarship money in tow, they returned to the town to oversee the allocation of new scholarship funds and to partake in various community development projects.

“Our aim is to empower specific young leaders who want to mentor the younger children in the community,” said Catherine Osborn ’12, this year’s co-leader. “Most importantly, we wanted to address a systematic barrier to achievement in the Batey — the fact that young men and women who completed public high school had few options besides sporadic, back-breaking, low-paying work in the rice fields or at a nearby clothing factory.”

In many ways, this most recent trip is just the next link in the chain of a cohesive, organized and — most importantly — symbiotic initiative to end the cycle of poverty from within the bateys of the Dominican Republic rather than from without.

“Personally knowing many of the people within Batey and what obstacles they face has affected what I’ve chosen to study at Yale and my plans for after college. I have a different conception of my duty as an educated human being,” added Osborn.


Yale’s greatest asset is not its size, wealth or global reach, but its collective creativity — its potential to educate the world as well as itself. There are very few places in the world where leading experts from nearly every field live together, work together, and breathe the same air. For this kind of intellectual synthesis, the multidisciplinary nexus of Yale University has the potential to be one of the world’s great think tanks.

If it is Yale’s responsibility to cultivate conscientious students and to graduate leaders of the worldwide community, the next logical step is to instill a sense of interdisciplinary collaboration.

Next weekend, a Human Rights Studies in Academia conference is being held at Yale with the purpose of exploring the importance of developing and expanding upon existing human rights programs and initiatives within academic institutions. It will bring together scholars from various institutions and a vast array of disciplines with the ultimate goal of establishing a Human Rights Program here at Yale. Just like the Jackson Institute which has preceded it, a human rights program at Yale is another step towards greater interdisciplinary integration, and ultimately a more creative network of solving international aid issues.

“It’s easy for organizations to do service work and not self-reflect,” said Justine Kolata ’12, organizer of the conference. “In order to asses current programs and organizations and hold them accountable, we need to take an interdisciplinary approach.”

Although the University offers its assistance and student groups serve as the organizing force, ultimately international aid is a matter of an individual’s initiative to assess the world around us, to both recognize need and conceive of the best way to address it.

Correction: March 27, 2011

A previous version of this article misspelled Catherine Osborn’s ’12 name.