Paul Vallely: Rich countries don't need our aid, they say. Don't believe it

In a utilitarian calculus, it may well be that a country like Afghanistan needs your moneymore than Japan. Haiti certainly does

Do not give money to help victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Japan is rich and doesn't need your money. Or so a number of controversialists have begun to claim, in forums as respectable as Reuters and The New York Times. But does this make any sense?

Japan is the third-wealthiest country on the planet. Its earthquake and tsunami disaster response plans were among the best of any nation. Tokyo has not requested international humanitarian assistance and has indeed turned down all but 15 of the 102 offers of help from foreign governments, except when it involves search and rescue teams.

So why are leading charities like the Red Cross and Save the Children running appeals on their websites? Especially when many other major aid agencies, like ActionAid and Christian Aid, are declining to do so?

Some charities are even declining money. SOS Children last week told its supporters it did not need any money for Japan but would welcome donations for its work in Haiti, where – one year on from its earthquake – many people still remain homeless.

The divergence between the responses of different charities has led to accusations that some are soliciting money aggressively on the back of pictures of the devastation in Japan without knowing how or where they can spend it. But is that true? To pick a path through this minefield it is necessary first to disentangle some confusions about disaster relief. The first is that there is a big difference between meeting immediate human needs after a disaster (relief work) and the rebuilding of a region once the emergency has stabilised (reconstruction). An economy as wealthy as Japan will not need donated funds for reconstruction. But things are far less clear when it comes to the humanitarian crisis in the face of a combined earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear crisis which has left 800,000 people without homes, without power, with disrupted water and petrol supplies and in freezing weather.

"Three disasters of such magnitude striking one country, no matter how wealthy or well prepared, will leave that country stretched and with humanitarian needs," says David Peppiatt, international director of the British Red Cross. It is sending funds to its Japanese arm, which has 115 response teams of 730 staff, including doctors and nurses providing first aid and emergency care, as well as distributing relief items. "In situations like this there are profound needs, even in the most wealthy, well-prepared countries," says Michael Kocher of the US-based International Rescue Committee. "No government in the world could cope with the immediate aftermath of three emergencies like this at once without being over-stretched." IRC maintains an emergency response team of logisticians, co-ordinators, doctors and experts in childcare, water and sanitation. The team was dispatched to Haiti, but it has not been sent to Japan.

Instead, IRC is funding a Japanese agency, Peace Winds, which has been providing shelter, water, sanitation, food and economic assistance to victims of conflict and natural disasters outside Japan since 1996. It has now chartered helicopters and flown food, fuel, tents and other supplies into the affected area in its own country, using the expertise it had developed in foreign aid work.

In addition to liaising with local partners, there are two other key areas in which outside agencies can help after disasters. The first is supplying what local people ask for, rather than flying in irrelevant goods. The second is providing specialist services.

One charity is doing both these. "Local government has asked for blankets, so we are buying them in-country and distributing them in the affected areas," says Rachel Bhatia of Save the Children UK. It also has a team in one of the worst-hit areas, Sendai, which has particular expertise in providing psychological help for traumatised children.

"They are working in schools that have been turned into temporary shelters to create safe spaces for children so that their parents can go about searching through the rubble of their homes and beginning the process of rebuilding their lives," she says. Save the Children is a leading expert in this field, having done similar work in recent disaster zones in Haiti, Italy and Pakistan.

Oxfam, which is funnelling donations through to Oxfam Japan, is engaged in similar targeting. "The Japanese state has the means to reach 99 per cent of the population, but there will always be some who need more specific assistance," says Akiko Mera, from Oxfam Japan. It is focusing on particularly vulnerable groups – helping midwives, breast-feeding mothers and the 40,000 non-Japanese speakers in the disaster areas, a scheme it set up as a response to the Kobe earthquake in 1995.

Japan, like other rich countries, is not homogeneous in its needs and provision. "There are rich and poor in every country; [Hurricane] Katrina showed that," says Michael Kocher of IRC. Save the Children has been working in poor areas of Japan – as it does in the UK – for 25 years and has more than 40 Japanese staff.

But there is a more fundamental consideration than any of this. It goes to something profound in human psychology. Faced with a shocking disaster on this scale, it is the natural impulse of most people to want to help, out of a sense of basic human solidarity.

This sense of empathy is widespread in the British public, as was evidenced on Friday by the record amount raised by Comic Relief again this year – £74m on the day... and rising.

"What the international Red Cross network does is give people the opportunity to demonstrate that solidarity," says David Peppiatt. "People responded very quickly after the disaster to let us know that they wanted to give."

The fact that Japan is an affluent First World country only underscores that. If nature can reduce one of the most advanced nations on earth to rubble then it can happen to any of us.

One of the small compensating virtues of the tragedy is the way that it has given a human face to a nation most of us have stereotyped as stoic and inscrutable.

And the response is not limited to the wealthy. One Afghan town pledged $50,000 to help the people of Japan.

In a utilitarian calculus, it may well be that Afghanistan needs that money more than Japan does. Haiti certainly does. But there is more to giving to people traumatised by tragedy than can be calculated in a cost-benefit analysis. And many in the aid world suspect those who say "Japan doesn't need your money as much as Haiti" use that cold logic as a selfish pretext for not giving to either.

A disaster like the one still unfolding in Japan brings out many of our best instincts. We feel the urge to act, rather than just ghoulishly spectate. If we use our judgement and common sense we can find ways to exercise those instincts to provide help effectively to those who need it.

And don't believe the cynics who would tell you otherwise.