What Role Does Volunteer Travel Play in Disaster Relief?
With news of the Haiti earthquake and devastation, many socially-minded globe-trotters wanted to jump on the next plane to help out with relief efforts in Haiti. The Matador Travel community mobilized a strong social media campaign to get volunteers and material donations into Haiti for a short-term relief stint. They had over 150 volunteers signed up ready to go. The energy, enthusiasm, and altruism were high, but was that good enough for disaster relief volunteering efforts?
Our desire to help our fellow human beings harmed by natural disaster in far away places is commendable, yet it is not a simple matter and requires careful consideration. We commend Matador’s ability to raise tremendous awareness to mobilize efforts for Haiti and their prudence to recognize that the need in the acute phase of disaster relief was not being on the ground in Haiti (despite a strong desire to do so). Rather, as many relief experts have emphasized, philanthropy through donations and volunteering locally are essential for the success of the ground relief operations in Haiti.
Idealist Editor, Eric Fichtl, warned that “the decision to head to a disaster area is not one that should be taken without first considering the complexities of the situation.” He wrote a great article on Idealist.org that provides guidelines to think about the “realities of volunteering in disaster relief situations” and how we can get involved.
Seeing images of disaster often prompts an urge to head to the affected area and assist victims directly. However, in your desire to help, you may actually underestimate the complexity of working in a disaster area and risk doing something rash for which you are unprepared, potentially even slowing or damaging relief efforts in the process. While there are opportunities to take an active role in disaster response, there are several crucial issues that would-be disaster responders must first consider.
- Cost-benefit analysis: The costs you incur just to get to the disaster area may ultimately be a poor allocation of valuable resources, especially if you end up unintentionally requiring already scarce supplies once you arrive in the affected region. On the other hand, you may be a more effective responder on your home turf rather than out in the field: If you’re in school or college, or in a company, faith group, or union, think of the number of people you have the potential to involve in the disaster response just by raising your voice and steering your combined efforts.
- Going it alone vs. going with support: Individuals with special knowledge and specific skill-sets can undoubtedly improve relief efforts, often by plugging short-term holes in the existing efforts. But quite soon after a disaster, individual responses can also lead to the unnecessary duplication of efforts and can run into significant viability problems. Relief agencies (like these listed by HelpInDisaster.org) are effective in part because they have significant support infrastructure behind their field programs to ensure that their efforts can be sustained for the longest possible period. If you have local knowledge or special skills, there is a good chance that a relief agency will have a way to incorporate you into their relief effort. Although you may confront some initial bureaucracy by joining a larger effort, you will likely be able to sustain your efforts much longer working with a dedicated team supporting you.
- Are you physically prepared for this? Despite your best intentions, your presence may compound, rather than alleviate, the problems in the disaster area. Why? Disaster areas are usually characterized by a severe breakdown in the supply of food, water, medicine, and shelter. Likewise, you may need special clothing, transport, and other equipment just to get into the affected region, let alone stay there. Disease can spread quickly in disaster areas, and you are likely to need immunizations or emergency medication for such illnesses as malaria, cholera, dengue, yellow fever, gastro-enteritis, and dysentery, among others. Disaster areas can also be the scene of crimes of desperation or the products of violent conflict, so you must also consider your personal security. Finally, depending on the tasks at hand, disaster responders can put in long shifts with little rest, so your physical fortitude and your health status are also important considerations.
- Are you emotionally prepared for this? There’s more to disaster relief work than physical challenges. Disaster survivors who have lost their homes, possessions, and loved ones, or who have witnessed acts of violence and degradation, are likely to suffer feelings of anguish, anger, remorse, and pain, and may experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In other words, disaster victims have physical as well as emotional needs, and relief workers must attempt to address both. If you aren’t emotionally prepared for the overwhelming stress of working in a disaster area and assisting disaster victims, you may experience many of these emotional conditions yourself.
The impulse to help when other people are suffering shows the best qualities of humanity. But there should be no illusion about disaster volunteering, either: it is dangerous, stressful work often in extreme environments. Many people simply aren’t prepared to handle working with disaster victims and coping with the many challenges of even a short time spent in a disaster area. Not to discourage you from getting involved in a disaster relief effort, think carefully about how you can best assist and then act.
Some of the Best Ways to Get Involved
For some people, donating money or volunteering locally feels too passive, or may not be financially possible. Yet donating money to a charity that is responding to the disaster is often the fastest way to assist disaster victims. Many charities like the Red Cross/Red Crescent or Oxfam specialize in providing relief in acute disaster areas, yet they face significant financial barriers to getting their staff, equipment, and supplies to the affected regions. Your donation helps put experienced disaster responders on the ground, and gives them the tools they need to help victims recover.
If you aren’t in a financial position to donate, you can still help the relief effort in a variety of ways, often right in your own community. For instance, you can contribute to the disaster response by collecting supplies to send, by volunteering at the local office of a charity that has sent staff to the affected area, or by organizing other initiatives in your community that raise awareness about, and funding for, the relief effort. Such efforts shouldn’t be downplayed: Running a food drive, organizing a benefit, collecting clothes and supplies, or lobbying community leaders to support the relief effort can all generate tangible results for disaster victims.
Volunteer Travel To Help With Rebuilding
There will be plenty of volunteer travel opportunities — after the disaster’s immediate aftermath. Often we forget that the opportunity to volunteer does not vanish when the news stories dissipate. For the most part this is when the real work begins to rebuild the communities. There are a lot to be done and the need for volunteers will grow in the months ahead. At Travelanthropist, one of our goals is to make it easier for you to get involved. To get you get started, here’s a list of organizations that need volunteers to help rebuild Haiti:
Habitat for Humanity International is addressing shelter solutions for low-income families and planning a multiphase strategy that includes early recovery, rehab and cleanup and reconstruction and recvoery. Habitat is assessing the needs and will require support from volunteers. To register to volunteer or for updated information, go to www.habitat.org
The Anir Experience, based in West Virginia, is putting together teams of volunteers to travel to Haiti July 3-17, 2010. Teams will work on either construction, first-aid/health care or child care. For more information www.anirfoundation.org/Haitipage2.html
Global Volunteer Network is working to implement a long-term, sustainable volunteer project in Haiti. Once GVN’s team of relief specialists determines the needs, they will send in volunteers for rebuilding and rehabiliations. Volunteers will be needed over the next 12 months, with a likely start date of March. You can volunteer anywhere from 1 week to 6 months to help with working with children; teaching; health/medical; building and construction; counseling; or business development. For more information visit, www.globalvolunteernetwork.org/haiti/
World Hope International, a faith-based relief and development organization will mobilize volunteers to assist their Haitian staff and communities in clean-up and rebuilding. Visit www.worldhope.org for more information.