Tuesday, March 2, 2010

I want to help in Haiti... I mean really help

A schoolmate of mine asked for my advice for people planning on helping Haiti recovery by volunteering.

I understand totally where they are coming from.

I was in Thailand when the Tsunami struck a few years ago and wanted to help. The authorities wanted me to stay away from the affected areas because they really didn't need my skills. The UK and Aussie embassies (I am a citizen of both) asked me to talk to the Swedish embassy who needed volunteers to help trace missing people. By the time I got to them, there was enough help in place.

Locally, I have offered accommodation during floods and fires.

The need to help is a wonderful, human thing. But it is emotional, not rational. If you are there when something happens, then please - accept responsibility and act. Call the ambulance, do first aid, rescue people when safe to do so.

Specialist units, trained aid workers, soldiers, police etc are on standby waiting for the next inevitable disaster. Local and sometimes international support will turn up quickly.

But what about afterwards? Should you go and help?

Lack of hygiene, safe housing, water and food security, looting, fire risk and chemical spills can follow a disaster.

Each of these areas can only be addressed by trained people. Most countries have such, and where they don't will often call for specific international support. (There are obvious exceptions, but UK citizens would not be on the next plane to North Korea following an earthquake).

So, what if you are such a trained person?

If you are in the uniformed and emergency services (nurse, soldier, doctor etc), and live in a richer country then your employer, through the Government, may have a reserve scheme of specialists ready for this kind of incident.

It is not likely that without such reserve training you could help as much as you imagine, but check in with your employer, union or other professional body.

For the most important non-emergency roles, such as carpenters, plumbers and electricians you make think there would be a need, and there could be. But think about the impact - when you are there you are taking work from locals who also need to rebuild their lives. Whatever you do, don't just turn up - make arrangements with a local firm, union or authorities in advance.

It makes sense to get journalists and writers - including fundraisers - to post disaster areas. Their writings, images and work can help generate income and the right kind of support.

This is really brutal, but unless there is a specific call for people with your skill sets, and a mechanism in place for actually applying them there, you will be creating more of a problem than helping. Sorry.

But, what about being another pair of hands? Well, as I said before, if you are there when disaster strikes, pitch in and help.

But afterwards, there is very, very rarely a shortage of labour after a disaster.

More the opposite - people wandering around with nothing to do. Also, local labour speaks the language, knows the terrain, is used to the weather and food - basically they are better equipped than you to do stuff.

Sorry again, but there is not a nice way to say it. You mean well, but mostly you would be more of a burden than a benefit.

Donating the cost of going could have a hundred fold impact on the lives of people there than turning up.

For example, a couple flying from the UK to Haiti would cost about £3,000. Five times the annual income of a average Haitian. Imagine the impact of donating that instead!?

I believe that any impact analysis (jargon for the amount of good achieved divided by the cost) would show that volunteering from the UK (or Australia, USA etc) after a disaster is one of the worst things you can do - possibly worse than doing nothing, and definitely worse than donating.

Unless there is a specific call from a bonafide, rational, strategic agency and an organised, trained method of getting those appropriate people there for defined jobs.

We should donate. And get friends to. And with the couple of weeks or more time saved by not going to the country, we could volunteer for a local charity. Or volunteer abroad with someone like VSO or Earthwatch. These things will help the people of Haiti more than us turning up there with kind hearts and genuine humanity.

If you still want to go, then make sure you understand that you are doing it for yourself, not - in this example - the people of Haiti.

Maybe not such a bad thing, provided you don't become a burden. You will gain much more than a holiday, meet fantastic people and gather some great stories.

Plan carefully, work with a professional organisation, be prepared for everything to go wrong - including injury and illness, sharing rooms with strangers and theft, notify your embassy on arrival.

And afterwards, follow it up. Start a local fundraising committee, talk to local Rotary etc and share your photos, motivate people to donate. Aim to raise at least ten times the amount that you spent getting there - that should balance the karma!

Still up for it? Well, check out Tonic, they list organisations that could help you get to Haiti and help here. Also, visit the websites of the big local relief agencies at home.



Penelope Cagney said...

Good advice, Sean. All Haiti needs are "inexperts" impeding the efforts of relief teams. Thoughtful and generous people want to know where their contribution can really help.

Anonymous said...


Really useful info and I think you cover the issues in a well written blog. It certainly provides food for thought and anyone who wants to help really has to ask themselves whether or not their well meaning actions will cause more problems than they solve. I think your points would make a very interesting, thought provoking article in the wider media. Sed

pongogirl said...

Thanks for this superb post on wanting to help, Sean. I am going to "steal" and adapt for our charity. Our CEO would actively encourage it!

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