When Disaster Strikes – Things to Know About Disaster Zone Volunteering

“Disasters remind us we are world citizens, whether we like it or not.”

(Maya Angelou)

field hospitalIt's been only 4 months since a devastating earthquake rocked Tibet, the “Roof Of The World”, leaving those living there to pick up the pieces and try to rebuild their lives. Almost immediately after the quake hit, volunteers from all over the globe began focusing on Tibet in an attempt to help the people there.

Some donated money and resources from afar, and others boarded planes and flew to Tibet so they could donate their time and physical efforts. Needless to say, most of these attempts were well-intentioned, but some of these volunteer initiatives were actually causing more harm than good.

There are a number of pros and cons to volunteering in parts of the world that have suffered from natural disasters, and there are lots of differing opinions on the matter. Some people feel that volunteering to help your fellow man in need is a vital function of humanity. Others feel that the increasing popularity of volunteer programmes has shifted from helpful to detrimental. Some even refer to it as "disaster tourism." The truth lies somewhere in the middle - each side makes a compelling argument.

Why volunteer in a disaster zone?
When a country is devastated by a natural disaster such as the Tibet earthquake, the people who live there are often left feeling overwhelmed with stress and fear, and facing an uncertain future. They might be grieving for loved ones who didn't survive, or dealing with the loss of whatever property they owned, so the problems can seem insurmountable. It’s a fact that volunteers who donate their money, time and resources can help these victims of disaster to rebuild their lives and see a glimmer of hope when they are at their most vulnerable. This is especially critical when the area and communities affected lack the funds to help themselves overcome the challenges.

How do good intentions turn bad?

Volunteer work can become detrimental to a community when the programmes themselves are not efficiently designed. In this case, volunteers rush in where angels fear to tread, and take over the rebuilding of the damaged community; instead of working alongside the locals and helping them develop long-term, sustainable solutions. While they undoubtedly have good intentions, this can cause more harm to an already volatile community because it results in displacement of local workers and does nothing in terms of knowledge transfer or skills training.

Some groups don’t take into account sensitive cultural, economic, social or environmental considerations and impose their own ideals and programmes instead of looking to locals for solutions.

Given the sheer number of inexperienced people desiring to lend their assistance, there is also the real concern of programmes being abandoned, never fully accomplishing their goals and leaving the vulnerable victims facing a whole new set of problems.

Here are 6 ways to approach the concept of disaster volunteering for those who want to help and not harm.

  • Address sustainability: Understand the environmental, economic and social benefit for communities to ensure that the work being done provides well-rounded and aligned support with sustainable development goals.
  • Look to the future: provide long-term solutions that contain defined plans for positive impact well into the future. There are too many programmes that have been started by well-meaning volunteers and organisations only to be abandoned.
  • Pick your team: work with well-established organisations that have proven track records of success, transparency and long-term commitment to the community.
  • Help raise funds: Provide fundraising support to non-profit partners which will serve to multiply the impact of the programme. 
  • Employ and engage locals: Volunteering to get something done that could be done by an employed local is ineffective. The goal should be to employ local labour, and be certain that local jobs are not displaced.
  • Work with solidarity, not superiority: Developing cross-cultural relationships is one of the most effective things that can come from a volunteer programme. Work side-by-side with locals, learn from them and support them while maintaining respect for their culture and knowledge.
  • Solar-Powered Lanterns that you can charge on-site: A multi-purpose device that is invaluable. They don’t come cheap, but in times or places of limited electricity, this gadget will no doubt come in useful around the clock.
  • Protein or Granola Bars: Nutrition is essential when you are working in the elements every day, in what may well be a harsh climate. This can be tough in a disaster zone, so easy-to-transport meal alternatives will keep you going through the toughest work and fill in the gaps between unpredictable meal times.
  • Lightweight Clothes: Washing facilities will be minimal after a disaster, if available at all. So laundry will have to be done by hand. Heavy clothes means more difficulty and longer drying times, so make sure you pack lightweight clothes that can be washed easily and dried quickly.
  • Strong Comfortable Shoes: This almost seems too obvious, but there might be chemical waste or other corrosive substances in some areas that will do in 2 days what 2 years of hiking couldn’t do to your normal boots! You will probably be on your feet for long hours a day as well - protect them in well-fitting footwear (even professionally-fitted if you can afford it) and you'll be able to endure long periods of meaningful work without your sore feet and ankles distracting you.
  • Satellite Phone: Cellphone service will not be a priority in an area where people have lost their homes and hundreds might be in need of food and water. But you don't have to be on radio silent – cover your eyes, ignore the price tag and bring a satellite phone. It will be incredibly useful and you won't regret the purchase when you are in desperate need of help from those outside the affected area.
  • Mosquito Net: Travellers used to tropical countries will be aware of the danger of mosquitos already, but even in areas outside the tropics and with no risk of malaria, a disaster can create ideal conditions for mosquitoes and flies to breed and become a nuisance.
  • Refillable Water bottle: You'll need almost a full day’s worth of water for yourself, especially if you travel from site to site. In a disaster zone you never know when drinking water will be available.  Your bottle should also be of lightweight material for ease of carrying.
  • Basic Medications. Cough and cold, fever reducer, digestive remedies, an all-purpose antibiotic and pain medication will prevent you from wasting time feeling under the weather or requiring help from already overworked medical staff during relief volunteering.

If you want to be the most effective and helpful volunteer you can be, it’s important to organise the right items to take to an area hit by disaster. You don’t want to add to the burdens of an already strained community by not having the right gear! Here are 9 important things to bring when volunteering in a disaster zone.

And last but not least…

  • Flexible, positive attitude : You’re there to help, so you need to put your own feelings aside and get on with it. The stressful environment might get to you, but remember that while other people’s lives have been hugely impacted, perhaps permanently; you’ll be going home to your safe comfortable country after your endeavours. Try and remain as cheerful and positive as possible no matter how stressful the environment is – it will help you give the best of yourself to others at the worst time in their lives. You might well be the only efficient, friendly face some people see all day. Volunteers must be prepared to go with the flow but not sink under it!

This may all sound daunting, and truthfully disaster relief volunteering is not recommended for the faint of heart. You might feel the need to “wet your feet” in a less stressful environment if you’re just starting out on your volunteering path, and that’s perfectly OK. Next time you hear of a devastating natural disaster, you’ll be used to the ups and downs of volunteering, and be ready to help communities pick up the pieces in a sustainable and positive way.


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