Things to think about from the Grinch of volunteering Christmas.

WHEN A MAJOR NATURAL DISASTER OCCURS, how sensible is it to get involved in helping with the relief effort? Should you divert your journey (or make one) to help out in critical relief work, or is it better to simply stay at home and try to raise funds in your community?

Here are a few things to think about before you race out the front door:

You being there is a cost.
It’s a misconception that volunteering is free. As a volunteer, you need a place to sleep, something to eat, and (occasionally) a passable toilet. None of which is normally a problem if you are dedicated to making a difference and prepared to pay your own way. It’s in a relief situation that the picture becomes a little more complicated.

your very presence in a stretched and delicate environment places one more strain on the situation, and you need to think long and hard about minimizing that impact

In a place like post-earthquake Haiti, or new Orleans after Katrina, much of the reason for the relief effort is precisely because food, accommodation and sanitation are lacking. They become precious resources which need to be used as efficiently as possible during the task of rebuilding. Every well-intentioned volunteer places an additional demand on the system for another place to sleep, some food, fuel and other basics that can often be ill-afforded.

That’s not to say that it isn’t always worth it to help. It’s to say that your very presence in a stretched and delicate environment places one more strain on the situation, and you need to think long and hard about minimizing that impact, or not going at all if you would be of more use raising awareness and funds back home. Whether your presence is justified will often depend on the question…

Can you really contribute?
If you are straight out of college with a major in fine art and the politics of media, you should probably stay at home. If you are a doctor with experience in waterborne diseases and trauma, used to working under stressful conditions, then you would probably make a useful extra pair of hands for an organisation engaged in relief work.

Between those two extremes, there are a range of skills that different organisations could use to varying degrees. Or not use at all. Whatever your level of enthusiasm, you should take a long, hard look at what you think you could contribute, and whether it is something that would outweigh the cost of having you there.

Relief assistance is not painting a wall in the Siem Reap Home for Orphans of Questionable Provenance

Related to the skills you can bring to the situation are important questions about how long you are prepared to be engaged for. Relief assistance is not painting a wall in the Siem Reap Home for Orphans of Questionable Provenance. It’s not for a weekend. It’s not for a week.

It’s frequently not even for a month.

If you really want to help, you are there for as long as you are needed. And you are not usually the person who gets to make that call.

Which brings us to…

Don’t go independently.
An efficient response to a disaster is a coordinated one. Even the craziest colony of ants gets things done because it is rigidly organized. Though it may not often seem so from many press reports, disaster situations have an organizational logic. There are groups who coordinate, organizations who fall into line with that coordination, and people who fall in line with those organizations.

In the US – whatever your level of cynicism towards them – disaster coordination falls to an organisation like FEMA. Internationally, this task is frequently performed by the unsexily-named United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The point here is that the landscape of a disaster relief effort is anything but an organic mangle of everyone doing their bit to muddle along. It is (at least in theory) a tightly managed structure, dedicated to the singular purpose of allocating resources and skills as efficiently as possible.

This coordination is what prevents some people being fed twice and others not at all. It prevents two groups setting up a clinic in the same corner of the landscape. It makes sure that latrines get dug, families are reunited, and that all of this happens as quickly and efficiently as possible. On a macro-level, groups like OCHA coordinate the responsibilities of the various aid groups, and they in turn allocate people to fill those roles as effectively as possible.

What does this mean for a prospective volunteer? It means that in order to participate meaningfully in a relief effort, it’s important to fall in line. To attach yourself to an organisation that, in turn, is involved in the overall response strategy. Putting a dozen mates in a volkswagen with food and water and simply heading out to help might seem noble, but when more and more people arrive and ‘help’ with no central coordination, things quickly become a mess.

Even if you are not being willfully ignorant, or seeking to pack a bus full of kids and make a run to the border, you can do a lot more good if you get yourself properly allocated

A particularly farcical example of this are ten missionaries from Idaho who popped into Haiti, ‘rescued’ 33 children and were promptly arrested for kidnapping by the Haitian government. Had they stopped to ask who was in charge of dealing with lost children, and cooperated with the authorities managing the situation, they would have discovered at least two things. That many of those children were not orphans, and that there were structures in place for tracing families and reuniting them.

Even if you are not being willfully ignorant, or seeking to pack a bus full of kids and make a run to the border, you can do a lot more good if you get yourself properly allocated rather than running in with your own idiosyncratic ideas about what is needed. Devex, UN Volunteers and idealist.org are good places to start looking for people who need volunteers. If you have specific skills in logistics, medical or other fields, you may also want to get in touch with relief organisations working in those fields to see if they need personnel, and to apply to participate in their operations.

Then, finally…

It’s not going to be as “sexy” as it might seem.
Realise that relief work – particularly if you are intent on participating in a first-response effort – can be both alternately emotionally traumatic and intensely boring.

Someone needs to count tents. Someone needs to keep receipts. Someone needs to carry boxes and file the paperwork. That someone also doesn’t sleep a great deal, works under a great deal of stress, and may feel on many afternoons that they have exchanged an office job back home for similar work, just without air conditioning, decent food or sane hours. That someone may also find themselves in those conditions for weeks or months.

Relief work can also be intensely taxing on your emotional and psychological resources, and this should never be underestimated. People who work with victims of violence and natural disasters are perpetually at risk of breakdown or PTSD. If you’ve no prior experience of working at the absolute extremes of the human emotional spectrum, then you may well be volunteering right into disaster. First-response work takes more than the ability to work hard and long hours, and once you arrive, it’s not really possible to rethink your emotional commitment.

Realise also, that it may also be difficult to return from such work and be able to relate to much of the world you came from before. Even in coping with the demands of disaster-response, many volunteers find it difficult to pick up life where they left off before, and go on as though they had returned from a weekend wall-painting. You are probably going to rethink much of your life in ways you never intended, and you are not going to be able to unthink it.

That said…
People do volunteer in the most difficult circumstances, and they do make a difference. Many of them are people like you. People who had a useful skill and decided to contribute it towards making things right in the places that were the most wrong.

Not every relief worker can be a grizzled veteran of twenty years. Everyone starts somewhere, and if you listened to every disclaimer and warning and fear about how volunteering will eat your ineffective little soul, then there would be no volunteers for the likes of OCHA to ever manage.

In the end, it’s perhaps about finding that acceptable marriage between heart and head. The desire to make a difference no matter the odds, yet having the wisdom to know how to best do so.