Ways to Give Back: Disaster Relief Needs More Than Hands on the Ground

By Marc Pereira, ISA Student Services Advisor

The events in Nepal on April 25th have people clamoring to offer a helping hand. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that shook the country has stirred quite a sense of charity, compassion, and generosity around the world. With this outpouring of support, the question arises as to the best course of action for helping Nepal. For a sizable number of people, the immediate answer is to put their own two hands to work. They’ll pack their bags, board a flight and head directly to the problem in an attempt to alleviate some of the suffering.

These people are certainly noble in their efforts – after all, many of us were raised on the mentality that the best way to help those in need is to give – to physically do something. However, is this really the best way to help Nepal? The answer from many experts is usually a resounding “No.” Oftentimes, the people most qualified to help in disaster situations are some of the first to arrive and are already providing aid. These people not only have the knowledge and expertise, but the experience in doing so, whereas many unsolicited volunteers simply do not.

No one is suggesting that these would-be-volunteers lack the heart or discipline to help abroad, but the reality of the situation is that many of them just do not have the skills or resources to be effective in the field. So, where does this leave the kindhearted volunteer in the context of disaster relief efforts? It leaves them stuck in the middle, between very busy aid workers and those people in need of aid – taking away time, space, food and other resources from those who need it most.

This has been a common theme in previous and recent disaster relief efforts. In 2010, when Haiti was struck by a similar tragedy, many people immediately boarded flights to aid in the relief effort. Unfortunately, what these people possessed in good intentions they lacked in planning, resources and skills. Consider these past examples:

  • A duo of good-hearted churchgoers arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs and determination to help those affected by the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
  • A group of humanitarians landed in Haiti without proper planning and did not have a ride to leave the airport.
  • An ill-prepared volunteer medical unit arrived without the proper supplies. They did not have bedding, food or basic supplies and needed to take aid from more-prepared NGOs.

Another issue relief efforts must manage is an abundance of donations that do not fit their needs. In 2010, numerous organizations had to spend a considerable amount of effort to sort through donations of high heels, gowns and other unnecessary items in order to find what would truly be useful to the ground efforts. In some instances, unfortunately, even useful donations can pose a problem due to the high shipping costs associated with making sure those supplies go to where they are needed most.

So what can we do to help the survivors in Nepal?

We can listen. Listen to what the relief effort leadership is telling us. These organizations need money and they have the connections and skill to put it to really good use. Take this situation into consideration – an organization needs bottled water. Rather than donating bottled water, try donating money that can be spent on bottled water. This allows the relief effort to order the water in bulk, specify necessary quantities, receive discounts and have it delivered to exactly where it is needed. Any leftover funds can then be applied to other needed supplies. This form of support is infinitely more useful than an unskilled volunteer or a box of canned pumpkin from last Thanksgiving.

Some people will still have the urge to board a flight to help with the ground efforts, but they should really consider how they can be most helpful. Disaster zones are generally very chaotic and the professionals abroad often do not have the time or resources to coach new volunteers. Instead of heading to Nepal, people should consider opportunities to help those in other regions around the world. These other regions may not have the international spotlight, so they may not be receiving the attention and support that they truly need. Furthermore, other locations may not be nearly as chaotic, so the professionals on-site may have more time to direct the inexperienced do-gooder. Additionally, volunteering in lower risk areas can provide the individual with more of an opportunity to learn from the experience, interact with the locals and gain new skills in the process.

There are many companies and organizations that will help the sympathetic individual find the opportunity to make an impact abroad. By contacting entities like International Studies Abroad or the Peace Corps you can learn about a variety of options available to those who are looking to get out and make a difference.

An individual can definitely make a great impact abroad – it’s just a matter of knowing when, where and how you should go.



Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

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