You Want To Go To Nepal And Help Out. Is That A Good Idea?

You Want To Go To Nepal And Help Out. Is That A Good Idea?

8:07am May 02, 2015
In Haiti after the earthquake, volunteers with All Hands toss buckets from the cement mixer back to the sand piles for a quick refill.
In Haiti after the earthquake, volunteers with All Hands toss buckets from the cement mixer back to the sand piles for a quick refill.
Courtesy of All Hands Volunteers

A thousand people have already signed up to go to Nepal on the website for All Hands – a U.S. group that sends volunteers to help out after a disaster. Indeed, people around the world are eager to assist on the ground.

But will your presence hinder more than it will help?

Life Changer: A volunteer stint at the scene of a disaster can point you in a new direction. Jen Weinstein had a "fancy job working in casting" in L.A. in 2011. When Haiti suffered an earthquake, she acted on her impulse to "give back to people in need." At 29, she signed up with All Hands and went to Haiti — "completely terrified." She removed rubble, she rebuilt schools and after two weeks, she knew "This is where I am supposed to be." She stayed several months and is still in touch with people she met — Haitians and volunteers — on Facebook. Back in the U.S., she continued volunteering and eventually switched careers. Today she's the marketing director for All Hands.

We asked officials at several organizations working in Nepal. Their answer: It depends. On when you go; Whether you're part of an organized group or on your own; And if your skills and experience match what's needed.

Gary Shaye, senior director of humanitarian operations for Save the Children, sums it up this way: "Volunteers play a role, but rarely during an emergency." If you're thinking of volunteering, here's what to consider:

Just Showing Up: Good Intention, Bad Idea

"Showing up with a generous heart" is a noble thought, says Joel Charny, a former Peace Corps volunteer who is now vice president of humanitarian policy and practice at InterAction. But if you arrive without knowledge of the country, with no connection to a group already in place, and without the specific skills or experience the crisis calls for, you risk "getting in the way." To begin with, the busy professionals there will have no spare time to train a newbie.

Moreover, in many cultures it is "very impolite to say no," points out Mark Andrews, Habitat for Humanity's vice president of volunteer and institutional engagement. People whose own lives have been severely disrupted may nonetheless feel compelled to share their scarce resources and assist volunteers in getting their bearings — rather than the other way around.

It's also hard to hit the ground and begin work right away if you're unprepared for the scope, sights, smells and sounds of a disaster. "This is not like working at a soup kitchen," says Dave Hartman, emergency communications officer at Save the Children. "A lot of people don't understand the scale of these environments, working 18 to 20 hours a day for weeks, not in comfortable conditions."

But if you have useful skills to offer, that's a different story. Professionals with experience in disaster relief, medical and surgical interventions, search and rescue, firefighting, engineering and other needed areas could be invaluable. "If my house was on fire, I don't want people to stop and say, 'Oh where do I find a bucket?' " Hartman says. "I want trained firefighters."

No Special Skills But Still Want To Go? Join A Group

So now we're talking about those people knocking at the All Hands door. They range in age from 18 to 60-plus. And they're determined.

Even if you try to dissuade them, they'll want to go, says Erik Dyson, CEO and executive director of All Hands. His organization provides a way for volunteers without specific skills to be productive as part of a team — and without straining community resources.

Since 2004, All Hands has fielded about 30,000 volunteers at 50 disaster sites around the world, filling needs or "gaps" other agencies can't. "There are many tasks that don't fit into the programs of other organizations," Dyson says, "and we can be flexible and fulfill those unmet needs." These are "typically the most difficult and back-breaking work," says Dyson: clearing rubble, carrying sacks of rice, or (as they did in one town after the tsunami in Japan) hand-digging to clear silt from drainage channels.

The organization has staff in Nepal and a shelter that can house 100. Dyson expects the first volunteers to arrive in the next week or so. (The volunteers pay their airfare and All hands provides shelter and food.)

Once the capacity of 100 is reached, people are put a waiting list. "[We] work to schedule them as their schedule allows, capacity is available, and work is needed," he says.

Waiting isn't a bad idea. There will be plenty of work for volunteers after the immediate crisis passes into the rebuilding stage. "It's going to be a large reconstruction effort," says Andrews of Habitat for Humanity. The focus for his group and other organizations is long-term recovery. So volunteers might not be deployed until three to six months after a disaster.

There's another option for would-be volunteers. Hone your skills for future disasters by signing up for emergency or disaster training at the Red Cross or other organizations, says Hartman. Unfortunately, he notes, "there is going to be another typhoon, earthquake or tsunami."

Goats and Soda readers, if you've ever volunteered after a disaster and would like to share your thoughts, please do so in comments!

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