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Not all help is helpful: Nepal Earthquake relief 'disaster'

by Marcus Costello
27 April 2015

As well-intended and honourable as it may be for a foreigner to volunteer for ground support or to donate goods to the Nepal earthquake relief effort, unsolicited help can often be a hindrance, writes Marcus Costello.

You’re highly educated, generally capable and a natural leader. You see suffering and your first impulse is to help. You sound like the kind of person who would make the world a better place.

You also sound like a prime suspect for unsolicited international volunteer work. The kind of assistance skilled relief workers in natural disaster zones refer to as part of "the disaster after the disaster".
Hindsight tells us that in coming months, Nepal should expect an influx of volunteers from around the world. In the face of chaos and corruption, giving hands-on help might seem like the most direct and effective approach a willing person can take. But the Centre for International Disaster Information cautions against eager volunteers rushing into a disaster zone and Smartraveller has advised Australians not to travel to Nepal.
As an unsolicited and unskilled foreign volunteer, you require all kinds of support infrastructure. Your travel to and from the site, your accommodation once you’re there, your food and water and insurance, and the operational logistics of training you don’t seem reasonable when a local or skilled relief worker could otherwise hit the ground running.

Giving money might seem cold and lazy, while giving a blanket is warm and cozy.

But the reality is that processing donated goods requires a massive logistical effort by the skilled relief workers, which often results in wasting precious time and freight resources on what might ultimately be an exercise in sorting trash.

Relating a relief worker’s experience of Hurricane Andrew, at the time America’s most ruinous hurricane, member of the National Academy of Sciences' Disaster Research Roundtable, José Holguín-Veras, writes, “When drivers couldn't find willing recipients for truckloads of clothing sent to affected communities, they unloaded them on the side of the road. The heat and usual afternoon summer rains quickly turned the piles into heaps of stinking, rotting cloth."

Money might be impersonal and non-earmarked donations might seem open to mishandling but it’s because of this not despite it that it can be most effective. Relief organisations can use your money to order bulk deliveries of pre-sorted products from companies willing to discount, then ship those goods directly to the areas that need them most or use the funds for whatever else is most pressing.
If you want your unwanted goods to do good, Holguín-Veras recommends to, “gather physical donations, then hold a garage sale and give the proceeds to a relief organisation. This approach has been used by the Finnish Red Cross with great success.
However, be careful where you donate. Natural disasters bring out the best and the worst in humanity. Closer to home, in response to last week’s Sydney storm, scammers masquerading as SES phone workers asked for credit card details for a bogus relief raffle.

Sadly, this kind of fraud is not uncommon. The NY Times has collated a list of aid organisations best suited to take your donations for the Nepal Earthquake relief effort.
Finally, people in developing regions like Nepal are more likely to suffer from climate-change related natural disasters. So remember, while  unsolicited hands-on help when disaster strikes might be unwelcome, donating from a distance to mitigation and adaptation solutions is always welcome.


Marcus Costello is the Content Producer and Editor at The Ethics Centre.

Image credit: Flickr/Jonathan Khoo