This article was published by The Vocal on August 18, 2015.
It is often said that adversity brings out the best and the worst in people. That rarely rings true more than when disaster strikes.
After catastrophic earthquakes killed almost 9000 people in Nepal in April and May this year, and left thousands more living in tents as monsoon season approached, organisations and individuals from across the world mobilised to offer support. This scenario plays out time and again, proving that, while humans can sometimes be pretty sucky, they more often than not react to their fellow humans’ suffering with compassion.
So. Let’s take the Nepal earthquakes as an example. You see there’s massive damage and loss of life in what is already an economically-challenged country. You’ve got a couple of weeks’ leave up your sleeve, or you’re on break from uni, and you feel compelled to do something to help.
But how best to do so, you wonder?
First of all, if you’re planning on volunteering, as opposed to taking a non-government organisation job that comes with a wage that puts you somewhere near the 1% while you live in a developing country, then congratulations! You’re already on the right path – feel free to tick the box that says you are someone who is motivated by genuine compassion, rather than a pay cheque.
But not everyone gets it right. Here in Nepal, there are plenty of ‘volunteers’ getting around who probably only have a few snaps of the damaged Durbar Square and have been no further out of Kathmandu. These people assume a few different guises.
There’s the lost soul who is looking for a raison d’etre, but who most often finds their existential rationale in the pub: these people are often ultimately well-meaning, but they just can’t get it together enough to actually do something. This person closely resembles the strung-out wanderer, who has been bouncing from developing country to natural disaster for decades: they give a hand here and there, but mostly they’re looking for ways to live on a shoestring while eating lots of shrooms. And there’s the vocal do-gooder who walks around the city (which is notably nowhere near the disaster zone) in a t-shirt proclaiming they are a VOLUNTEER, but who is just after bragging rights for when they get back home: these people will usually have a picture of themselves and a cute little brown kid as their profile picture.
Sadly, volunteering is fraught with potential potholes. Shady characters know that people’s good natures are easy to take advantage of. But, there are a few simple things you can do in order to avoid falling into one of the above categories of faux-volunteer, and to avoid being used for evil instead of good.
1. Do your research
It’s a sad, sad fact that there are some seriously shitty human beings out there. Orphanages are a favourite for volunteers in Nepal. All those sweet little nanys (the Nepali word that applies to anyone below thigh-height) who just need someone to care for them. But beware!
Aforementioned shitty human beings have been known to kidnap children and force them to live in squalid conditions to arouse the sympathy of well-meaning visitors and volunteers, who donate cash that goes directly into the pockets of the shitheads operating the ‘orphanages’. But don’t despair! There are some truly wonderful organisations, like Umbrella, who really are working to make people’s lives better, and these groups will always need justice fighters on their sides. Team up with the right mob, and you really will be able to make a difference.
Equally, if you’re paying to volunteer, get your detective on and find out as much as you can about who you’re paying, why, and where the money goes. If children are involved, be especially cautious!
2. Go micro
Not all large NGOs or charities are soulless, corporate entities that do little more than provide jobs to privileged foreigners who make a living ‘helping’. But they can be. Often their overheads are high (owing to the exorbitant wages said privileged foreigners are paid) and their output low – many Nepalis are fully aware that a limited amount of aid money actually made it to the Haitian people after their devastating earthquake, and they’re worried the same thing will happen in their country.
The aid industry is a murky one, so if you’re not sure about one of the big NGOs, why not look for a grassroots or local organisation? It’s still important to do background research, but their intentions are often clearer – they won’t be driving brand-new jeeps, for example, or staying in five-star hotels.
The aid industry is a murky one, so if you’re not sure about one of the big NGOs, why not look for a grassroots or local organisation?
3. Go your own way
I met an Irishman called Patrick who took four weeks’ leave from his job teaching deaf children to see what he could do in post-quake Nepal. He knew another Irishman who had set up a small NGO teaching kids English, so Patrick decided to see if he wanted a hand. On spotting a school next to his guesthouse, Patrick wandered in out of curiosity to see what the Nepali teaching style was. Next thing he knew, he was lined up to ‘freelance’ at schools across Nepal, and with this he was very pleased.
A volunteer doctor told a friend (who I coerced into visiting me in Nepal) that she met a photojournalist who decided he could best help by highlighting all the parts of the country that were open for business and as stunningly beautiful as ever. Taxi drivers, hotel owners, food and beverage purveyors and retailers who rely on tourism – a large part of Nepal’s economy – are lamenting their lack of business, as visitors are yet to return. “We want people to come, there has been no one here since the earthquake,” a Kathmandu hotelier, Keshab, said.
The ‘turn up and see what needs doing’ route can be problematic – an influx of volunteers immediately following a disaster puts a strain on limited resources and can cause unnecessary pressure on relief co-ordinators. Many people issued pleas to volunteers to hold off arriving until the worst of the aftermath was dealt with. But even now, many Nepalis are without homes or proper shelters three months after the earthquakes.
The ‘turn up and see what needs doing’ route can be problematic
There are plenty of people just doing what they can to help out – clearing rubble, or organising deliveries of corrugated iron to villages to build shelters. When the drama of a natural disaster wears off and its repercussions slip from the front pages, it’s easy to forget people will continue to need help into the future. In Nepal, at least, there is still plenty of work to be done. The trick is simply in finding the best way to help out.