Disaster relief is not just for experts and special teams

Workers loading relief material onto a truck for earthquake victims at the cargo terminal of international airport in Kathmandu, Nepal on May 3, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Workers loading relief material onto a truck for earthquake victims at the cargo terminal of international airport in Kathmandu, Nepal on May 3, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

THE recent earthquake in Nepal is a heartbreaking disaster that has left thousands dead and much infrastructure destroyed. There is an international outpouring of aid and funds for Nepal, where the "relief work" is really just left to experts.

I've volunteered for and been to many disaster zones and I must say that most of the calls for volunteers not to go are likely to be misleading. In many disasters, I've seen many untrained people, mainly from Christian organisations, relief organisations and foreign armies in the disaster area, struggling with poor communication between organisations.

Coupled with a lack of proper training, the real reason relief efforts are ineffective - and often destructive - is that they are often directed remotely by decision-makers who are off-site, who may not grasp the situation on the ground.

In every disaster, there is always a lack of food, water, medicine and shelter, due to the collapse of infrastructure.

Local governments' lack of coordination also hampers aid distribution as the aid would be left at the airport, waiting to clear Customs and immigration, and the process may take a few days, even weeks.

But individuals who go on their own and take luggage bags of supplies can get their aid into the hands of the survivors fast. That, however, has very limited impact as individuals and small groups can never carry enough supplies.

In the days to come, as supplies start to roll in and as donations mount, there will be an oversupply of aid due to duplication of efforts by relief organisations. The shelters will have more food than the people can consume, often prepared by untrained volunteers, rather than local cooks.

Even then, there will be people who lack access to food as they cannot reach the shelters due to the destroyed infrastructure. The common excuse given by the relief organisations is that they do not do delivery.

When a relief organisation tells the public not to donate old clothes, it is not that old clothes are not needed on the ground; rather, the organisations do not have the capacity to sort the items. Properly sorted clothes will be used by survivors who do not have access to running water to wash their clothes. In the aid given by foreign armies or religious organisations, I have seen many boxes of Bibles instead of food, and sometimes the wrong kind of food, for example, pork for a Muslim country.

I do not blame the relief organisations or foreign armies as the management of logistics and delivery of aid to the majority of the survivors is no simple feat.

I also understand the fear of "incompetent, well-intentioned do-gooders" flooding the country and slowing down aid efforts but, in my experience, aid efforts are already slow due to bureaucracy and the many levels of approval needed to get things done.

It is a myth that actual relief work is the domain of experts or specialised relief organisations. As a relief worker myself, I used to resent people who seemed to work around the boundaries of what relief workers from large organisations can do.

I felt that way because I was powerless to act while waiting to clear many levels of approval before reacting to the changing conditions in the field.

My eyes were opened during the Japan tsunami. I got to know an untrained Korean girl, who volunteered in my Relief 2.0 team. She paid for her own flight. Even though she could not wake up at 5.30am to run the errands needed to redistribute fuel, she made a commendable effort to come along when she could and was willing to work in her own ways.

She found a Korean community who required aid. One of the women was pregnant and this Korean girl managed to get help to take her to a hospital. Her act eventually saved the life of the woman and her baby. Later, she connected her with a Korean reporter who, in turn, linked the Korean woman to foreign aid.

Don't get me wrong: I am not encouraging people to go to disaster areas on unplanned personal missions. I would suggest forming a team and understanding your capabilities. As long as you are self-sufficient, there are always errands to run on the ground - errands that save lives.

Sometimes, working as an independent team running the last mile of disaster relief, like Relief 2.0 does, can complement other efforts and meet unmet needs.

Disaster recovery is not a sprint but a marathon. Sadly, as a disaster loses news value and attention wanes, many people and corporations lose interest in the recovery efforts. Yet these are crucial and take time. Giving food to one hungry person is instantly gratifying, but helping a village by enabling businesses to restart and offering employment to locals, takes time and dedicated effort.

Economic recovery is essential; without it, survivors will need continual support. Recovery needs to be sustainable as well. Low-quality housing, like that donated during the aftermath of earthquakes, may prove to be hazardous.

Properly planned and executed disaster relief can offer an opportunity to make things better than before the disaster. However, planning for such improvements involves government and often takes years.

For a start, as a small independent group, Relief 2.0 can run business-to-business or B2B efforts. Many businesses in the disaster area may want to restart, but have no access to loans. If the cost of restarting is relatively low, a decision to grant a loan can be made on the basis of a simple interview comprising four questions:

  • What happened during the disaster?
  • What did you lose?
  • How much do you need?
  • What are you going to use the money for?

The answers can be captured on video and funds for the loans can be raised through events in aid-giving countries or crowdsourced online. With this quick crowdfunded approach, the businesses can restart quickly and the employees can get back their jobs.

Nepal is a poor country and gathering information on the current capacity and sharing the good work of the local non-governmental organisations are very important. Making such information available online will help these organisations by raising awareness of their work, thereby increasing donations that enable them to scale up and help more people. Many social enterprises may be looking for projects and communities to support and they may have ready solutions to problems on the ground.

I plan to form a team and go to Nepal to run Relief B2B, and gather more information and engage with the locals to learn more about the unmet needs post-disaster. I hope to crowdsource solutions globally to make the situation in Nepal better, bit by bit.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is co-founder of Relief 2.0 and Civil Innovation Lab. He has been involved in disaster relief and recovery after the Asian tsunami, Haiti earthquake and Japan tsunami.