Please Stay Home

Each day brings more horrible news of the devastation from Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

It will be months if not years before we learn of the full impact on the local communities and see the rebuilding efforts take place.

Whenever there is a horrible natural disaster like the one in the Philippines, my volunteer-travel company Cosmic Volunteers gets numerous requests from people asking us to send them there as relief volunteers.

Unfortunately during my thirteen years in the field of volunteering abroad, there have been a lot of opportunities for disaster relief work. Some of the deadliest natural disasters during this period:

    • 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami*
    • 2010 Haiti earthquake*
    • 2005 Kashmir earthquake
    • 2008 Cyclone Nargis
    • 2008 Sichuan earthquake

* (both among the top ten worst natural disasters since 1900)

I’ve never been directly involved in a natural disaster, either as victim or relief worker.

(Although I was in Kenya in 2005 right after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. I recall vividly sitting in a meeting with villagers who offered me condolences to those “suffering in America.” I had no idea what they were talking about. I wasn’t following the news much then. The week of Katrina, I had just buried a beloved aunt back home, quit my corporate IT job, then taken off on a three-month trip around the world for Cosmic Volunteers to meet new partners — and in Kenya I had little Internet access.)

Scott in Machakos, Kenya in 2005

Scott in Machakos, Kenya in 2005

Instead of disaster relief, my business involves sending volunteers into very safe and stable (but not always developed) environments. Having a client volunteer as a soccer coach in Ghana is completely different than sending someone to volunteer in a disaster area where there are thousands of deaths and total destruction.

So after a natural disaster like Typhoon Haiyan, when I get the inevitable calls and emails from goodhearted people who want to help out, my advice is always the same:

STAY HOME.

Why? Because natural disasters are the one area of volunteer work abroad that is best left to the disaster professionals — like the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). They have millions of dollars as well as ultra-skilled professionals on the ground who are trained and experienced in all facets of disaster relief, including medical care, food and water supplies and emergency shelter.

Most individuals in the world (including me and most who contact me for disaster relief work), do not have the background or psychological make-up to provide assistance in such dire circumstances; let alone ensure that they themselves don’t become injured or ill or worse.

Scott visiting school in Machakos, Kenya in 2005

Of course there are those who ignore this advice and still decide travel to disasters, some even managing to help out while staying safe and healthy. Just last week I read about Texas football player Nate Boyer, who traveled alone to Sudan in 2004 to volunteer for refugees through the NGO ChildFund.

But even for a tough, motivated guy like Nate (who by the way had to lie his way onto flights and at vehicle checkpoints), there are still so many things to consider before flying to a disaster:

    • If tens of thousands of locals have no access to food, water or shelter, how are you going to acquire those things for yourself?
    • What if you become ill but there are no medical professionals or medicines available?
    • Have you ever even seen a dead body up close? How about hundreds of them at once? Could you handle that emotionally?
    • Are you legally allowed to enter the country? Do you need a visa? Vaccinations?
    • Will the local authorities permit a foreigner like you into the disaster zone itself without proper credentials? Such as proof of your medical background or affiliation with a recognized relief organization?

As I said, it’s better to leave this up to the professionals. Like Paramedic Jake Gillanders, an Urban Search and Rescue team leader coordinating a group from EMPACT Northwest who flew to the Philippines Nov. 11.

But what about the rest of us? How can we help out the people of the Philippines?

In the short term, here are the best options:

1. Donate Cash. Try the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Oxfam.

2. Volunteer Locally. The local offices of legit charities often need volunteers to do office work.

3. Mobilize. Get involved in local initiatives that spread the word about relief efforts.

Then, after the situation in places like the Philippines stabilizes (count on several months), you might find the right opportunity for you to volunteer there.

Perhaps you have a background in health care, construction or social work that would be of great use. But even if you can bring only your humanity in the form of care giving, you would be much more likely to be of value well after the immediate tragedy of the natural disaster has ended.