It’s been nearly two and a half years since a devastating earthquake shook Haiti, rocking the country to its core and leaving those living there to pick up the pieces and rebuild shattered lives. Shortly after the quake struck, volunteer groups from all over the world began flocking to Haiti in an attempt to help. Some gave money, others donated resources, still others boarded planes and flew to Haiti so they could donate their time. While most of these efforts were certainly well intentioned, it quickly became evident that some of these volunteer initiatives were actually causing more harm than good.
There are a number of pros and cons to volunteering in areas that have suffered from a natural disaster, and many differing opinions on the matter. Some people feel that volunteering to help your fellow man is something that everyone should do. Others feel that the increasing popularity of volunteer programs has shifted from helpful to detrimental, even going as far as referring to it as “disaster tourism”. The truth is each side makes a compelling argument.
When a country is devastated by a natural disaster, such as the Haiti earthquake, the people who live there are often left feeling overwhelmed with emotion and facing an uphill battle that is almost beyond comprehension. Between grieving for loved ones who didn’t survive to dealing with the loss of what property they owned, overcoming the situation can seem an insurmountable task. Volunteers who donate their money, time and resources can help the victims of disaster to rebuild their lives. This is especially critical when the area and communities affected do not have the funds to do so on their own.
When Good Intentions Go Bad
Where volunteer work becomes detrimental to a community is when the programs themselves are not properly designed to be effective. After the 2010 earthquake, Haiti was bombarded with individuals and groups who came to help but only served to cause more damage. Instead of working alongside the people of Haiti and helping them develop long-term, sustainable solutions, many volunteers simply swept in and took over. While they undoubtedly had good intentions, in fact this actually caused more harm to an already volatile community because it resulted in displacement of local workers and did nothing in terms of knowledge transfer or skill training.
Many groups did not take into account cultural, economic, social or environmental considerations in-country and imposed their own ideals and programs, instead of looking to locals for solutions that they could assist them with.
Given the sheer number of inexperienced people desiring to lend their assistance, there is also the real concern of programs being abandoned, never fully accomplishing their goals and leaving the vulnerable victims facing a whole new set of problems with no solution in sight.
While both sides of the argument are certainly thought provoking, the actuality lies somewhere in the middle. Volunteering can be a critical tool in the recovery of these types of tragic events; however it must be structured in a way that it will produce real results that have a positive impact, not just today, but on a long-term basis.
Developing a volunteer program that both benefits a community as well as positively impacts the volunteers involves much more than simply sending a group of people into a community in need. In order to truly be effective, a volunteer program must aim to accomplish six key goals:
- Address sustainability: Understand the environmental, economic, and social benefit for communities to ensure that the work being done provides a well-rounded and aligned support of sustainable development goals.
- Provide long-term solutions that contain defined plans for positive impact well into the future. There are too many programs that have been started by well-meaning volunteers and organizations only to be abandoned.
- Work with well-established organizations that have proven track records of success, transparency and long-term commitment to the community.
- Help raise funds: Provide fundraising support to non-profit partners which will serve to multiply the impact of the program.
- Employ and engage locals: Volunteering to get something done that could be done by a local employed to do a job is not effective. The goal should be to employ local labor, making certain that local jobs are not displaced.
- Work in solidarity not superiority: Developing cross-cultural relationships is one of the most effective things that can come of a volunteer program. Work side-by-side with locals, learn from them and support them while maintaining respect for their culture and knowledge.
Volunteerism plays a critical role in our society as a whole. Without it, disasters could potentially destroy entire communities and further devastate lives. When carried out effectively, volunteering helps to rebuild lives and restore hope for a sustainable, positive future. For this reason, it’s always recommended that those wishing to donate their time do so through a professional, experienced organization so that the work completed is as effective and impactful as possible.