A massive natural disaster has once again befallen a developing country. This time it is Nepal. The world is watching horrific images of people suffering, flattened historical monuments, and the fresh terror that comes with every aftershock. As the death toll continues to rise, the grim reality of what Nepal faces looms large. We are reminded of the 2010 Haiti earthquake that also devastated an overcrowded urban center with shoddy construction and poor building codes and left millions of people vulnerable. The humanitarian community and neighboring countries are flocking to Nepal to help with the search for survivors and provide relief—emergency shelter, food, water, health, and sanitation—to those most in need.
Humanitarian aid has been described as the world’s most unregulated industry. I should know. I’ve been working in this field for almost 15 years, for both U.N. agencies and NGOs during some of the world’s most pressing humanitarian crises. While there were many trained, experienced experts on the ground, the work was complicated, messy, took time, and always required strong coordination among multiple moving parts. And in many of these natural disaster settings throngs of well-intentioned but unskilled volunteers compounded the crisis. In both post-earthquake Haiti in 2010 and post-tsunami Southeast Asia in 2004, some of my fellow humanitarian workers referred to these groups as the “second disaster.”
I’ve already seen questions popping up online from people wondering whether they should hop on the next flight to Kathmandu and help. Among possible disaster sites, Nepal is an appealing place: It’s a gorgeous conflict-free setting, there are few visa restrictions, and a developed tourist economy. The well-meaning onlooker may think, “Why not? I’ll get there and lend a hand.”
Actually, it’s a terrible idea. Don’t go to Nepal. You will cause more problems than you will solve.
When novice volunteers just show up, they get in the way of professionals who are there to put their expertise to use. Planeloads of volunteers need to be housed, fed, and kept safe, a responsibility that diverts the time and resources of organizations that are trying to respond to actual victims’ needs. Unless your specific skills—search and rescue, emergency medicine, logistics—are requested by an agency that has the capacity to look after you while you are there, stay home.
You may be thinking that there’s so much to do, so many people to reach, so much debris to clear—of course an extra pair of hands would help. It’s true the task ahead in Nepal is overwhelming. But the immediate priority is for professional search and rescue teams to enter—outfits that are already coming from India, China, Pakistan, Israel, and the United States, to name a few. The United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has already identified congestion at the Kathmandu airport as a bottleneck for getting staff and assistance into Nepal. And while main roads are reportedly open, side roads reaching hard hit communities are still inaccessible. Unqualified people shouldn’t congest the roads and runways needed to carry personnel to disaster sites.
When I worked in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, I saw hundreds of inexperienced foreign volunteers arrive to help clear rubble. Aid agencies like the one I worked for paid locals as part of their cash-for-work programs to help out. The benefits were twofold: It cleared the rubble, and it put cash in Haitians’ pockets at a time when they needed it most. All foreign volunteers did was take jobs from Haitians. The rule is this: If someone there can do the work, let them do it. Don’t go and do it for them.
As we saw in the Philippines, the bulk of the early humanitarian response will come from not only established local organizations, but everyday citizens, friends, neighbors. Months after Typhoon Haiyan I was in Tacloban where a community leader had kept a logbook of groups who came to assist her community. The first dozens of entries were local groups—churches, university students, nearby community organizations. The international community came later and provided needed assistance, but the first responders are always fellow neighbors and countrymen who know the local needs, know the social customs, know the language, and know how best to deliver local goods. Unsurprisingly, reports from Nepal are echoing this example, with efforts such as those by the Nepal Red Cross working around the clock since the earthquake. Those groups should be supported, not substituted.
Wanting to help is a commendable human impulse. But help needs to be provided in a way that is most useful. Besides resisting the urge to go to the airport, it’s also important to not send stuff. As I have written before, sending clothes, bottles of water, and teddy bears is ineffective (these donations go unused because they’re not what people want or need), inefficient (it costs a lot of time and money to ship and unload this stuff that could be better spent helping people), and hurts the local economy (it puts the people there out of business).
What’s needed is money for reputable agencies—here’s a list of verified response efforts—who are already on the ground providing relief to people in distress. Things that agencies are now requesting in Nepal are fuel to keep generators running; measles vaccines, given the possibility of a measles outbreak; and body bags. Most individuals or corporations probably can’t offer that kind of support, but we can provide cash to humanitarian agencies that can purchase what is needed. Unless agencies ask for specific goods that they cannot purchase for themselves, don’t send them stuff.
We in the humanitarian field have a name for some of the people who rush to the sites of disasters: “Voluntourists.” It may not be a nice word, and we don't intend to shame people’s truly generous impulses, but it points to the fact that untrained volunteers are hindrances rather than help.
The time to choose to be a humanitarian aid worker isn’t the day after an emergency. If you want to commit to the profession, get the skills, training, and expertise first. And then consider lending a hand in places outside of the media’s eye—Central African Republic, South Sudan, or perhaps the Democratic Republic of Congo. Each faces a humanitarian crisis that is largely unnoticed by the general public. For now, the best way you can help in Nepal is to donate money to those who are already there doing the work that must be done.