From volunteer travel to disaster relief projects

On 26 December 2004, tsunamis hit Thailand, India, Sri Lanka Indonesia and the Maldives. We all remember these days and the tremendous support that was being sent to those countries. In fact, the relief and rehabilitation operations were the biggest ever undertaken in history and had a strong impact on our view on disaster relief. In parallel, in the following years volunteering abroad grew in popularity. Maybe this is why it shouldn’t be surprising, that soon after the Typhoon Haiyan hit, opportunities to volunteer in the Philippines springed up. Well, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, but it still is disturbing.

Let’s have a closer look at these programs: some of the so called “disaster relief projects” (which idea is to send volunteers to places affected by natural disasters – in this case – the Philippines) are addressed to all people who are willing to help, even regardless the lack of particular skills. Moreover, programs are not organized by big international organizations training people in this kind of work, but by tour groups and organizations usually providing voluntouristic trips. Companies and organizations offering relief projects in the Philippines claim that besides “valuable typhoon recovery work” they offer home stay, administration, local staff and other necessities.

Hearing about these kinds of relief volunteer opportunities in the Philippines, it’s hard not to get the impression, that the idea of disaster volunteerism share with voluntourism a very similar vision of developmental aid; It gives an illusion, that developmental work is easy, that westerners can be useful in developing countries regardless their personal skills. That just another pair of hands is necessary and it’s “better than nothing”. But in this case, we are talking not about holiday or gap year adventure, but about serious humanitarian work, dealing with natural disasters and thousands of dead.

As Scott P. Burke noticed in his article „Please Stay Home”: 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. (…) 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?

Burke points out a set of very basic challenges one would face during volunteering in the Philippines. Thinking of the efforts, which are needed to provide all the necessities in a devastated country to unskilled volunteers, raise serious doubts about any sense of this kind of undertakings. Moreover, even more worrying is the fact, that some of those projects are run by organizations from voluntourism sector, who have already been hit by a wave of criticism for abusing poverty to gain income.

Observing the interest in volunteering in the Philippines we wonder where this “disaster volunteering” trend is going. So far, paradoxically, it seems to become a domain of voluntourism companies, sharing prejudicial voluntouristic myth, that developmental work does not require much. We can only hope that in the long run these practices won’t get more popularity and that they won’t impact global view on the disaster relief aid.

Alicja Nowaczyk