Should You Volunteer In Nepal? 7 Dos And Don'ts Of Disaster Relief From An Actual Aid Worker

Less than 24 hours after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, killing over 7,500 people and leaving a reported 8.1 million in need of humanitarian aid, relief efforts were in full swing. The aid agency I volunteer for mobilized our first team of two volunteers to head to Nepal the day of the quake, and quickly followed up with 10 more volunteers. But for those of us bound by daily life in the States and beyond, the distance between us and Nepal — and corresponding feelings of helplessness — can be crippling. We’re glued to our computers, TVs, and radios, gathering information and trying to figure out the best ways to contribute. So how can you help Nepal — and should you go to Nepal to volunteer?

I've been deployed to seven different disasters over the past six years: Typhoon Morakot in Taiwan and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines; mudslides in Peru; flooding in Malawi; Hurricane Odile in Baja California; the Haitian earthquake; and tornadoes in Arkansas. In every one of these disasters, I saw folks who were trying their hardest to respond to the growing number of voices and organizations calling for donations and help, but whose best intentions inevitably went awry. In the first month of relief, good intentions can sometimes end up doing more damage: Unsolicited emergency supplies sent to an affected area inevitably clog up the customs process and the airports, for instance.

So here's a brief list of the dos and don'ts of disaster relief. Before we get started, let’s get one thing clear: Your help is always, always appreciated. But let’s try and make it a little more effective. Okay? Here we go.

Getting On A Plane

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Don’t do it. Whatever you do, stay home. Flights to disaster areas are often limited due to safety, increased security, and just sheer inaccessibility. Aid agencies need those flights to get their people to where they can do the most good. (Yes, we sometimes get charter planes or military flights, but those are hard to come by.)

And once you arrive, what will you do? If you just show up as a walk-in, you might be in the way since on-the-ground agencies already have a set system in place for the first few weeks. Someone who's new and untrained can just make things more difficult. So unless you're already in direct contact with an aid agency that explicitly said it could use your help, please don’t come. There will be plenty of opportunities for civilians to help later on. For example, efforts to rebuild homes and facilities usually start a couple months after a disaster strikes and are always in need of volunteer muscle.

Public figures, I’m looking at you. If you must come, please attach yourself to an existing aid agency or consider whether or not you can pull off a Sean Penn-in-Haiti before you make any flight plans. Don’t come with your entourage. Transport is always at a premium in the weeks post-disaster, and we might not be able to accommodate your handlers, your luggage, your PR crew, and their 15 cameras. No one will recognize you anyway, but if you've done the right thing and already told us you're coming, we’ll just say hi and put you to work.

Sending Goods

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Both times I went to Haiti post-earthquake, the airport tarmac and warehouse were clogged with boxes labeled "To the People of Haiti, Port-au-Prince Airport, Port-au-Prince, Haiti." No lie. Often, the boxes came from the United States, and you could see they were packed with stuff like teddy bears, toys, first aid kits, blankets, and clothing. Yes, they were all comforting and necessary goods, but why were they stranded at the airport for so long?

The answer’s simple: There was no one to receive them. These boxes just sat there while our disaster-relief kits — family tents, water purification systems, tools, and activity packs for kids — baked in the sun, waiting their turn in the customs line. If you are taking up a collection, send it in care of an agency, like the Red Cross, or a local church, who can help distribute. The agency should have an actual address where someone will be there to receive it. Otherwise, it’ll all go to waste.

One final note. Airports in places like Kathmandu, Port-au-Prince, and Cabo San Lucas are often stretched to their limits when a major disaster strikes. Alleviate the pressure by sending things you know for a fact will be used. Some agencies post wish lists (Himalayan Children's Charities has one, for example), so have a look around the Internet for those.

Donating Money

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Ah, the dreaded "overhead expenses" portion of any aid organization’s operating budget. No one wants to see their money go there, right? But you shouldn't earmark your money for one particular disaster or area because that can seriously hamper an organization’s efforts. After all, agencies will know best about their operations and the situation on the ground.

If you ask for your funds to be designated for a specific disaster and the organization has done everything it can within its mission to help, then you’re forcing the agency to scramble for another way to use your money, potentially putting the agency out of its original remit. Plus, the organization you’re donating to is probably responding to multiple disasters at a time. While we move resources to Nepal, our agency is also operational in eight other locations, including Vanuatu, Cameroon, and with the Syrian refugee crisis.

If you call to donate and the agency asks where you’d like your money to go, the right answer is always “Use it as you see fit.”

What You Should Do

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So what can you do?

Talk it up. Tell your friends about great agencies you’ve discovered in person, over the phone, or through social media. Not only does that help increase awareness, it keeps faraway disasters fresh in people's minds. News cycles often move so quickly that relief efforts can fall off the radars within a day or two. Remember the human part of the equation: Talking about disasters can help keep everyone aware about what's happening on the other side of the world.

Volunteer. Agencies that respond to disasters are often overworked when a major disaster strikes. See if your favorite organization has a local branch where you can help stuff envelopes or make phone calls to potential and existing donors. Every volunteer is necessary. Agencies are always preparing for the next disaster, and we can't afford to let basic administration fall through the cracks.

Lend a physical hand when the right time comes. Some agencies like All Hands Volunteers, service clubs like your local Rotary club and church groups may arrange your lodging and local transport to serve on site. They also can help find ways for you to help if you can pay for your own travel to the affected area. Sign up for an agency's mailing list so they can tell you when they're ready for you to come.

There’s always someone in need of help somewhere. If you can’t get yourself to a distant country (in the photo above, I'm doing a demo for a local Malawi health organization), don’t fret. Find a way to help in your own community. Just don’t do nothing.

Images: Getty Images (4); Yi Shun Lai/Liz Odell, Carsten Dolbert