Volunteering for International Disaster Relief

What You Need to Know

The primary goal of relief work is to help the greatest number of people as effectively as possible. Volunteers can be an asset to this end, but they can also be a hindrance – the difference depends on a few factors described below. The following will help clarify some common misunderstandings about volunteering and provide links to additional resources and information.

Volunteers are Limited

Prospective volunteers with the best chance of being selected have fluency in the language of the disaster-stricken area, prior disaster relief experience, and expertise in technical fields such as medicine, communications, logistics or water/sanitation engineering. In most cases, professionals who fit this description are available in-country, which decreases the need for foreign volunteers. While offers from individuals, college service clubs, church groups and others to drive trucks, set up tents, and feed children are well-intentioned, they are typically not accepted by relief organizations. Local volunteers and even disaster survivors themselves are often available for these tasks, and people impacted by a disaster benefit from being actively involved in the restoration of their communities.

From an administrative perspective, once a relief agency accepts a volunteer, they are responsible for that person’s well-being, including food, shelter, health and security. Untrained volunteers are expensive, and a lack of sectoral, cultural and language training can actually result in more harm than good to survivors. Resources are particularly strained during a disaster, and people without required technical skills and experience can be a financial and practical burden to an ongoing relief effort. Relief work is a profession, and requires individuals who are trained to work effectively under sustained difficult conditions.

Gaining Necessary Experience

People who are interested in becoming qualified volunteers can begin by starting small and starting locally. Volunteering in one’s own community will yield useful experience in helping people in need. For additional skills, local colleges and Red Cross chapters may offer disaster management training courses throughout the year. To find a local Red Cross chapter, please visit the Red Cross web site at:  www.redcross.org.

Medical and Healthcare Professionals

In most international emergencies doctors are available locally, within the country and within the region. In most cases, the affected country government will rely upon these resources first, before requesting outside assistance, since these doctors are most familiar with local medical systems, the language, the culture and treatments required. Prospective volunteers with medical training are strongly encouraged not to go to disaster sites on their own, but to contact an agency or organization that is working on the ground and has authorization from the government to bring in personnel. Many of these organizations will also require that volunteers have registered with them before a disaster, so that they have sufficient time to review their qualifications and experience.