Category Archives: Medical

When Disaster Aid Isn’t Helpful

3 days into the worst earthquake in Nepal since 1934

Death tolls rise, damage becomes apparent and remote communities are still being reached for the first time. Worse still, citizens and foreign aid workers can’t begin the recovery efforts properly as after-shocks still rattle affected areas.

When a healthcare system is already underdeveloped and poorly equipped to deal with the day-to-day care of its people, the impact of a disaster is ever more profound.

Disasters are occurring more frequently on a global scale and you’d think our responses would become more practised. The international community has learnt many a lesson since Haiti, yet in our haste and zeal, have quickly forgotten many a lesson too.
The forgotten truths of disaster relief work are evident in the non-self-sufficient teams of under-qualified and improperly trained volunteers with inappropriate skill sets who now flood to help. Their well-meaning sorties are at first indistinguishable from the professional and appropriate teams sharing this mission. Unfortunately, our usual attitude of ‘the more the merrier’ is a luxurious falsehood that cannot be afforded in times of disaster.

When resources are spread so thinly and chaos abounds; the missteps of the misguided cause unintended harms to the afflicted. It is incredulous that there still exists a dearth of global regulation when it comes to international aid missions. You see, the painful and truth is that positive intentions are not satisfactory. The hubris of our privileged culture lends disquiet and discomfort to this sort of criticism. How dare I criticise the heroes on the ground!? Upon which mighty-high horse do I stand?!

It is uncomfortable for me as well.

As someone who has previously volunteered with excitement, joy and enthusiasm in less developed areas of Nepal, I too fell folly to the image of the foreign saviour.
The ‘do the best I can’ attitude. The unconscious incompetence borne of a society where, in almost every other case, doing something is better than nothing.
The uncomfortable question I ask of you is this:

Who do you think Nepal really needs?

May I be so brave as to suggest that who Nepal needs, what a people in crisis need, are not the do-gooders? Rather, it is the professional that should be sent. And along with the professional, the financial support for the local people to help themselves.
I’m talking about the ethically accountable organisation with quality assurance, and data. Organisations with experience and expertise in the field. Teams backed by a large network of logistical support, and in communication and concert with local and national parties.

A crisis is not the right time for a novice to gain experience, nor  amatuer enthusiasts to whet their appetite.

Nepal needs these humble heroes who are often not featured in the news till days or months later. Not the shiny logos and flashy media team, the retired volunteer or the passionate student.
Instead, the Organised. Pre-Planned. Experienced.

A diverse team of specialists, logisticians, administrators, epidemiologists, sanitation experts….
Then and only then, once these men and women are involved, are rescue and medical aid teams appropriate.

What good is a surgeon without a supply of sterile water to scrub with?
A medical team without their own supply of food?
A rescue team with no medical facility to deliver patients to?
What good is a field hospital to the starving, yet uninjured child?
So often the well-intended help becomes an unintended burden.
I’ll put it simply: it’s not fair for us to do this.

Disaster relief should involve us financially supporting the people affected, not third parties providing inappropriate aid.
Medicines Sans Frontiers are the perfect example of disaster relief done RIGHT, along with the peak rescue bodies and medical aid teams sent by countries such as Australia, New Zealand and a host of others. Teams who train year round for exactly this scenario and who are constantly reflecting on the impact of their efforts.

These are the heroes we should be supporting with our praise, and our coins.
This form of assistance is sustainable, multi-phased and diverse.
Attention is not given solely to the current disaster, but also on educating and upskilling local teams; empowering them to become more resilient for the future.
Care is not just delivered, but monitored too – recognising threatening trends before they become epidemics.

It’s not as simple as “doing the right thing” when doing so, can often be the wrong thing in the long run.

As always, Dhanyabad.

You can donate directly to the people of Nepal here (via Nepali Red Cross Society) Here via the American Red Cross who are collecting funds on NRCS behalf, and here to MSF.

Feature image from NBC News