Aid Agencies Prefer Professionals to Inexperienced Volunteers
by Matthew Bolton
Aid agencies providing assistance to communities ravaged by the recent Tsunamis in the Indian Ocean have been overwhelmed by requests from people wanting to volunteer in the relief effort.
"We received 320 volunteer applications in 10 days—we normally have only 400 a year," said Bonnie Tickridge, director of the field human resources department for Medecins Sans
Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).
MSF sends health professionals, as well as administrative and support staff such as logisticians, mechanics, water and sanitation experts, managers and financial controllers, to disaster areas around the world. However,
it will only be sending aid workers with MSF missions under their belt to the Tsunami-affected region.
"Usually when there is a big emergency such as Darfur, the recent tsunamis or the earthquake in Iran, in the first phase we send people who have experience with MSF and with emergencies," said Tickridge.
"We are doing rapid assessments of the situation to determine our response and so need people who understand relief."
Most major humanitarian agencies are following a similar policy — they want to avoid an avalanche of inexperienced people descending on south Asia with little coordination and understanding of relief operations.
"Volunteers without those skills can do more harm than good, and siphon off critical logistics and translations services," said a recent statement by World Vision,
a Christian relief and development organization.
Moreover, "In the case of South Asia, the vast majority of work is being met by capable local people," said Kirk Thompson, executive director of RedR Canada, an affiliate
of RedR-International Health Exchange, which provides training to aid workers and recruitment services to humanitarian agencies.
Hiring local professionals is much less expensive and can pump much needed cash into the economy of the disaster stricken area. Therefore, most aid agencies are encouraging people to volunteer at home — raising funds in
their own countries.
They stress "cash is best," as InterAction, a coalition of US international non-profits, says. It can be moved much faster and more cheaply than donations of medical
supplies, clothes or food and enables aid agencies to respond rapidly to realities on the ground.
That said, aid agencies are looking for experienced relief professionals and people with highly technical niche expertise.
"We are keen to hear from specialists with relevant skills and experience and preferably with experience in the region," said RedR-IHE Chief Executive Bobby Lambert.
RedR-IHE is encouraging "water, sanitation and construction engineers, logisticians and experienced humanitarian co-ordinators and managers" to register at www.redr.org,
a database used by RedR-IHE to find suitably qualified aid workers for humanitarian vacancies.
Likewise, organizations like Oxfam, Save the Children and Mercy
Corps have posted vacancy advertisements looking for health workers, water and sanitation specialists, logisticians, financial controllers and relief operations managers.
For those who lack experience or skills necessary to help in the response to the tsunamis, but want to gain the skills and experience necessary to help in future relief operations, Thompson of RedR Canada suggests taking
their basic training courses in humanitarian assistance.
Many universities also offer courses in humanitarian assistance, international development, peace studies and related fields that provide grounding in the issues faced by countries and agencies involved in aid.
One can get good foundational experience in aid work from the premier volunteer organizations like the Peace Corps, VSO or UN
Volunteers. All three agencies have volunteers in areas hit by the tsunamis, and many other countries around the world.
MSF places health professionals, as well as administrative and support staff such as logisticians, mechanics, water and sanitation experts, managers and financial controllers, in relief operations around the world. Volunteers
require two years relevant experience and appropriate qualifications.
The needs in the tsunami affected region will not disappear in a few weeks. In the next few years, as the situation stabilizes, there will be many opportunities to assist that might not require the highly technical skills
needed in an emergency operation.
There are also needs in other parts of the world, including on one's own doorstep. New emergencies, and the short attention span of the media, often make people forget about very real problems existing all over the globe.
Aid agencies hope the publicity of and response to the tsunami crisis will raise everyone's awareness of ways to relieve and release people from suffering, wherever they live.