By Lizzie Widdicombe, The New Yorker, January 2010

On January 12, 2010 Haiti was hit by a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 Mw earthquake. An estimated 230,000 people died, 300,000 were injured and 1,000,000 were made homeless. As in other mega-disasters, the global community reached out to help by giving large amounts of money and also by volunteering, including by people from other countries. In contrast to the title in the article “helpless” people strive to volunteer in such events in order to feel helpful and empowered in times of uncertainty.

Widdicombe describes the spontaneous offers of help by people in New York. As one of the volunteers explained: “I came here because I can’t sit and watch CNN anymore”. However, as often is the case in mega-events, there was none of the infrastructure required for volunteering. In Haiti, as Widdicombe explains, there were no hotels for the volunteers, no place for tents, no communication framework etc. A member of the Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad also explained that “Washington doesn’t want any civilian help.”

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One Response to Helpless

  1. Editor's note

    What Widdicombe describes here is not uncommon in other disaster areas. Even in the 9/11 events people were called to volunteer but were not given safety gear when they entered the highly dangerous Ground Zero. These volunteers were given no support afterwards, and many reported to suffer from post-traumatic disorder syndrome three years later. After the Victorian Black Saturday fires, thousands of people applied to volunteer, but there was no one who could organise such a major flow. Although it is difficult to prepare for all disaster scenarios, governments can prepare an infrastructure for volunteers in case of emergency relief.
    Creating an infrastructure of emergency relief volunteering includes generating a data base of people who are willing and having trained volunteers to manage them quickly when the need arises. Further, to address the number of spontaneous volunteers, a peak body could create the needed policy and procedures, while corporate partners could supply the infrastructure for communication, accommodation and other needed supplies.

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