Despite the devastation and the horrors of the recent earthquake in Nepal, the situation will worsen in the weeks to come. Experience from other international natural disasters shows us that in the weeks following the event supplies of medicine, food and water become scarcer, water-borne diseases proliferate, hospitals become more overwhelmed as those in makeshift shelters succumb to exposure and disease.
Valuable lessons have been learnt from recent natural disasters including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The massive scale and complexity of these disasters exceeded the capacity of any single agency. The voluntary nature of the international humanitarian system led to a lack of coordinated response, a lack of predictable leadership, and inadequate accountability. Disparate groups of well-intentioned do-gooders flooded the affected countries in an effort to assist the crises, however many lacked the skills and experience and coordination to provide any effective assistance. In fact there were many cases where well-meaning but inexperienced volunteers led to hindering of aid efforts. In the aftermath of a large scale disaster, such poor logistical relief efforts involving distribution of goods and services are frequently called “the second disaster”. We must do everything we can to avoid this second disaster in Nepal.
We sit back and watch the news coverage of the horrendous scenes of death and despair in Nepal, and many of us feel overwhelmed with helplessness and guilt and the pressing need to help. The worst thing you can do right now is to simply travel to Nepal unannounced and expect to provide useful aid. The single international airport in Nepal, which itself has sustained damage is at full capacity. The airport is required for emergency aid supplies and for transport of victims and qualified, coordinated relief workers. If you are intending to travel to Nepal to assist in the emergency, in almost all cases it would be far more helpful to delay your trip for at least the next few weeks, and to join a reliable international relief agency. You’d rather donate clothing and blankets to the thousands in need in Nepal? Don’t make this mistake either. Postal and delivery services are desperately inadequate in Nepal, and few functioning distribution channels must prioritise essential supplies like medicine, food and water. If you do have clothes and other goods to donate, sell these at home and donate the proceeds to a reliable charity.
Unfortunately many of us are cynical regarding cash donations to charities and other aid organisations. And in the wake of a major disaster people are inundated with pleas for aid via telemarketers, social media and email. While the majority of these requests are from legitimate organisations, there are a number of scammers and inefficient charities pursuing our money. Be very wary of those seeking donations over the phone, and exercise caution with social media and email requests for aid.
Who do you trust then? How do you recognise a trustworthy, reliable relief organisation? The best charitable organisations keep administrative and overhead costs low, ideally below 20 per cent of total funds donated; accounts are transparent; and corporate governance is highly principled. There are some very useful websites listing the best charities involved in relief efforts with extensive expert reviews.
Nepal desperately needs our help. We need to provide this help in the most effective and efficient ways possible. Do not turn your back on this country in this time of anguish and distress and critical need for assistance. Help the Nepalese people, but help them in ways that can provide the greatest humanitarian impact.
Dr Ray Hodgson
Australians for Women’s Health