Aid agencies sending people to Haiti
January 13, 2010 3:29 PM   Subscribe

Aid agencies sending people to Haiti?

A question for a friend: She is interested in volunteering to go to Hatti, in the wake of the disaster, to provide basic assistance. The American Red Cross seems to be only sending a handful of people so that is out, does anyone have suggestions of American Organizations that may be providing basic assistance help and looking for volunteers?
posted by edgeways to Grab Bag (38 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Matador and Jetblue are in negotiations to send a planeful of volunteers to Haiti.
posted by changeling at 3:31 PM on January 13, 2010

I think that J. Random Volunteer isn't really an asset. What they want are people with relevant skills e.g. doctors and nurses, search-and-rescue teams, etc. If unskilled labor is required, there are a plenty of native Haitians around who can serve.

Your friend's impulse is noble and she should be praised for it. But giving money to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army would be better.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:52 PM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

The unemployment rate in Haiti before the quake was something like 75%. Any Haitian adult who can physically be of assistance to their fellow Haitians is going to be a lot more use to others--and benefit a lot more by having paid work--than an untrained foreigner.

If your friend has specific skills in health care, construction, civil engineering, or public infrastructure maintenance, her professional organizations will have information on volunteer efforts. If your friend is just a nice person who wants to help, she will do better by staying where she is and organizing fund drives and blood drives.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:57 PM on January 13, 2010 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: I understand your response CP, but unless you have heard this officially I'm afraid it isn't terribly helpful. It may be akin to saying: Oh those people in the Red River Vally didn't need anyone to help with the flood there are enough people there. The thing is, those in Hatti may be too busy recovering themselves to be of much assistance to others, I don't know, and barring official pronouncement neither does anyone else. And this is as far as I'd like to carry the potential derail I've introduced.
posted by edgeways at 3:58 PM on January 13, 2010

Sidhedevil's response is the only one you need. Heed it.
posted by dfriedman at 4:07 PM on January 13, 2010

edgeways, if your friend is not a member of a professional organization in a field relevant to disaster relief, she should register on the Center for International Disaster Information database and see if her skill set is a match with any organization looking for help.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:09 PM on January 13, 2010

Also relevant (because I'm an anonymous person on the Internets, so whatever) is the CIDI statement on volunteering for disaster relief:

Volunteers without prior disaster relief experience are generally not selected for relief assignments. Candidates with the greatest 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, water/sanitation engineering. In many cases, these professionals are already available in-country. Most agencies will require at least ten years of experience, as well as several years of experience working overseas. It is not unusual to request that volunteers make a commitment to spend at least three months working on a particular disaster. Most offers of another body to drive trucks, set up tents, and feed children are not accepted. Keep in mind that once a relief agency accepts a volunteer, they are responsible for the volunteer's well-being - i.e., food, shelter, health and security. Resources are strained during a disaster, and another person without the necessary technical skills and experience can often be a considerable burden to an ongoing relief effort.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:13 PM on January 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm not saying they don't need help. They need a hell of a lot of help. But untrained do-gooders won't be of any help. All an untrained do-gooder will do is consume supplies and get in the way.

For instance: if your friend doesn't speak French fluently, she won't be able to communicate with anyone except other Americans. How would that be of any use?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:14 PM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Centers for Disease Control says:
Before visiting Haiti, you may need to get the following vaccinations and medications for vaccine-preventable diseases and other diseases you might be at risk for at your destination:

Routine vaccinations (measles/mumps/rubella, diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus, poliovirus)
Hepatitis A
Hepatitis B
Has your friend been vaccinated against Rabies and Typhus? I doubt it, and it takes 6 weeks for vaccinations to fully induce immunity. Also read the rest of that page.

Meanwhile, does your friend have a passport?

Your friend has her heart in the right place, but this is not a good idea. If she wants to help, her money would be much more useful than her presence.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:24 PM on January 13, 2010

I don't know if there is a tag edit function, but you've misspelled "Haiti" there.

And not to be unfair, but that's pretty much the assumption about untrained wannabe disaster volunteers -- if they can't even spell the name of the country correctly, how good are they going to be when faced with a complex and stressful situation in a chaotic environment?

The comments above about untrained warm bodies not being needed right now are true. However, those willing-but-unskilled people will be desperately needed a year from now, when the sexy news teams have gone home and the world's focus is somewhere else. Haiti will be recovering from this disaster for decades to come -- your friend could play a tremendously important role in some piece of that recovery.

Right now, however, Haiti needs self-contained field hospitals, search and rescue teams with heavy equipment, and the kind of large water desalination equipment carried by military hospital ships. Send money today, and make plans to go and help with long term recovery when Haiti recovers to a point where a volunteer won't be siphoning resources from the people most affected.
posted by Forktine at 4:36 PM on January 13, 2010 [7 favorites]

CNN: Money needed most in Haiti earthquake relief efforts

"The next question on many people's minds after learning about the earthquake devastation in Haiti has been: How can I help? Most organizations are asking for monetary donations. They are not seeking material items, like clothes or food, or volunteers at this time."

Link contains agencies seeking donations that have been vetted by CNN journalists for credibility.
posted by sharkfu at 4:50 PM on January 13, 2010

I am the so-called do gooder friend. All of you make some excellent points. For now all I can do is volunteer my time because I am unemployed.

I can't imagine, however, that physical labor isn't needed at this juncture. Luckily I am strong and can offer this assistance. I don't speak the language and I don't have an engineering or an health care background but I have traveled internationally to lesser developed countries (in UN speak) to know that many hands make light work.
posted by yojikthehedegehog at 5:19 PM on January 13, 2010

I'd like to echo what others have said above re: untrained, unskilled volunteers. When I went through disaster relief training with the Red Cross in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, they were very explicit that neither they nor any other reputable relief organizations were in the habit of deploying volunteers who didn't have extensive training and applicable skills in the various areas of disaster relief, even for domestic relief.

For international incidents, they are even more stringent; they generally only deploy people internationally with training, skills AND EXTENSIVE DISASTER RELIEF EXPERIENCE. For areas where the native language is not English, they also require some ability in the native language. I was led to understand that this is the case for all reputable relief agencies, especially for those which respond in the immediate wake of disasters.

As forktine mentions, Haiti will need assistance for a long time to come. Your friend could get the relevant training now, and be able to help in the future. This is similar to the route that I took after Katrina, which ended in my doing family service case work for the Red Cross in southern Mississippi a couple of months later, when people were still recovering from the effects of the hurricane. In case it's helpful, here's what I did:

Katrina hit while I was unemployed (and too broke to donate any money) in the Pacific Northwest. I spent the first 24 hours or so after the disaster sitting on my couch gorging on disaster porn on CNN muttering to myself that "someone should do something." Duh. I'm a somebody. I can do a something.

The phone lines at my local Red Cross chapter were jammed when I called, so I said "fuck it" went down to the office. I walked in and it was pretty chaotic, so I just walked up to someone wearing an ID that said "Volunteer Coordinator" and said "Hey, what can I do to help right now?"

They had set up a phone bank in an unused conference room and desperately needed people to answer phones and process donations and volunteer applications, so that's what I did, full time, for about a week. Most of the people who called in were like your friend. They just wanted to go where the action was. When I suggested that they could help at the local chapter, they often scoffed and hung up on me.

But I was there, every day, helping the Volunteer Coordinator process the massive influx of people and paperwork, so when the chapter set up fast-track disaster-relief training classes (Shelter Operations, Mass Feeding, Family Services/Case Work, etc.) she was able to get me into those classes.

After the classes I went back to helping out in the Volunteer Coordinator office for another month or so of paperwork, filing, and phonebanking. Now some of the calls were actually angry: "I gave you my name a month ago. Why can't I go to New Orleans yet? What the hell is wrong with you people?" After another couple of weeks of that, the volunteer coordinator pulled me aside and said, basically "Thank you so much for helping me out when I was so swamped. Are you still available for deployment?"

Less than 72 hours later I was sitting on couches and front porches in Mississippi, helping some very nice and very devastated people fill out paperwork, giving them useful phone numbers like state insurance regulatory agency's hotline (don't fucking get me started on the absolute scumbag insurance adjustors who had been spending weeks just absolutely ASSFUCKING some of these poor folks), providing them with additional relief fund debit cards, etc.

So the takeway from this should be, really, that the best way to help RIGHT NOW (if financial support isn't possible for whatever reason) is to go down to a local chapter of a relief agency who has people in the field right now and help them. Do whatever they need. They're stretched to the brink organizationally and administratively right now and they need all the help they can get. This also puts your friend in a position where she can gain some relevant experience and training, not to mention making herself known to the agency as someone who is willing to do the shitty unglamorous grunt work. This will be to her advantage in the future if she wants to do some of the less shitty and unglamorous grunt work. (Which, by the way, is much less glamorous than she is probably imagining right now.)

Sorry this was so long (and probably of dubious value, and definitely insufficiently proof-read), but hopefully your friend may be able to pull some nugget of insight from it.
posted by Nothing... and like it at 5:21 PM on January 13, 2010 [167 favorites]

I want to highlight forktine's excellent point: However, those willing-but-unskilled people will be desperately needed a year from now, when the sexy news teams have gone home and the world's focus is somewhere else. Haiti will be recovering from this disaster for decades to come -- your friend could play a tremendously important role in some piece of that recovery.

Your friend could start out now trying to figure out how her skills and background will be useful, and then go help in a year. This is an excellent suggestion.
posted by wholebroad at 5:33 PM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

My wife has done development work in Haiti for years, and we have friends there now who are capable, trained engineers doing field work. We're lobbying like mad to get them to come home and fight their extremely noble impulse to stay and help. Unless you have specific training in disaster relief work, you're going to be a danger to yourself -- this is especially true in Port au Prince, where we're already getting reports of increased violent crime (increased above the "normal," very high level). When you get hurt, you'll end up using resources that were supposed to go to Haitians. That's why you should send money, and not accidentally add yourself to the number of wounded.
posted by range at 5:37 PM on January 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

I can't imagine, however, that physical labor isn't needed at this juncture.

Imagine harder. International workers (paid or volunteer) are really expensive to keep in the field -- there's travel, medical care, housing, food, security (a major expense in Haiti), insurance, etc etc etc. What do you think the daily wage is for a Haitian laborer -- a few dollars, maybe? So who does it make sense to hire to clear rubble or stack supplies -- a local who has his/her own housing and transportation, and probably even their own tools, or a foreigner who doesn't speak the language and requires expensive and scarce infrastructure to support?

The exception to this has always been religious groups, who are really, really good at using large numbers of willing but unskilled volunteers. So if you have connections with a home congregation, see what they, or their parent organization, is organizing, and there is a decent chance that they may be able to use you. Even there, you will likely be much more useful in the US right now, raising money, answering phones, and organizing relief efforts, but if you want to go to Haiti in the short term, this is probably your best shot.

And to repeat myself, the help Haiti needs most from you is a long-term commitment, not something urgent but half-assed.
posted by Forktine at 5:56 PM on January 13, 2010 [9 favorites]

I agree with 'Nothing... and like it' above - consider whether you can provide volunteer assistance from home, by assisting with fundraising or answering phones or whatever other administrative work they need done. From working at Australian Red Cross, I know that to be put onto their relief register and be sent off for disasters, you needed to complete what they called Basic Training. It covered cross cultural issues, dealing with difficult situations (eg how do you react if someone pulls your car up and points a gun at you), four-wheel driving. To get on the course, you needed to either be working for Red Cross already or have experience in key areas (such as water and sanitation). You need to already have a passport, a medical (and relevant vaccinations - especially when going into a disaster situation where sanitation conditions are worse than usual).

So, good on you for wanting to do something, but read what everyone is saying and figure out another way to help. Maybe you could have your own fundraiser event?
posted by AnnaRat at 7:05 PM on January 13, 2010

The thing is, those in Hatti may be too busy recovering themselves to be of much assistance to others, I don't know, and barring official pronouncement neither does anyone else.

It's actually "Haiti." And people do know whether unskilled volunteers are a hiindrance or not. I do, because while these sorts of situations all have unique aspects, they fundamentally are the same.

We had such people show up in Sarajevo, during the war. They were - to a person - a great drag on life there for those of us without the ability to leave. Imagine this - the war means all utilities are gone. No gas, water, electricity, phone service, etc. Constant shelling means that a great percentage of living quarters are no longer habitable. Lack of easy access to the city means basic food and medical supplies cannot easily (or at all) find their way into town. In short, Sarajevo's people are cold, dirty, miserably unhappy, starving, uncomfortable, sick, tired, homeless and psychologically drained.

But, above all else, most Sarajevans are hospitable and kind and have some class. So what happens when a good-hearted but idiotic "volunteer" shows up to "help?" My mahala (neighborhood) hosted some of these people, and I can tell you.

1) That person displaces someone else from a little corner of habitation and a humble little sleeping spot. In this way, they were a burden to us.

2) Those of us who'd been living through the war were accustomed to daily struggles. For instance, access to water necessitated a long nightmare of pushing a crude cart up and down steep cobble-stoned hills and across a river, in order to fill whatever one could with water. And then back again. Aside from being a torturous chore, this meant continual exposure to "open" areas where snipers would attempt to kill you. In my case, it meant revisiting the place where my parents were killed while waiting in line. This trip was also a tremendous expenditure of valuable calories.

We Sarajevans knew all this. Consequently, we went to the bathroom once daily (if that), because every time you had to flush the toilet, you were that much closer to having to make the water trek again. Our "heroic" visitors showed no such discretion. They often expected baths! (By way of comparison, I cleaned myself in the river.) Nor were the heroic visitors there to do something as "mundane" as spending half the day collecting water. So we made more frequent soul-crushing and scary trips. In this way, they were a burden to us.

3) Of course, they wanted to stay for months but brought food only for a couple of days. They didn't have rights to Sarajevo's meek rations (as they were not in the city by force), so we shared ours with them. They complained about the food - what we'd been eating for months or years with gratitude - and occasionally would spend some of their cash for black market goods, which they'd hoard for themselves. Then complain about the cost. They were an embarrassment to us. In this way, they were a burden to us.

4) Most of them did not know the history of our country or city or culture. They never knew the language. Frequently, we would scurry around the neighborhood to find someone who could translate Serbo-Croatian and English / French / German / whatever, just so heroic visitors could achieve some basic communication. I remember one fellow, who announced to the neighborhood a deal he'd "negotiated" with the Serbs (who were blockading the city) to feed us. Instinctively, we laughed, though some (irrationally) got their hopes up. The "plan" he worked out was that we would walk to Pale (a suburb held by the Serbs) where they would "give us everything we needed." A fair analogy here would be the Nazis telling the Jews that they'd get "everything they needed" in the ovens at Auschwitz. The stupidity of this heroic visitor only depressed us further, as did other schemes and ideas devised by heroic visitors with no experience, sense or knowledge. In this way, they were a burden to us.

The only things I (or anyone I ever knew) received from these sorts of people were the occasional article of clothing, or a weird treat like a chocolate bar. I was grateful for them, but a check to a helpful charitable agency would have been better.

Bear in mind, we adapted to the war over time. So we had an ability to "absorb" these unskilled morons with some amount of grace and humor. In the beginning, we all thought that - at the very least - these heroic visitors would go home and act as witnesses for what we were enduring. Later, we doubted this was so. I was once reunited with a self-described "freelance journalist" (no credentials, never sold a story) in America, who bragged to his friends about what he'd done for us (which was . . . nothing), and how much the trip had cost him, which was plenty. How I wish he'd spent his time and energy helping to raise funds for us, or simply educating others, or - most of all, just writing a check to the Red Crescent or a similar agency.

What just happened in Haiti was immediate. And they died so quickly - more than died in Sarajevo, and in a single day. These people cannot possibly have adapted to the "new" conditions there as we did in Sarajevo - they haven't had the time. Believe me, their problem isn't a lack of manpower (aside from those with very specific, high-level skills) - these disasters leave plenty of people with nothing else to do but try to help others. So, as much of a burden as unskilled helpers were in Sarajevo, they'd be a much, much greater burden right now in Haiti.

Everytime I see news of a large-scale disaster such as this, I have panic attacks. I know the desperation of the situation, how much help is needed right away. I speak French and even know a few Creole phrases. I have emergency medical treatment and gave aid to Bosnians injured and sick in wartime, under difficult conditions. I've got weeks of vacation time, money in the bank and a longing to help. My sympathy with these poor Haitians is boundless; I've experienced a lot of what they have, and will. So I imagine I'd be a fairly qualified volunteer, with a temperment founded in personal experience and a history of dealing with all the sights and smells of death and misery.

Will I go? Absolutely not. I'd like to; it was my first impulse. But I'd be a burden to someone there, somehow. And Haiti doesn't need even a tiny new burden. So . . . I wrote the biggest check I could afford. I'll save more lives with a shipment of shovels or some treatment for clean water or some powdered milk than I would spending twice as much going there. It's just simple mathematics.

Tell your friend to write a check. Please.

And forktine's right. Haiti's never really been in great shape. It's going to need you more in a year than it will now. So your friend can write a check today, then save up and go back in a year or two, when she will be a true hero. And that way, everyone wins.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:27 PM on January 13, 2010 [441 favorites]

I always appreciate Dee's point of view but it can come off as hostile (e.g. in the Lee Sandlin thread), which even if justifiable is potentially counterproductive.

yojikthehedegehog, the USAID page on disaster assistance notes similarly to CIDI, Volunteer opportunities in disaster settings are extremely rare, and are usually limited to people with prior disaster experience and technical skills (such as health, engineering, etc). I would urge you to take their suggestion to volunteer instead in a non-disaster area via Freedom Corps or another organization.

InterAction is a coordinating group for 190 NGOs, and their advice is similar:

In the aftermath of humanitarian crises, it is critical that the response of the international community is immediate and well-coordinated in order to save as many lives as possible.

* Volunteers are asked to have previous disaster or international experience or technical skills (for example, medicine, communications, logistics, water/sanitation, engineering), and are usually from neighboring communities not affected by the disaster.
* Well-intentioned foreigners, lacking technical skills, disaster experience and familiarity with the local culture and language, can seriously complicate relief efforts.
* Those with technical skills or international experience who would like to volunteer should register with the Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) after reading this page.

The thing is, this recession is creating a lot of people like you -- smart, but idle. It would be great if all that ability could be harnessed the way the WPA and other programs did during the last job trough of this magnitude. But I don't think running down to Haiti mid-crisis is the way to do it. It's taken a while for NGOs to get people to start thinking in terms of giving money instead of, say, canned goods or blankets -- which are hideously expensive to ship to a disaster zone, and often replaceable at much lower cost in country. Giving the Red Cross a blanket and asking them to ship it to Bumfuqua is actually giving the Red Cross a burden and using money that could perhaps buy 2, 5, 10 or 20 blankets instead. Think of your desire to donate labor in these terms and you'll agree with Dee Xtrovert more easily.

* You're a body who needs to be flown to Haiti somehow.
* You're taking up a seat on a plane that could be held by a person with expertise.
* You're taking up weight that could haul food.
* You're taking up money that could buy food.
* You're taking up -- in aggregate -- landing slots that could be used by other planes, that themselves could be carrying supplies or water or food or experts.
* You're burdening a broken air traffic system that needs to be jury-rigged using battlefield equipment.
And that's even before you've deplaned. Once you're there, you're a body that needs to be fed and kept dry, in a country where there are perhaps millions with the precise same need.
* If you replace a local worker, you will have greater needs than that local worker: cleaner water, better food. You can't live on what they routinely survive on, I guarantee it.
* If you replace a local worker, you may be depriving that local worker of a wage that could support a family.
In the end, you'll eventually become someone who needs to go home. Perhaps then you'll be taking up a seat that could be used by someone needing medical care in the states. And so on.

I really urge you to think long-term. Is this something you really want to do with the rest of your life? Then follow Nothing's advice. Is this just a way for you to fight feeling useless? There are a million ways you can fight that staying home. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Help the humane society trap, neuter and release strays. And so on.

I did seriously look for myself at ways to go to Iraq a few years ago, but everything I came up with showed me that the stuff needed was stuff I'd be horrible at. Like you, I'm moved by the ongoing tragedy that is Haiti and have wished I could help.

I know a couple who volunteered their way across South America 20 years ago. They slept in uninsulated Andean huts and sweated in farm fields and helped dig wells. They were able to be effective because they had a plan of action and a network of friends and acquaintances (through an international NGO) that could put them where they were needed. I've always envied them, knowing I could never have done the same with as much dedication.
posted by dhartung at 11:39 PM on January 13, 2010 [12 favorites]

Far be it for me to interupt a "spanking of knowledge," but I do have some suggestions for yojikthehedegehog, as well as some insight.

Wanting to help may be sentimentalist or it may simply be noble. I am going with the latter.

As you are presently unemployed and perhaps in search of direction, I recommend you seek out an agency you see giving help and work to help coordinate ground support from your present location and community. There is where your work will do the most good.

Where you live, you have infrastructure you can re-program and re-route to brilliantly switch on and consciously turn into an assistance network.

Align yourself with reputable peers, preferably people who are experienced and committed. There is no need to build something new yet. After you have some hard-earned credibility and time in, you may see something the rest of us are missing. Then perhaps we will follow you.

Helping others as a life-direction and also as a career is immensely satisfying and rewarding. This is an amazing opportunity to explore this direction. As the challenges such work brings inspire personal growth in ways that are literally indescribable, I wish you well.

As for insight, I have a program where I collect, repair, ship, and re-purpose discarded computers for Jamaica. I have been doing this successfully for two years. The program I created (and personally fund) has enjoyed success that I won't go into here.

But I would not have been able to pull it off without incredible friends who have life-long and generational roots in Jamaica. In fact, were it not for the facts that I was 1) invited, 2) escorted, and 3) bringing and giving without strings or expense, my presence would have been unwelcome. People have their own lives, their own dignity, and their own world. People appearing unannounced and empty-handed, no matter the intention or occasion, are not well-received anywhere. Well, maybe somewhere, but not somewhere I know of.

One other insight. Based on the success of the one program in Jamaica (I got lucky), I attracted the attention of others who invited me to do the same for a school in Haiti. Feeling confident based on the one success, I agreed. Somehow it turned out that I was to be taken to Gonaives. It is no place I would have been welcome or safe. It was only through the intervention of a number of friends of mine of Haitian descent, that I staved off this disaster. You see, the likelihood is high that unintentionally or intentionally I was being taken.

This is the danger of going off with good intent but without connection or means to some other place that is far removed from our experience and understanding.

I encourage you to help. I also encourage you to (presently) do so from where you are.

Finally, welcome to Metafilter. Like the physical communities I reference above, it is tough place to drop in. But when everyone sees you are here to make good and bring something to contribute, you will find it to be one of the best places made up of some of the best minds on the planet. Good luck, stick around.
posted by humannaire at 11:40 PM on January 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

Dee and Nothing, thank you two so much for taking the time to write responses on both sides of the struggle. Flagged as Fantastic.

This entire thread is very helpful to those feeling helpless.
posted by june made him a gemini at 1:43 AM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

As someone with humanitarian NGO experience, albeit not in disaster relief, I agree wholeheartedly with Forktine, Nothing and Dee above.

I am sure that we all admire your sentiment of wanting to help, in person on the ground. Among decent, compassionate people such as yourself it is common. That’s why whenever something truly awful like this happens we have this thread on AskMefi. Lebanon, 2006. Dafur, 2007.

‘Cut a cheque’ isn’t helpful as you are unemployed but lots of the NGO people I know got into the field by volunteering free of charge at a local organisation and making themselves indispensible. This might be an opportunity for you to do likewise. As kindly as possible however you are not going to Haiti anytime soon.
posted by dmt at 2:47 AM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

nthing Dee, Forktine, Nothing, Humannaire, and dmt, and adding only a quote from Ivan Illich and a link to his entire speech, delivered in 1968:
If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don't even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as "good," a "sacrifice" and "help."
posted by The White Hat at 6:52 AM on January 14, 2010 [7 favorites]

Rereading what I wrote above, I'm worried that it was too discouraging. On the contrary: I would urge anyone interested to explore paths to helping, be it in Haiti or elsewhere. However, my experience is that few people are willing to make the quite modest effort it takes to become actually useful in a post-disaster situation -- their motivations are good, but it never passes into action.

When the 2004 tsunami occurred, I was working for a major relief organization. Our phones rang off the hook with people wanting to "go over there and help out, right now!" I must have spoken with 200 people in just the first couple of days. I told the same thing to everyone who called: the chances of my putting you on an airplane today is zero, unless you already have a lot of experience and are trained in highly specialized skills, plus all the details of vaccines, etc. However, if you are willing to take a few classes, gain some experience locally, and ideally get some specialized training, the chances of my putting you on a plane when the next disaster strikes are very high.

Of those 200+ people, only a handful went on to take classes (where I live relevant classes are offered by the Red Cross, the Communty College, and a couple of other organizations) and get some useful skills; the other ninety-something percent hung up the phone and went back to their regular lives. When Hurricane Katrina occurred the following year,who do you think was on a plane the next day, and who was calling me up wanting "to go over there and help out, right now," just like before?

My point is: if you want to be useful in Haiti, think long-term -- don't let this earthquake simply be the disaster of the month and immediately forgotten. Learn a bit of french, save up some cash, and go down in a few months or a year and adopt a local school or health clinic. Rebuilding takes years and years and huge resources; that's where your help will be needed. On the other hand, if you want to be able to get that phone call and be on the plane immediately after a disaster like this, get the training, experience, and specializations now so that you will be in place and ready to respond when it occurs. You don't need to be an experienced trauma surgeon to be of use -- you just have to know how to fill a needed role, have the right skills, and have proven yourself in difficult situations. Honestly, that's a pretty low bar (if you can manage to post on MeFi, you have the technical aptitude), but one that few people manage to cross.
posted by Forktine at 8:02 AM on January 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

I want to add to what others have saying that a friend of mine is a doctor, with International Aid experience, including time spent with the Red Cross in *Haiti*. And she still doesn't expect to be deployed there within the next few days. If they currently can't usefully deploy a trained professional with disaster relief experience in the country in question, they certainly can't make use of an untrained, inexperienced volunteer.

It's noble as hell that people want to help, but do what you can here and now, and learn how to prepare yourself to actually be of some help in the future, rather than assuming that relief work is unskilled labour that anyone can just do at the drop of a hat. Then, the next time disaster strikes, you'll be in a better position to help.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:29 AM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am the so-called do gooder friend. All of you make some excellent points. For now all I can do is volunteer my time because I am unemployed.

Fantastic. Go to a local blood bank or aid organization and volunteer there. You will be helping the people of Haiti tremendously.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:57 AM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just got this email. See paragraph 2 for info on a couple groups planning volunteer missions to Haiti. See the rest of it for specific needs.

Tuesday's 7.0-magnitude quake struck shortly before 5 p.m. local time on Tuesday, and was centered about 10 miles (15 kilometers) southwest of the capital Port-au-Prince Haiti, the US Geological Survey reported. The International Red Cross estimated that over three million people in the impoverished nation had been affected.

In the meantime, Plans are coming together for a trip of Matador volunteers to go to Haiti to assist in earthquake recovery and relief. ; NOAH, an organization Meme and I volunteer with, is also gearing up to head to Haiti. Whether you express your interest in going, or want to help from home, here is a list of much needed items the items we want to take with us. Consider starting a collection among your friends and family members. Every donation - big or small - makes a difference.

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact me @ or Meme @ Below are a list of items needed immediately. Many can be found at your local dollar store or even the One Spot in your local Target. Please spread the word to all because a MAJOR group effort is needed to get Haiti through this. I appreciate and thank you in advance for all your prayers, help and support.


Baby formula (dry/powder)
Baby wipes
Baby bottles
Baby clothes
Toiletries (shampoo, soap, toothpaste)
Hand sanitizer
First aid kits
Over the counter medicines
Mosquito repellent
Flip flops
T-shirts, pants, lightweight jackets
Non perishable food that's not in cans (seal-packs of tuna or sardines, for example)

There are dozens more items; this is just a starter list. Think flat, lightweight, easily packable.

Date: Sunday, January 17, 2010
Time: 11:00am - 4:00pm
Location: the Embassy of the Republic of Haiti
Street: 2311 Massachusetts Avenue NW
City/Town: Washington, DC
posted by inigo2 at 10:18 AM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

From the NYTimes today, quoting Melinda Miles, who "runs the the aid group Working Together for Haiti:"

Ms. Miles, explained on her useful Twitter feed that she is “coordinating with people on the ground to try to have a strategic response from American groups and individuals.” She told NPR that she has been getting calls from Americans eager to help with relief operations and is telling them that it is more useful to donate money than try to go to Haiti right now. Ms. Miles said that volunteers should go to the country later, and once they’ve found a group that can use their help.
posted by wholebroad at 10:43 AM on January 14, 2010

inigo2 - what the heck? I have read so much media in the past couple of days warning people not to give things but to give money. Who is this group and why are they going against everyone else's advice?
posted by wingless_angel at 11:23 AM on January 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

inigo2 - what the heck?

Alls I know is the text of the email I pasted above; it was sent out to one of the DC Yahoo msg groups that I'm part of.
posted by inigo2 at 11:31 AM on January 14, 2010

There were a lot of well-intentioned but ultimately misguided email blasts like that post-Katrina, as well. Most relief organizations only want "stuff" (as opposed to money) if it comes by the pre-sorted cargo container- or at least pallet-load.

It's incredibly inefficient to try to create a distribution channel that can handle a shopping bag with two t-shirts, a blanket, and a couple of packets of tunafish, especially when you multiply that by hundreds (or thousands) of well-intentioned folks.

And I sincerely doubt that the Haitian embassy staff has time right now to sort through several tons of random items.

DO NOT go buy stuff at the dollar store or Target or Wal-Mart or whatever. Take the amount of money you would have spent and donate it to an organization that can spend it more effectively and efficiently. And regardless of the doubt you might have about the large NGOs, even with their over head they can spend $100,000 a lot more efficiently and effectively than 10,000 people can spend $10 each.
posted by Nothing... and like it at 11:48 AM on January 14, 2010 [6 favorites]

FWIW, just went to the website of one of the orgs mentioned in that email I pasted, and it says:

"As of 3:00 AM EST this morning, the last aid organization representative I spoke with cautioned that sending in volunteers–even those with specific and much needed-skills– right now may cause more harm than good. The organizations are still trying to assess their needs and capacity to handle volunteers. Safety is a serious concern, as is availability of fresh water."
posted by inigo2 at 12:20 PM on January 14, 2010

Even Bill Clinton -- who honeymooned on Hispaniola with Hillary, and helped in the peaceful ouster of Raoul Cedras -- is staying away.

"I'd be back there tonight if I didn't think I'm doing more good here [in the United States], staying on the phone trying to help solve problems," Clinton said on "World News."

As for how average Americans can help, Clinton said the best thing to do is donate cash.

"Unless you're in a search-and-rescue team or a medical team, the best thing you can do is give money for food, water, shelter and first aid supplies. Those are the things we need," he said.

Meanwhile, all the skilled, emergent efforts are similarly stalled due to a lack of ramp space and fuel at the Toussain L'Ouverture International Airport and a wrecked pier at the seaport. This will be the first big test of a UN initiative called the "Cluster System", put in place because aid groups in the 2004 tsunami response were "tripping over each other".

I also read but now can't find a request through either Bill Clinton or Ban-Ki Moon that countries volunteering skilled assistance make sure they coordinate before sending it in, and avoid sending untrained personnel. So it's at a very high level that this question is being raised. For once in its history, Haiti has more people wanting to help it than it can possibly handle.
posted by dhartung at 12:44 PM on January 14, 2010

I flagged inigo2's comment because I think the email itself (not inigo2) was incredibly misguided and anti-helpful.

Even if someone could figure out how to send a can of tuna to Haiti, that can of tuna would be taking up space on a cargo plane. Space that could be more usefully occupied by antibiotics or anti-malarial drugs.

Whatever money someone would be spending on buying shit and shipping it to Haiti would be infinitely better spent on donating to the people already in Haiti trying to fix things.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:37 PM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

FYI, for DC residents: Haitian Embassy Holding Survival Kit Drive on Sunday.
posted by inigo2 at 1:56 PM on January 16, 2010

The news media has recently picked up a few stories of untrained volunteers, such as MSNBC:
Disaster do-gooders can actually hinder help; Uninvited volunteers, useless donations can cost money, time — and lives

More than a week after a magnitude-7 earthquake devastated the country, disaster organizers say they’re seeing the first signs of a problem that can hinder even the most ambitious recovery efforts: good intentions gone wrong.

From volunteer medical teams who show up uninvited, to stateside donors who ship boxes of unusable household goods, misdirected compassion can actually tax scarce resources, costing time, money, energy — and lives, experts say.

Experts are also unhappy with the "Help Haiti" food and clothing drives across the country, underscoring the need for convertible cash versus the logistical nightmare of unsorted donations.
posted by dhartung at 7:59 AM on January 22, 2010

For anyone who missed the Metatalk thread: here's another way to help from abroad.
posted by scody at 1:55 PM on January 24, 2010

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