Saturday, June 28, 2014

How do you learn how to do disaster relief?

(I put this up last week but the system rejected it.  I think "the man" was involved in keeping it off)

There was an argument made in the class that I was taking this week that USAID (United States Agency for International Development) was a cover for the CIA.  Between their commitment to long-term development, their focus on building democracy while wearing civilian attire, and their questionable relationship structure with the Department of State, they smell a little suspicious to some.  But the two workers in the front of the room promised us that they are not working for the spooks.  They seemed nice enough, so I’ll trust them.

(Side note: I’m currently reading Ian Flemming’s Casino Royale, so I trust them but only a little bit)

Within USAID, there is an office called OFDA: Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance.  This week’s official Joint Primary Military Education piece was Joint Humanitarian Operations; wow.  I now see the world of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in a whole new light.

At this point, I have to tell you; on behalf of all those who do disaster relief.  When you get that urge to donate items, restrain yourself.  Send money.  Especially (and these are real examples) when you feel compelled to send used yoga mats, canned meats, things from your pantry that you can’t identify, leftover/partially eaten fast food, water bottles.  Just send money.

The process by which we (meaning the US) get into foreign assistance is truly fascinating.  The number of steps that need to be taken (sometimes simultaneously) to get USAID into a disaster zone are incredible, and then to involve the military!  We (now I mean only the military) will only go in if (1) we are asked, (2) we are filling a need that cannot be fulfilled by the country that is in disaster, (3) it looks good for us to go in, and (4) we provide a unique contribution that nobody else – like Ospreys.  Only if all 4 of those requirements are met will we be in a disaster zone.

But it's so hard to stay out.

Not because we’re the military and we enjoy infiltration, but because every one really wants to help.  The USAID people talked about “disaster tourists” – people who sign up for aid missions because they want to help, but bring no real skills.  They arrive, cry at the suffering, and hand out a teddy bear.  They are nice people, but not necessarily what you need in Haiti after a huge earthquake.  As my boss summed it up, “Far too often too many people get spun up far too quickly.”  Truth.

But the question I left class with and thought about all the way home: “Is there really such as a thing as too many people helping out in a disaster?”  I’m still a little torn.

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