Altruism has its place, and it’s not in disaster relief

Brittany Jordan
Brittany Jordan

Natural disasters seem to bring everyone together. It’s refreshing to see that regardless of national differences, we all band together to help out those affected by unimaginable tragedy.

With the recent typhoon in the Philippines, our nation is gearing up our relief efforts in order to help as many people as possible.

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I can understand why, when we live in a country that is remarkably blessed compared to the rest of the world, people here are drawn to either whip out their checkbooks or volunteer of their time. This altruism, while good-intentioned, unfortunately can end up doing a lot more harm than good.

Let’s start with money. While it can feel really good to put donations in the jars marked “disaster relief,” you honestly have no idea where that money is going. There are little to no paper trails detailing how that money is allocated, and many relief efforts are not being held accountable to provide itemized receipts.

While you may believe in the good in people and have faith that your hard-earned money is being used the way it’s supposed to, it’s naive to think that every bit of it is being used to help the Philippine community.

So if donating money is hard for you to justify, many people then turn to volunteering for the Red Cross or other organizations in order to go and physically get their hands dirty. This is unbelievably admirable, and I can understand the impulse to help in any way that you can.

However, I would encourage anyone looking down this path to think twice.

I have experience in mission work; I’ve written about it before and anyone that knows me well knows that my experience in this field has benefited me greatly. However, it is not cut out for everyone, and disaster relief is not the place to figure out whether or not you are made for altruism work.

For mission trips specifically a lot of training is required prior to your departure. People that know the culture and know what they are getting themselves into do their best to prepare each mission group for not only the culture shock that they’re bound to experience, but for the level of poverty that they will see. This training is put in place for a reason; it is understood that a lot of people think that mission work is a fabulous idea, until they’re faced with the reality of what that actually means.

However, with disaster relief, there’s no time for formal training. There’s no time to try and get you acquainted with the culture or their customs. The organization that you volunteer for places you and sends you on a plane, and it is up to you whether you sink or swim. In the midst of relief efforts, people that actually know what they’re doing have no time to answer questions or sit down for debriefing periods — so here you are, in a foreign country where you most likely have no idea what is expected of you.

This is not anyone’s fault — not the relief efforts and certainly not of the well-intentioned Americans trying to help. But the reality is that disaster relief is not for people that simply want to help.

Disaster relief is for the experienced traveler, who can get off of a plane in any country and fake it until they make it. And, more importantly, disaster relief is meant for people that know and are proficient in a trade of some kind.

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Construction workers, as you can imagine, are in incredibly high demand. However, finding experienced construction workers, electricians, plumbers, painters, etc. that also happen to be comfortable travelers is like finding a needle in a haystack. And if you do find someone that meets those qualifications, they are probably gainfully employed and can’t take, at minimum, a couple weeks’ hiatus to jet off to the Philippines.

This is not to say that we, as Americans, shouldn’t try and help. I am all for people going on mission trips to experience poverty outside of the US borders, and that altruism is to be admired and encouraged. But disaster relief efforts should not be your first foray into that world.

Leave the disaster relief for those that are experienced and have an inkling of what they are getting themselves into.

Brittany Jordan is a junior psychology major. Feedback of all varieties can be sent to letters@collegian.com.