I’ve been glued to the news all weekend. I am overwhelmed by the footage coming from Nepal. Not only because I will be moving to there next year, but because I survived the Haiti earthquake in 2010.
Watching such similar footage is eerie. I find myself zoning out into memories that I had forgotten. I am worried about everything that comes next. Not for me but for Nepal. I’ve seen it before– sudden disaster, the onslaught of “help”, and the inevitability of the world forgetting and moving on to something else.
The hardest thing to explain to most people is that aid can wipe out entire industries and ultimately cripple the very countries that it is supposed to help. I saw it in Haiti. Farmers couldn’t sell their crops because food aid inundated the market. Many Haitian doctors were killed in the earthquake or left the country because so many volunteer doctors came to Haiti that the local doctors’ businesses simply weren’t sustainable.
The sudden influx of aid money also means the creation of new organizations on the ground. These organizations may have no understanding of how the country works or the most effective ways to distribute aid. In Haiti, this influx of aid workers pushed up the cost of everything. Housing, food, transportation. It made it more expensive for Haitians to live in Haiti. Multiple organizations were trying to do the same things virtually on top of one another.
I know that people want to help when it comes to terrible situations, but we should think about the long-term impact. What happens when the food aid stops and farmers have stopped planting crops because they can’t sell them? What happens when volunteer doctors head off to the next disaster zone, and there are no qualified local doctors left on the ground? Nepal is currently on the clock trying to get people out of crumbled buildings. They are trying to feed people who lost their homes. They are doing the best they can in a difficult situation. We need to do the best we can as well.
People often ask me what I think of Haiti now and if I think it will recover. I can’t answer that question. People and organizations donated 13 billion dollars to the Haiti earthquake relief effort, but it’s unclear where all that money went and how much has helped Haiti.
I am not writing this because I know the answers. I don’t think aid is all bad and I am certainly not discouraging donations going to the right organizations. I know that Haiti and Nepal are two very different places. But disaster relief is complicated. And we’ve seen this play out before. So surely the lessons we learned in Haiti have the potential to help Nepal.
My heart goes out to the citizens of Nepal and all the people trying to do good there. I know from personal experience that in the first few days and weeks after a disaster you are surviving minute by minute. But I hope we have learned that we need to care beyond today. Aid should be implemented with the future in mind but also with lessons learned from the past. And donors must consider the possibility that we can do as much harm as good with our good intentions. So if you give, please give to an organization that understands Nepal. If you volunteer, only go if you truly offer a vital service that isn't available internally. Don't do what feels best for you. Do what is right for Nepal.