The Race To Avoid Haiti In Nepal

room to readI have been watching social media and journalists over the past couple of weeks clamoring to warn the Planet to avoid another Haiti in Nepal. The humanity in me that has the privilege to observe and speculate as to what is happening to the people on the ground there is like a claustrophobic cataclysm, churning with the compulsion of compassion and not knowing. “Nepal does not allow volunteers into its borders without the proper paperwork,” I say to myself. “How on earth will they be able to handle the onrush of individuals seeking to quell the tide of not knowing, the compulsion of compassion, the inextricably inherent call within each and every human (which can be, and often is, ignored) that cannot witness the suffering of another and sit idly by?”

As a collective humanity, we are poorly equipped to bundle the emotional outpouring from our individual beings. We fear, on some level, becoming desensitized, dissociative, and utterly numb to the suffering of others. Yet, with each passing natural disaster, being asked again and again to sit idly by and leave the work to be done in the hands of professionals, are we not running the risk of realizing our worst fears?

Is There A Plan?

One of the first people who came to mind following this disaster was John Wood, author of Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, and founder of Room to Read. I then thought of Dr. Hari Bansh Jha, an Economics professor known for his deep interest in the intersection of spiritualism and Economics, and with whom I have corresponded over the years about voluntourism in Nepal. I thought of Social Tours, one of the first company’s I ever wrote about regarding their unique approach to voluntourism in Nepal. I thought of all of the Nepalese individuals who have contacted me over the years, and what this might mean to them. I thought of all of the voluntourists who have been to Nepal and what they might be experiencing during these days and weeks following.

As it is, Nepal is made for voluntourism. This is a fact. It may not be a fact that many people like. Orphanage voluntourism in Nepal has received negative reviews from Western media. And, although volunteers are required to have the proper paperwork to volunteer in the country, oftentimes these regulations are circumnavigated, or utterly ignored.

So, we know voluntourists will go to Nepal. The question is, what are we going to do to assist them in the process? And what will it take for the United Nations to come up with a global plan to respond to natural disasters that incorporates voluntourism?!?

Integrating Voluntourism Into Disaster Response

In the years that have followed the Boxing Day Tsunami in Southeast Asia, we have had many natural disasters throughout the world. The death tolls may vary, the damage, too; what does not seem to vary, however, is the growing interest to do more than send money. More and more people want to do more and more to help with their own two hands and feet and with whatever skills and passion and mental capacity they can infuse into the situation. Yet, all too often, we spend more energy convincing these individuals that what they have to offer is meaningless and should be limited to whatever they can give financially. We are grossly underestimating what contributions may be made by these individuals by dismissing them so blithely.

For more than a decade, I have been consistently questioning our collective inability to birth a conceptual framework for integrating voluntourism into the recovery of destinations. The socio-economic impact of voluntourism can be extraordinarily beneficial for destinations. This does not mean that we begin the voluntourism train running to Nepal immediately – of course not! What it means is that we can begin to assess the situation on the ground and utilize our growing capabilities around GPS mapping,  and video, audio, and photographic technology, to determine where voluntourism groups could initially be deployed.

Final Thoughts…

The desire to respond to natural disasters will not disappear as humanity moves forward. We need a plan to harness this energy.

Just as Tesla has given us a solar-powered battery to power our homes, so, too, should we be able to develop a systematic process to harness the growing energy for assisting ourselves in the aftermath of disasters. Money is NOT the only answer. Humanity is what is most needed in these disaster zones. Recovery is inextricably linked to our humanity. I have seen and heard this in New Orleans, for example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Let’s get busy designing our own power source that harnesses the human energy that wants to soften the blow of natural disasters for the residents impacted thereby. We cannot keep falling back on old arguments and old paradigms for why it needs to be done the way it has always been done, and by competent professionals alone. At some point, we can’t keep relying on the old electric grid, as Elon Musk has pointed out. We need to create change, be fierce in our discovery and R&D phases.

Let’s avoid another Haiti in Nepal by crafting a plan that truly harnesses the power of voluntourism. There are enough interested parties to do so. We have the creative capacity to make it so.

From Religion, to Big Box NGOs, to Voluntourism: Shifting Our Approach to Destination Recovery aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) has given us more to think about. We have been able to watch the unfoldment of the situation in real-time to a degree that verges on the voyeuristic. What was once the 24/7 media cycle has become the 3600/1 social media cycle (that is to say, the 3600 seconds -1 hour cycle of information that comes to us from countless outlets across every time zone on the planet!).

Along with the changes to our media cycle there has been a change in the number and kinds of responses to these disasters. What was once the responsibility of the faith-based community has since multiplied to include even an individualized response from “voluntourists.” Despite this, we have not developed a process for our existing responses to integrate with this advancing, individualized approach to destination recovery. We have an explosion of international volunteering alumni on the earth; just sending money is not going to satisfy us anymore. What do we do?!?

A Condensed History of Disaster Response

The world has been on an interesting trajectory over the past couple of centuries or so, particularly in the past 75 years. When addressing natural disasters, the first go-to outfits were houses of religious practice. Regardless of faith (especially within monotheistic traditions), these benefactors assisted individuals in need. Governments were next in line. Then came faith-based NGOs, followed in quick succession by Big Box NGOs (non-sectarian). In the early 1980’s, corporations were called on to share the responsibility. The next group to emerge was represented by the body of social entrepreneurs (“socents”) – businesses and NGOs alike. The most recent group to emerge are the voluntourists.

The latter of these has produced a “can-do” attitude and a sense of empowerment (and entitlement in some cases) leading to an overall conclusion that we have the capacity to address these challenges more swiftly and to alleviate the suffering to a greater degree than ever before.  However, we have not developed a plan for integrating and coordinating the shift. Herein lies an opportunity for advancing destination recovery.

Integrating the Faith Community, Governments, Big-Box & Small-Box NGOs, Corporations, Social Enterprise, and Voluntourists: Responding to Disaster, Stabilizing Recovery

One Approach: A “Leviathan Force” & A “Sys-Admin Force”

Dr. Thomas Barnett gave a great TED Talk back in 2005 entitled “Let’s Rethink America’s Military Strategy.” He discusses a “Leviathan Force” and a “Sys-Admin Force” – a force to kick-ass and a force to transition between war and peace & stability. Taken in the context of natural disasters, we want a boots-on-the ground force of well-trained individuals who are absolutely capable of responding to the immediate post-disaster situation. These folks represent a “Leviathan Force” – Governments and Big-Box NGOs – a force that is meant to stamp out disease, hunger, thirst – all of the imminent post-disaster threats to recovery.  The “Sys-Admin Force” is what our faith-based entities, “small-box” NGOs, corporations, social entrepreneurs, and voluntourists can fit into. This “Sys-Admin Force” will support the long-term socio-economic recovery of the destination in the post-disaster context. The analogy is quite compelling. (Some might even wonder what a transition (bridge) from “Leviathan” to “Sys-Admin Force” might look like in a post-disaster environment. Team Rubicon is a great example – U.S. military veterans traveling to destinations to volunteer.)

Another Approach: Trisector Collaboration

Dr. Eric Kong "Strategic Trisector Collaboration in Disaster Response"

Dr. Eric Kong “Strategic Trisector Collaboration in Disaster Response” – – World Review of Business Research

Dr. Eric Kong developed a model in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that sacked Japan back in March 2011. He explored the importance of volunteer tourism in the destination recovery process when synced in the context of a tri-sector collaboration – government, corporations, and NGOs (see the figure above). He placed the coordinating role in the hands of the government of Japan under the auspices of the Japan National Tourism Organization. Registered Tour Operators and a “Earthquake and Tsunami Volunteer Tourism Centre” (coordinating the efforts of all NGOs) would serve as the base points of the trisector triangle. Dr. Kong concluded [p.137]:

“Due to the complexity of the tourism industry and the needs for disaster management after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a formal relationship between business-nonprofit-government is proposed in the paper. In this strategic collaboration arrangement, business serves as major source of fund. For business, the potential benefits of partnering include enhanced company image, increased sales volumes and higher brand recognition, while charity benefits through a new source of contributions and increased public awareness of the organization. Working jointly with business and charity will enable the government to respond to the local community’s needs after the disaster—to restore the affected areas from the damage in a faster pace and to put the tourism business back to the affected areas or surrounding areas.” [Source: Kong, Eric (2013). Strategic Trisector Collaboration in Disaster Response. World Review of Business Research 3(2), 127 – 140.]

Integrating Approaches

All of these actors highlighted in the work of Dr. Barnett and Dr. Kong play a role in the continuum that is destination recovery. Dr. Kong’s model even recognizes the potential role of voluntoursts. Right now, however, we still seem to be overlooking the motivated traveler/volunteer in our strategic planning for destination recovery. Perhaps we could create a new system, organized with the input of the current actors, which could feature regular announcements from a country’s tourism board in the days following a natural disaster:

“We need voluntourists, here, here, and here – (geo-referencing coordinates for each spot).”

“It will be important for you to tour (economic support) and volunteer (socio-environmental support).” (those who cannot do both are welcome to come at a later time, as part of a staggered approach)

“Here is what we need you to do as a volunteer.” (make sure you can do it)

“Here are the areas we would like you to visit as a tourist.” (be prepared to travel and spend)

Governments will be applauded for having a destination recovery strategy and maximizing impact;”voluntourism” companies won’t be derided for responding too quickly; and destinations can be socio-economically benefited strategically. Of course, we want to avoid repetition of efforts, nouveau/pop-up entities, and any hindering of more productive efforts (a “Volunteer Tourism Centre” could accomplish this). Cooperation, collaboration, and efficient hyper-collective action is what we are seeking in a post-disaster environment.

VolunTourism in the Philippines Update…

Several organizations have already begun reaching out for voluntourists to come to the Philippines – Rebuild Malapascua and Capiz Tourism and Cultural Affairs are two such entities. There will be many more to follow, of course, but these are local efforts worth reviewing.

Final Thoughts…

Since we haven’t planned for voluntourism as an addition to the destination recovery strategy, we still don’t know when/how/if to bring voluntourists to the destination. What screening protocols should be in place? (Can’t take everyone! And, certainly, not all at once.) What timeline should be in effect? What areas are impacted by newly-arriving displaced individuals and can use support, almost immediately? How are we keeping track of progress? (Can voluntourists contribute with geo-referencing technology?) Continuing to tell these folks to “stay home” or “please stay home” or to “send money” is to dismiss and nullify energy that is ready to mobilize – not a sound approach to say the least.

We once lived in a world where communities “belonged” to the folks in that community. We are witnessing the beginnings of a transition out of this model.

“There’s another shift we’re seeing, too: In autumn 2012, Havas Worldwide surveyed its 11,000+ employees to find out more about their thoughts regarding the future. In one question, we asked them to choose which, among a list of potential developments, they believe are most likely to occur. The #1 response: “We will become true global citizens rather than citizens divided by country.” [Source: Prosumer Report: “COMMUNITIES AND CITIZENSHIP: Redesigned for a New World“, Havas Worldwide, 2013, p. 14]

Although voluntourism has been associated with neo-colonialism, I see it quite differently. Like the employees at Havas Worldwide, voluntourism is offering a different interpretation, that we live in a world of humanity, where we are a human family. And “family is family.” When your “family” is injured, experiences loss, what have you, you get out there and you do something. The boundaries are crashing down around us; at the present moment, this boundary-crashing is not all-pervasive. Think of voluntourists as the daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, and uncles that you didn’t know you had. They are just too ready to ship off to the Philippines or Haiti or Thailand or New Jersey to help members of their family.

Spend some time getting to know this perspective, rather than solely passing judgment on it. Spend some time assisting in making it more functional in a post-disaster situation, rather than dismissively telling people to stay home. Be open and transparent with these voluntourists – they are not unreasonable people. Set parameters to guide the response and be prepared to assist the desire to help to be just that – helpful.