As we sat in the airport awaiting our flight to Haiti, I was amazed at the number of teenagers clad in matching T-shirts going to Haiti to help with the recovery efforts. It reminded me of when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand and a Thai asked me "Why do Americans send high school students to help in Thailand?" I was 27 at the time, a decade out of high school, but I understood what he was trying to say. Why are we sending over volunteers that do not have the skills and experience needed to solve whatever problem they're supposed to help solve?
As I watched the teenagers in bright green and yellow team shirts, I wondered what skills or expertise they would bring that the local people didn't already have. Looking at their ages, I guessed that their main contributions would be a desire to help and good intentions. Unfortunately, good intentions are not enough.
Currently, local people are desperate for work. With the local markets selling everything from food, water, and clothing, to electronics, earning a salary means that earthquake survivors can purchase what their family needs rather than begging for charitable handouts. Would this plane load of volunteers, with their large rubbermaid boxes of supplies, create livelihoods or damage them?
Will they hand out donated goods from abroad or will they purchase goods from the local market place, thereby supporting the local economy? Are they going to remove rubble themselves or are they going to pay local people to do it and create rather than compete for jobs? Do they plan to build orphanages to care for the children that the families cannot afford to care for or do they intend to create jobs so that families can feed their own children?
Before joining in any international volunteer trip, it's important to evaluate the project by doing two things:
First: Remove all personal goals and incentives from the trip. Remember, this is not about what's best for you, this is about what's best for them.
Second: Ask yourself what is it you're bringing to the project that local people could not be hired to do -- especially if the project had all the money you would otherwise spend on plane tickets, immunizations, hotels, transportation, etc.
If you are not bringing something unique and necessary to the recovery efforts, don't go. You could all too easily hinder more than you help. Remember this is not about what's best for you, it has to be about what's best for them.
UPDATE: One of my readers just submitted this article by the Red Cross Haiti: Desperately Seeking Work