The Need-to-Help versus the Need-for-Help

The state of Tamil Nadu is, to borrow tsunami-related language, quite flooded with volunteers at the moment. These are good souls who have often traveled far to lend a hand. And yet, at the moment, the need of people to volunteer well exceeds the needs for volunteers or the ability of the NGOs to handle them. In many cases, NGO managerial resources that otherwise would be directed to substantive work are diverted to dealing with volunteers. This will change soon enough, when the long-term reconstruction projects in the areas of housing and livelihood begin in earnest. That’s when voluntary assistance will be at a premium.

It may sound as though I am condemning those, like myself, who are here to serve. And I suppose I am, even as I am inspired by the spirit and compassion I see in so many people. But there is a thoughtless selfishness in the emotional mix that I simply cannot support. People want to be a part of the efforts so that they can feel they have contributed; but if they are a hindrance, who is really being served? Likewise, one gets the sense that many are looking to be in the hardest hit villages in order to have an experience of the tragedy. While it is awkward to say, this is also the time for uncomfortable things to be said: this behavior belies the compassion in which it is robed. And in some ways, I think it reflects a perverse desire to misappropriate the horrors faced by the survivors as one’s own.

Yoo-Mi and I have wrestled with this. Had we not been able to find a useful role for ourselves out of the way of the hands-on relief activity, I am confident we would have removed ourselves from the situation.

While I’m being a hard-ass, let me deal with another area in which there is a disconect between the need-to-help versus need-for-help: relief supplies. This one is not is not so much the fault of the individuals involved; it is simply a function of poor information flowing from the effected areas and the incessant desire of the media to dramatize everything to the fullest extent journalistic ethics will permit. So many folks are expressing the desire to send clothing, medicine, and other relief supplies from overseas. We ourselves fell prey to this impulse, after hearing repeatedly that water-borne disease had the potential to be the largest killer in this episode. We packed off half a suitcase of water purification tablets, certain that they would be needed by the volunteer teams in Chennai, if not by the survivors themselves.

We found a very different scene upon landing in South India. It in no way diminishes the scope of the disaster to say that the transition from relief to reconstruction was made, in most villages, within a week of the tsunami. We were fortunate to know exactly where the sterilization tablets we carried would be needed (the Andoman and Nicobar Islands) and how to get them there in a prescheduled shipment of similar supplies without creating additional burden on those handling the logistics. But were we not so well connected, our effort would simply have been a costly procurement and logistical burden to relief organizers. After all, most of the things that are needed can be sourced locally at a fraction of the price, in a fraction of the time, and without the logistical difficulties.

The clothing drives are an excellent example of this. Clothes, new and used, have poured in to Tamil Nadu. The displaced villagers simply do not need any more clothes. Entire convoy-loads are being dumped by the roadside. (I doubt that this is being reported in The New York Times, but frankly, I haven’t had time to look.) You know where the clothes are needed? In your community. Everyday.

Our friend Param of SMILE Foundation is doing something extremely smart. He is gathering the excess clothing, sorting it by type and size, and warehousing it for future distribution in the slums of Chennai. (More about this and the other well-conceived programs of SMILE another time.)

The outpouring of compassion here is overwhelming, and compassion in action is always wonderful to behold. But best of all is thoughtful compassion in action.

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