I said in my post of a few days ago that society is stronger than we think, and that when a disaster like The Great Tohoku Earthquake occurs people of all backgrounds come together to help, and I stand by that, but I think that it comes with a caveat.
Of course people want to help, and they want to relieve suffering where they find it, but so often they want to help on their own terms and for reasons that are not as altruistic as they would have you to believe. They want to go rushing into disaster areas and carry small children out on their backs to the adulation of those watching; they want glory and they want adoration.
I have strong doubts as to whether true altruism exists, and I am pretty sure that all of the volunteers in Tohoku are getting something out of what they are doing even if all they are getting is a boost to their self-regard. But if you asked volunteers to only help if they were doing it from the purest of altruistic reasons, no one would go. Sometimes people do good things for less than perfect reasons, but they are still good things.
For the most part, the volunteers conducting relief efforts in Tohoku are acting with care and consideration. Perhaps they are getting something out of it, but they are being careful to ensure that the needs of those they are helping are in the forefront of their minds at all times.
I have been in contact with Peace Boat, an NGO based in Japan but with operations around the world. When the earthquake struck on March 11th, the Peace Boat left Christchurch in New Zealand and by March 14th relief efforts were up and running in Tohoku. I have been very impressed with the organisation. Rather than swinging in like Tarzan and doing what they think the people should want, they put emphasis on working with the locals to find out what they need and to supply what they are asking for. It is a humble form of volunteering.
As one of their overarching remits is to build international relationships, they also actively encourage the participation of foreign nationals. It is for this reason I was attracted to them: I want to go to Tohoku and volunteer, but the last thing I wanted was to get in the way with my horrible Japanese and require someone to look after me at all times; it struck me as a criminal waste of resources. Peace Boat have convinced me that there is a way for me to help and a solid argument for doing so, they have bilingual team leaders and they encourage foreign participation. They are well aware that shovelling foul piles of stinking mud doesn’t require any Japanese language ability, but that being out in the community helping can build links that last generations.
I attended a meeting last night where I learned a lot about Peace Boat and their activities, and one of the things I learned was that they are overrun with volunteers. They have so many that they wish to expand their operations to cover three more towns. But there is a problem: man power isn’t enough: you also need equipment. There are a lot of things volunteers are expected to take themselves, from tents to dust masks, but there are things they cannot supply. Trivial sounding things, like not having enough bin bags, can rapidly become serious problems. There are enough volunteers to expand, and Peace Boat have the infrastructure to do so, but they just don’t have the money for the supplies that such an army of willing helpers requires.
And this brings me back round to altruism, because as soon as they said this, it was obvious that the atmosphere in the room sank. Shoulders slumped and a few people got up and left. You could practically hear them thinking “they just want fundraisers? Well I’m not doing that, I want to make a difference!”. It would be dishonest of me to imply something similar didn’t flit across my mind, but, like almost everyone else, I stayed for the event brainstorming session afterwards. It was a good session and a lot of good ideas came out of it, the goodwill recovered and you could feel people getting excited again.
Ever since the earthquake we have been asked not to rush to Tohoku alone. Don’t go without the support of an organisation, don’t go unprepared and with no idea what you will find or what to do when you get there, don’t get in the way and don’t put yourself at risk and need rescuing yourself – you will take resources away from those that need it and the people will end up worse off than if you’d stayed at home and done nothing.
There have been some food and supplies drives but, again, the message is mostly “don’t”. The NGOs have the infrastructure and contacts to buy huge quantities of the right supplies at greatly discounted rates. If you donate a tin of food, it will probably not be the food that is needed and, if it is, it will cost them money to send to the affected area. If you donate what it cost you to buy that tin, they can use that money to buy 10 more at wholesale rates, including delivery.
The rules are simple: if you want to donate – give money; if you want to volunteer – go with an NGO, arrive well-equipped and self-sufficient and do as you are told. Be humble. Don’t get in the way.
Yet, stories continue to stream in of “heroic” foreigners going it alone to do what they can. The press reinforce these ideas by lauding these irresponsible individuals.
After the meeting, I got chatting to a lady: it was a depressing conversation. I was appalled when she told me that she was frustrated that she couldn’t go with Peace Boat because they were fully booked for the only dates she was available, and so she thought she’d go alone.
She sat through the whole evening, she nodded along when they said don’t go without an organisation, she heard them appeal for help fundraising in Tokyo – a job that can be done at weekends and fitted around work – and STILL she planned to ignore all of that and go by herself. It is hard to interpret that as an altruistic act. That is a selfish irresponsible act of attention-seeking self aggrandisement. There are large numbers of good people doing genuinely heroic things, and yet always there is a substantial minority who insist on ignoring the advice and making things worse.
I have registered as a volunteer and in a few weeks time I will board the Peace Boat transport to Ishinomaki: I want to jump on my white charger, I want to claw through rubbish with my bare hands, I want to clear vast areas and rebuild people’s homes. I want to shyly smile while the locals thank me for my near super-human efforts. I know full well it won’t be like that, and yet staying at home feels less important; fundraising isn’t exciting and trying to wring money out of people is unglamorous and demoralising. For now, though, perhaps staying in Tokyo and doing the jobs no one else wants is the better thing to do?
Donate to Peace Boat in Tohoku here.