Volunteer behaviour in disaster response

Volunteers rescue stranded residents of Chengannur in Alappuzha | HT

On Jan 19th, 2022, we published our first report on volunteering during disaster relief. In the report we spoke about a number of aspects of volunteering from methods of engagement, social structures and different paradigms of volunteerism. However, what surprised us the most were the volunteer behaviours which we had not anticipated. In this blog I want to highlight five behaviours of volunteers from the report that surprised us.

1. Urban vs rural volunteering

In times of disasters, there is a universal desire amongst people to help their community. However, this desire turns to action more easily in rural areas or smaller cities than in urban areas because of the existing social structures in the former. Rural/ small towns tend to be close knit communities that depend on their local leadership (elected leaders, local officials and unofficial representatives) on a regular basis. So, in the event of a disaster, these populations know exactly whom to approach to provide assistance. On the other hand, urban communities are not as connected. This creates a challenge in the initial stages of providing assistance as volunteers often don’t know where to go and depend on hearsay to start providing assistance. So, the initial barriers in providing assistance, in some ways, are way fewer for rural and semi-urban communities.

2. Qualities of community-action

In times of disasters, affected communities often take action themselves, without waiting for local government or other aid organisations to respond. This can happen because of a need for urgent action, seeing others providing help, or even base instinct. However, these instinctive actions tend to happen without any planning. Though disorganised assistance is expected in the chaos, it can have one dangerous consequence: when untrained volunteers try to provide medical assistance. Untrained medical first aid or evacuation has often caused serious harm to the already affected. Improper methods of pulling people out of rubble or moving people who have had something fall on them can have dangerous consequences, which untrained volunteers are not equipped to know.

3. Distributed sources of information

Fidelity of information is of high importance in time of disasters and one of the best forms of assistance is to become an information node. This role typically falls to community leaders and local officials, but having multiple points to distribute verified information can be critical to success of aid efforts. These points can also help spread information about requests for volunteers much faster. These information centres can be set up in temporary shelters such as religious institutions and schools. In our research, we even came across an organisation that converted its own office into an impromptu information centre for a few weeks after a hurricane — this proved invaluable to the community.

4. Lack of trust

In case of impending natural hazards, government departments take the onus of sharing early warning information with the relevant communities. This information can be vital for communities to start preparing for the on-coming challenges. However, we have found cases when, local communities have not acted on the information due to a lack of trust in those early warning systems. While the actual reasons for this distrust need a more exhaustive study, we have come across a couple of hypotheses to explain this. One points to a general distrust of governmental news, where the belief is that the information is either wrong or greatly exaggerated. The other hypothesis attributes this behaviour to denial due to lack of preparation to handle the impending hazard, resulting in an “ostrich head-in-sand” type of response.

5. Local expertise vs external assistance

Though local leadership is usually the first to act, their authority is often dampened with the arrival of non-local aid providers. External experts are mostly trained in essentials of disaster management but have only a limited understanding of local contexts. This local knowledge (which local leaders and volunteers have) about the community and area is essential for relief efforts to maximise impact. However, local leadership often gives way to external experts who can unintentionally carry with them an authority over the affected communities that makes them be seen as an alternative to local leadership. This paradigm should always be avoided and can cause a trust deficit amongst local leadership which is an essential for success of any aid work.

These unique behaviours were eye-opening and have made us introspect our approach to solving problems from a volunteer’s perspective. To build on our knowledge base on volunteer behaviours, we depend on people who have lived through such events, either as a member of the community or a volunteer. If you would like to share your experiences, please write to us at rt@relief.today and we will schedule a call with you.

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