By definition, emergency humanitarian assistance missions are chaotic, unpredictable and very dynamic. Once you’re committed to go, there is frequently very little time to organise the logistics and paperwork, and much less to pack your equipment. The limits of time, space and energy induces feeling of guilt: “I should be on the ground yesterday”, “I wish I had space for an extra t-shirt”, “I need to find a babysitter for two weeks” are all genuine concerns. Here are my Top 3 Things to Do Before Going on an Emergency Humanitarian Assistance Mission, based on my experience after the Nepal Earthquake in April 2015, where I was fully operational on Day 5 post-quake.
1. Prepare Everything in Parallel: you’ll need transportation (flights and ground transfers), visas, official accreditation (practising licenses, local government approvals), accommodation, equipment packing, fund-raising, and arranging for your normal life to continue (e.g. babysitters). Running everything sequentially may risk that you’ll arrive 2-3 weeks after the disaster. You’ll still be able to help, but you can help perhaps more significantly if you arrive earlier. Simple tips would include: searching for flights but not confirming the booking until you get the official accreditation, and packing a basic go-bag in case of future disasters, and operating on a “Promise” Basis – I’ll trust people if they say they will deliver. My approach was to plan (but not confirm) every detail, and once the official accreditation was confirmed, there was a Big Bang of confirmations of every detail.
2. Prepare for the Worst: you should anticipate the worst case scenario where you will have to be self-sufficient for the entire duration of your mission. Maslow’s Food-Shelter-Clothing base is a good guide: Pack enough food for the mission; bring water technology (purification tablets or filtration devices); a tent and sleeping bag; adequate (but not excessive) and appropriate clothes – it’s a mission after all. Other helpful equipment includes a Swiss Army Knife, tear-able notepaper and pens, an emergency medical kit that never leaves your side. You should also prepare psychologically to really rough it out, because you’re not entitled to hot water or air conditioning if everyone around you is homeless. Finally, prepare emotionally to witness devastation and human suffering, and the resolve to process these emotions AFTER the trip. You’re there to do a job, not to have a mental breakdown.
3. Prepare to Do Everything: bring every skill-set you have, and be humble enough to serve another human being who needs the help of another human being. You may be the best cardiologist this side of the Suez Canal, but if you’re not willing to help dress a simple wound, you’re not contributing to the overall humanitarian effort. While division and specialisation of labour is helpful and important, humanitarian missions have no place for prima donnas who only want to do camera-friendly and glamorous work.