Volunteers for Haiti

Giving cash to nonprofit relief agencies is a good way to help earthquake victims in Haiti, writes Louis Caldera, but Americans can do more by putting their skills to work.

A photo provided by the US Navy shows a Haitian boy watching as rigid-hull inflatable boats from the amphibious dock landing ships USS Fort McHenry and USS Carter Hall arrive ashore on January 19, 2010 at the New Hope Mission at Bonel, Haiti. (AP/U.S. Navy /Kristopher Wilson)
A photo provided by the US Navy shows a Haitian boy watching as rigid-hull inflatable boats from the amphibious dock landing ships USS Fort McHenry and USS Carter Hall arrive ashore on January 19, 2010 at the New Hope Mission at Bonel, Haiti. (AP/U.S. Navy /Kristopher Wilson)

We’re told that giving cash that can be deployed by nonprofit relief agencies like the Red Cross is the best way to help earthquake victims in Haiti. Those who can’t give cash are searching their closets and cupboards for clothes and goods to donate. We give, we read the news, and we pray. But isn’t there a way that individual Americans should be able to do more personally and collectively?

Many of us see the images of devastation and we yearn to lend a hand digging survivors out of the rubble or working ourselves to near exhaustion providing medical attention to those who still desperately need it. The only good outlet for this impulse is to reach for our wallet or our checkbook. We leave it to our government and to charitable organizations we trust to do the heavylifting with our dollars boosting their efforts.

But giving to these nonprofits and exhorting our own government to do more leaves many of us deeply frustrated knowing that much more needs to be done and that our skills and abilities could help. It’s work that we’re willing to do on our own time and at our own expense, and, if needed, to keep doing far into the future as advisers or long-distance partners.

If you are a heavy equipment operator, a construction worker, a hospital administrator, or a IT specialist who wants to help out and thinks your company, co-workers, or church would support and help pay for your efforts, where do you go to volunteer? And how can we match critical skills with critical needs in the right timeframe in which they will be needed?

Thankfully, we have a network of trained first-responders—rescue teams, emergency medical personnel, and military personnel—who can deploy at minute’s notice to respond to natural disasters. And nonprofit organizations that already work in the country or are global in their reach can use our donations to quickly ramp up their operations and render immediate assistance.

However, there are many other skill sets—some quite specialized—that Haiti needs now and will need in the months and years to come. These skills are not similarly organized or ready to be delivered, and relief agencies are not set up to deliver them. They include inspecting and demolishing dangerous buildings or repairing telecommunications and water purification systems with an eye toward their long-term improvement, or building effective child welfare and apprenticeship training programs. We could help Haitians learn new skills and develop new capacities even as we worked side by side to relieve the suffering and rebuild the country.

Many of Haiti’s immediate needs have long-term development implications that expert advice and assistance delivered now can help get right. And today is when individual and organizational commitments, be they governmental—and not just federal—corporate, or nonprofit, can best be secured for a long-term recovery.

Making good use of the service of individual Americans who are willing to donate their time and skills would not be easy. It would require a tremendous amount of planning, coordination, and logistical, managerial, and administrative support to get them in the country and working together as teams with the right Haitian counterparts. They would also need support for their efforts to be sustained and productive.

But this effort would be consistent with the “whole of government” approach that President Barack Obama envisioned to draw on more than our military and State Department personnel to address foreign crises. Indeed, the centerpiece of that approach featured reserves of ordinary Americans who made themselves available to be called on.

What’s more, this response wouldn’t require government coordination or be limited to government employees and those who have predesignated themselves as available. The Clinton Foundation or another nonprofit could become the clearinghouse that matches volunteers with needs and finds corporate and nonprofit partners who can assist with the logistical, supervisorial, and on-the-ground support and leadership that helps those willing to serve find the right opportunity.

The United States spent over $2 billion helping Central America recover from the devastation of 1998’s Hurricane Mitch, which killed 11,000 and left nearly 3 million homeless. Two years after the worst hurricane in the region’s history, U.S. Army National Guard troops were still deploying to many central American countries as part of the U.S. response effort. They were building medical clinics, schools, and roads, and providing medical and dental care in remote areas.

I was there as secretary of the Army, appointed by Defense Secretary Bill Cohen to oversee our military’s contributions to the recovery efforts. What our military and diplomatic personnel did to reach out to our fellow citizens in the Americas was unforgettable. Those who took part in this important work will tell you how life changing it was. More Americans should have a chance to make that kind of difference, starting with our response to the earthquake in Haiti and, from this day forward, whenever such assistance is needed.

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Louis Caldera is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he writes and contributes on higher education, national security, and issues affecting Hispanic Americans.

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