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Independent volunteers form the backbone of Indonesia’s tsunami response

6th November 2018
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Why the aid system needs simplifying and made open to all

I I read a fascinating article on IRIN News today, which highlights the importance of volunteers during natural disasters.

According to that article, the first humanitarian aid to reach a remote village in Indonesia's Central Sulawesi province came in the form of a thirty-something volunteer called Norma Tandjorkara who "shuttled donated supplies in a borrowed canoe". Norma and her friends arrived well before the government, the Red Cross or any international NGO, bringing nappies, food, clothing and sand to the disaster-hit village of Labuana. She is described by IRIN - quite correctly - as one of thousands of volunteers who became the "unheralded backbone" of the response. Like so many volunteers, Norma played down her efforts. "I'm following my conscience,” she said. “I feel a moral duty.”

Indonesian residents described the importance of such ad hoc groups. One environmentalist who rounded-up a group of 200 volunteers said: "The local government is very slow, so we were very lucky that there were a lot of volunteers. In the early days you had to be fast, and only the volunteers were fast.”

T oday, more than a month after the earthquake and tsunami which claimed at least 2,000 lives, volunteers are still in the region where they continue to offer invaluable aid. There are some 14,000 civilian volunteers (many of whom are working on behalf of local and international humanitarian groups), military and police personnel involved in the response. But there are about 4,000 independnet volunteers who are reportedly "filling in the gaps where official aid efforts have fallen short". THe UN reckons more than 200,000 people have been displaced across over 900 makeshift sites.

But despite the heroic efforts of independent volunteers, who play a vital role in emergency response, those individuals rarely receive the recognition they deserve. Media reports about those volunteers are rare; official praise - from governments or those in power - is rarer still. It was wonderful, therefore, to read IRIN's piece about Norma, who deserves a medal (and more) for her efforts.

Unfortunately, volunteers like Norma have no proper training. By definition, independent volunteers are exactly that - volunteers. It has reportedly left many of these ad hoc groups unable to secure the right supplies and understand how the aid system works. Goodwill only goes so far; volunteers' hands are tied if they can't access supplies, after all.

It is the view of many that people like Norma should not only receive official recognition but also proper training. The aid system should not be a closed, beauracratic nightmare open only to the privileged few but rather a transparent system that can be tapped into by volunteers and experts alike.