Op-Ed: Do Not Rush to Attapeu to Help. Please Read This First.
By Francis Savanhkham (Contributing writer)
I know everyone may want to help victims of the Attapeu flood, but they don’t need unskilled volunteers or aid they can’t use. Here’s what you can do that won’t obstruct aid efforts.
As a Lao man who has always considered Laos home, the trauma upon hearing the news of the flood that has decimated the homes and lives of the people of Sanamxay in Attapeu was intense. I felt powerless and unable to help, here in my Vientiane.
We know that the flood has left many missing and unaccounted for and many more injured and even more without a place to live. What we also know from tracking events in natural disasters all over the world is that the situation only gets worse in the weeks following the event, as hospitals become overwhelmed, basic supplies become scarce and those living in makeshift shelters capitulate to exposure and disease and many more physically and mentally overwhelmed by the tragic loss of their loved ones.
A topic that has been heavily deliberated in the international aid world is the lack of a coordinated response to these types of crises. What ends up happening is this: scores of well-intentioned activists and philanthropists flood (pun not intended) the site: normal law-abiding citizens, students, activists, all scrambling trying to look for a way to make their mark and do good, but lacking either the skills or coordination to have an impact. Indeed, many end up slowing down the aid efforts.
I read in an article on the The Guardian website about the earthquake crises in Haiti, Nepal and other countries. There had been reports of “teams of doctors who arrived on the scene to help but were unable to feed themselves. This wave of unsolicited and poorly planned shipments of untrained people and donated goods was dubbed by some humanitarians the second disaster.”
One tough issue with aid work is that it is a free-for-all. Anyone who wants to, and who is fortunate enough to own cars and trucks or purchase flights to Savannakhet/Paksé (the airport in Attapeu is closed to normal citizens), can contribute. Unlike doctors or engineers, who must train for years to acquire the necessary qualifications that prove sufficiently that they know their stuff, no such qualification exists for aid workers.
What Attapeu requires right now is not another untrained bystander, no matter how much her heart is aching.
I am overwhelmed with offers of help and contributions from friends and family on social media. “What do you need? What can I do?” Well, here are some practical ideas that will not get in the way:
- Remember that this flood is not your fault. It is not about you. It is not about your love for Laos and its people. Your feelings of guilt and helplessness may be hard to cope with, but you may not be what is needed at this very moment. Do not be in a hurry to go there, at least for the next couple of weeks while the city is reeling. The exception to this is if you are a qualified professional with much-needed skills to offer. If you are, get in touch with international relief agencies (for example, the Red Cross) or local rescue teams (Vientiane Rescue 1623) that can place you in a position where you are needed most. Ask a qualified authority in your province how you can help.
- Send what the victims need and now what you think they need. While shirts, underwear, pants, blankets and food are invaluable, there are a host of other things that may also be more needed. It is much simpler, and often in the long run less costly, for organizations to procure goods themselves and distribute based on need. If you want to give away things you no longer need, sell them and donate the money to a relief fund like BCEL One Heart or other trusted funds. If you do give goods, the latest I heard was that you should put them in the Attapeu provincial office and not Sanamxay where the military has set up roadblocks to keep the situation under control. The coffee warehouse set up as a makeshift shelter in Paksong is currently overfilled with goods (more supply than demand). There is also a need for boats and canoes and offroad trucks to help with rescue and recovery efforts. There are even people still stuck on higher ground (hills) unable to come down, some even searching for their missing loved ones, who need clean water and ready-to-eat food. Please check with local authorities what is needed. Here is one updated list of what is needed.
- Give cash (or money transfers). More than your plane ticket or money spent on fuel driving there or second-hand goods, what is most needed in Attapeu right now is money. Donate what you can and do research to find out where your money will go. If you can, compare a few organizations with aid appeals and ensure that you agree with their approach. I know that’s a lot easier said than done to try to sift through the myriad entities claiming to help but it’s worth trying to know where your money is going. The Lao Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare has an official account with the country’s largest state bank, BCEL, where you can donate your funds:
- Fund Assistance to Disaster Victims
- KIP: 010-110-001-508-937-001
- BAHT: 010-110-201-508-937-001
- USD: 010-110-101-508-937-001
- Swift Code: COEBLALA
- For more information, please call:
- +856-20 55622477
- +856-20 22238555
- +856-20 22219355
- +856-20 99542869
- Fund Assistance to Disaster Victims
- In the short term, handouts are necessary. Many have questioned this as a method of long-term development. However, in the immediate wake of such tragedy, handouts are necessary to give victims the essentials for survival.
- In the long term, rebuild sustainably. If in the coming months you want to contribute to the rebuilding efforts and the longer-term development of the country, consider sustainability as a factor. Once the water recedes, there will be numerous programs to repair and rebuild flooded homes. Laos is a flood-prone country, so designing villages in which family homes can handle another flood is not going to be cheap.
- If you really need to go. Volunteering is great. However, I am urging you to wait a while and think carefully about where and how to use your skills. Volunteering can have a wonderful impact on the world when done mindfully. But it is not easy or automatically beneficial. Before signing up for something, take the time to learn about Attapeu and the complex nature of its recovery and development, and continue to be open to learning during your time there. For example, several days ago, it was reported that food trucks serving stir-fried noodles and fried rice were deployed to assist the victims, but the villagers were not used to eating this. A common meal in Sanamxay typically consisted of sticky rice and dried meats and jeo (a Lao sauce/dip). Also, please also take this time to review other areas that are currently being affected by flood waters (to a lesser degree than Attapeu) – like Mahaxay District in Khammouane. This province’s flooding has been less covered in the news. Your help will definitely be needed there.
- Consume news wisely and do not share graphic images. Official state media personnel are doing all they can but for a variety of reasons, sometimes minute-by-minute updates are hard to come by. To make up for this dearth, private initiatives – both amateur and professional, have stormed social media, a phenomenon that can be called the birth of citizen journalism. But with the advent of this revolutionary occurrence, come unaccountable “keyboard gangsters” under the guise of anonymous Facebook pages, whose sole objective is to discredit the government and cause disturbances in the country. But there are undoubtedly many social media pages working for the collective good. Please use your discretion and common sense to maneuver in the swamp that is the Lao social media. Also, have some decency and stop sharing graphic and disturbing images of dead people. It is also unethical and illegal to share fake news.