Deciding how to help during the Australian Brush Fires (and other similar emergencies)
Since news of the devastating Australia bush fires broke in late December there has been an outpouring of support as well as a wave of global horror and sorrow. For many, including those involved in wildlife rehabilitation or care, this crisis evokes a strong need to contribute or help the animals affected by the fires. This altruistic urge is not surprising as many people feel a strong connection to the wildlife of Australia because it is so unique, with many species that are imperiled or endangered. Others have useful skills that are relevant to the situation and this disaster may also be viewed as a rare opportunity to physically do something in the face of more impalpable or seemingly insurmountable problems such as climate breakdown and the extinction crisis. Some have chosen or are considering making the journey to Australia, to offer their support in the form of on-the-ground assistance. While this might be the logical choice for a few, in many cases, and despite the best intentions, this decision may hurt more than it helps. The IWRC urges all of those considering self-deployment to assist with wildlife care in Australia to weigh the cost and benefits of such an action and think about alternative ways to help.
The first costs to consider are monetary ones. According to an article in the Harvard Political Review, “Can Help Hurt?”, the price of volunteering abroad may outweigh the amount of help you are able to provide. The article offers an example of a child care volunteering opportunity in Rio. In this case they calculate that the money spent on three days of volunteering was the equivalent of the cost of 4 months of schooling for one child 1. In many cases, the money a person might pay out for housing, food, insurance, and transportation would go further as a donation. Much of the actual money being spent is paying for the experience of the person volunteering rather than the needs of those they aim to help.
Other costs to consider are the environmental ones. This is of particular relevance as the scientific evidence points to climate change as a definitive factor in the severity and scope of these Australian fires. As stated in an article by Yu, Pei, et al., “The ongoing bushfires (wildfires) have confirmed researchers’ warnings several years ago about increasing bushfires due to climate change in Australia”2. Lecturer in veterinary pathology Dr. Andrew Peters averred, “the most important thing the international community can do, is recognise this for what it is – it is our climate change future, and to take individual and community action now to prevent a much worse future for all of us, including the wildlife that we share this planet with”3. With this in mind, it is important to acknowledge the carbon cost of a flight to Australia as well as the use of currently scarce resources upon arrival. The carbon calculator on myclimate.org estimates that a roundtrip flight from the IWRC office in Oregon to Sydney produces 4.4 tons of C02 per passenger4– that is only slightly less than the average emissions of a passenger vehicle for the entire year of 2019 at 4.63 tons5. Although there may be compelling reasons to get on that plane, we must also decide if doing so coheres with the need to mediate a “climate change future” like Dr. Peters describes.
The final cost to consider is the potential toll international relief work can have on local populations. In Ilan Kelman and Rachel Dodds’ paper “Developing a Code of Ethics for Disaster Tourism”, they highlight the importance of only offering assistance and donations with the local context in mind. They stress that, “in a disaster-affected location, any additional people further tax a community”6. Kelman and Dodds convey that emergency workers discourage self-deployment because of safety hazards, reduced accountability and because it diverts scarce resources, even when volunteers are qualified to help (282). It is for these and other reasons that organizations such as the Red Cross have created codes of conduct for international or Non-Governmental Organizations in disaster relief situations. The sixth code of conduct item in their document states “All people and communities – even in disaster – possess capacities as well as vulnerabilities. Where possible, we will strengthen these capacities by employing local staff, purchasing local materials and trading with local companies”7.
The urge to help those in need, human or animal, is great, particularly for those in fields that require compassion and empathy as wildlife care does. However, we must always ask ourselves, do they need our help? In discussions with IWRC staff, rehabilitators in Australia have repeated that they do not need more volunteers. Instead they need financial aid and encouragement from the global community. The wildlife carers in Australia are facing one of the most devastating wildlife disasters in recent history but they are also knowledgeable about the local wildlife, invested, and already on the ground. With this in mind IWRC recommends that individuals only deploy when invited to ensure that your help is really helping. Watching disaster unfold from the “sidelines” can elicit feelings of helplessness, idleness, and even frustration or anger. It is critical, however, to ensure that our efforts to help have the results we intend. Flying to Australia may bring the satisfaction of acting in the face of catastrophe but before booking a plane ticket we must first weigh the monetary, environmental, and local costs. In many cases other means of solidarity or aid may be more appropriate. You may consider donating to an organization who is doing work you support. You might also think about how you can support those fighting to protect and save wildlife in Australia on an emotional level— for example you could participate in our letter writing campaign or make a video of support. Finally, you could take action in your own patch of the world to protect wildlife, your local ecosystem or the global biosphere.
The IWRC Staff
- Brown B. Can Help Hurt? Harvard Political Review. [Internet] MA. 2018 Jun 11. [2020 Jan 10]. available from harvardpolitics.com/online/can-help-hurt/.
- Yu P, Xu R, Abramson MJ, Li Shanshan, Guo Y. Bushfires in Australia: a Serious Health Emergency under Climate Change. The Lancet Planetary Health. 2020; 4(1). 2020 Jan 1. [Cited 2020 Jan 10]. Available from doi:10.1016/s2542-5196(19)30267-0
- Williams K. IWRC Works to Support to Wildlife Carers Affected by Australian Bushfires. Eugene (OR): IWRC; 2020 Jan 15 [accessed 2020 Feb 12]. available from theiwrc.org/archives/75979.
- Calculate and Compensate for Your Emissions! Myclimate. [accessed 2020 Jan 10]. www.myclimate.org/carbon-offset
- Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator – Revision History. Washington (DC): Environmental Protection Agency. [accessed 2020 Jan 10]. www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator-revision-history
- Kelman I, Dodds R. Developing a Code of Ethics for Disaster Tourism. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters. [Internet] 2009; 27(3)272-296. available from http://ijmed.org/articles/499/
- IFRC. The Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief. Geneva: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. available from https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/who-we-are/the-movement/code-of-conduct/