Alison on the modern volunteer movement:
“What is happening is a big swing. All the old disaster and aid models don’t work anymore – the big organisations are too stuck in bureaucracy. All the Syrian refugee camps in Greece are run by volunteers. They’ve stepped in on the rescues. And the same in Haiti. There’s this whole new revolution of volunteers that are no red tape, no bullshit, just get in there, working their butts off. They’re not NGOs getting paid 9-5: they work from the moment they wake up to the moment they drop and a lot of the time [they’re] 20 hour days but they keep going because they have it in their hearts. They just really want to help.”
On the practicalities of crises:
“I think [the ability to stay calm and collected in a crisis] has been honed along the way. People say to me, ‘how can you collect dead bodies? I can never do that. And I tell them, ‘I couldn’t too if I was sitting on the other side of the world having drinks, but when you’re there and you have the gloves on you just count ‘1, 2, 3’, and you put the body in the bag and zip it up and go… ‘it’s done.’ You’re right there in front of someone, you just do it.”
On the ‘Age of Overwhelm’:
“The main thing I have come across is that fear of taking the first step in going [to help on the ground]. I just say, ‘Get your plane ticket and get your return ticket back. Just go and if you don’t like it, get on a plane a few days later, come home and go play your video games or whatever you do.’ But no-one ever does it. Once they get there they are wow-ed and realise everyone else’s problems are so much bigger than theirs and just get stuck in to helping no matter what it is – peeling carrots or carrying boxes or medical [work], whatever it is.”
On where to start in making a difference:
“I tell people to back up [and ask themselves]: ‘What do you really love?’ Do you love kids? Do you love the environment? Do you like old people? Do you like sports? Then you narrow that down. Then get a couple of friends around you and start with something small. There’s so much in the world going wrong but you’re not superman or superwoman, you can’t fix it all. But you can do this little thing over here… It really does work but you’ve got to get over yourself and get over your ego. You can’t save the whole world but you can help a group. If everyone in the world did that, everything in the world would be pretty good.”
On technology’s role in affecting change:
In Haiti [social media] was like a magic genie. When I was in the hospital asking for something like a shot I’d get it straight away as people respond and send it out [to their networks]. Once we were all dehydrated and I was very sick, calling out ‘Help, help, can someone come?’ but no-one could hear me because the generator was on. So I tweeted out to New York and a friend there Tweets it back to a girl in the tent next to me, then she rushes in. That’s when I was sold that this is such a strong medium. We’re running the whole operation on Whatsapps, Twitter and Facebook.
[One other thing] I’ve learnt over the years: when disaster strikes and you’re on the first mission, take an IT team because you get there and there’s 300,000 people dead and we need to get the message out to the world to get help.
On the current refugee migration: