* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Many of the images from the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan show young men and women mobilizing to help those affected by the crisis. In a report from a makeshift distribution center at Manila airport just three days after the typhoon, the BBC interviewed young students, still in their uniforms, volunteering through the night to pack emergency food for affected regions. Many of the students, some of whom had traveled from different cities, said they would work late into the night and still get up at 6:00 a.m. for school. They were motivated by a sense of sadness, they explained, and an urge to help.
Young people have talents and resources that, if properly tapped, can greatly improve relief efforts. As relief agencies move in to set up emergency programs in the Philippines, they should take steps to build upon the spontaneous, grassroots relief efforts undertaken by affected communities, including those led by youth. At the same time, it is important that international relief agencies do not exploit young men and women for cheap or dangerous labor.
Although young people can be at significant risk during crises due to separation from parents, disruption to schooling, increased poverty and insecurity, they still manage to make major positive contributions. With their many contacts and knowledge of social media and mobile devices, they can be a critical asset in disseminating information, tracing missing community members and mobilizing their peers. Young people provide invaluable insights regarding the needs of children and youth in their communities, including those most at risk, who may otherwise be excluded during relief efforts: youth with disabilities, girls at risk of violence and exploitation and boys at risk of recruitment into gangs or criminal activities.
In every humanitarian disaster, young men and women can be found participating in, even leading, relief efforts. Following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, young people joined UNICEF to offer psychosocial support to peers and neighbors, assist with damage assessments and help to rebuild schools and communities. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Boy Scouts helped rescue people trapped under rubble, set up tents for survivors, educated the public on cholera prevention and provided recreational activities for children in displacement camps. And following the 2009 earthquake in Italy, young Red Cross volunteers used clown-therapy to encourage younger children to express their feelings through games and laughter. Sometimes these efforts are organized through pre-existing youth organizations and networks, such as the Boy Scouts or Girl Guides, the YMCA/YWCA, or the Red Cross/Red Crescent. But often young people organize themselves, or come forward individually to volunteer.
Disasters and emergencies can provide young people with an opportunity to learn new skills and for personal development. Training for disaster-affected youth in life-saving skills, first aid, public health promotion and disease prevention can pay huge dividends both for the young men and women, as well as for the broader community. Positive engagement can also help to dispel misconceptions of young people as “trouble-makers” and can foster positive inter-generational relationships.
We hope that international aid agencies will not ignore the spontaneous youth initiatives that have sprung up in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan; that they will engage with youth in assessing needs and planning their response; that they will build upon what local communities have already started; and that they will provide leadership and skills training to empower young people to contribute even more. Investing in youth in these ways is also investing in disaster risk reduction, which is critical in disaster-prone places like the Philippines.
For more information please see INEE’s Engaging Youth-Led and Youth-Serving Organizations in Disaster Relief Efforts: A Guide for International Agencies involved in Emergency Response and Recovery.
Rachael Reilly leads the Women's Refugee Commission’s advocacy in Geneva.