Interview with Relief Project Coordinator – “as long as the needs exist, it is important to ensure enough volunteers”
Although Ishinomaki was still very cold even in April, many volunteers were travelling there to assist relief activities throughout the month. At this time Peace Boat began to coordinate the dispatch of several hundred volunteers each week, hiring buses to transport them from Tokyo. Peace Boat Volunteer Coordinator Ueshima Yasuhiro organised a maximum of 660 volunteers during the busy Golden Week, a week in May with many national holidays coinciding.
Yasuhiro’s telephone does not stop ringing throughout the day, and has not since late March when Peace Boat started to coordinate these large groups of volunteers.
At this time, the whereabouts of many people was as yet unknown, and it was extremely difficult for anyone to have access to accurate and up to date information. Although mobile telephones started to function in the affected areas, this did not of course help the situation of limited petrol availability hampering movement. The local authorities were able to act once receiving requests from survivors, however many people were not even in the situation of being able to actually go and make these official requests.
So at this time, volunteers with NGOs started to assess the needs by visiting affected areas on foot. At the time of providing meals or delivering food and relief supplies, volunteers could speak directly with survivors to gather information about their needs. Yasuhiro then collected all this information, and in coordination with other NGOs in the area began to create a system to respond to these needs and requests, where possible the following day. The needs of survivors change within every hour, and so it is important to gather the information and respond as quickly as possible.
According to Yasuhiro, “In order to make the relief system function well, more than just the goodwill and passion of the individuals is needed – team work is so important. For example, there are some volunteers who are not able to wait. Of course those people who come as volunteers feel very passionate, and so they want to do something straight away, asking many questions. However, in some cases it can take some time to gather the accurate information and make a decision on what needs to be done. The most important thing for volunteers is for them not to think about what they want to do themselves, but instead to move according to the local needs. If many people are operating on their own without cooperation it will not be of any help locally, and so sometimes it is necessary to wait. One of my volunteer colleagues once told me that ‘Instead of one person walking 100 steps, it is much more effective for 100 people to each walk one step.’ In this situation, we have people within each of the teams of providing meals, cleaning, delivery and warehouse/store who are the main contact people, so that we can have good communication overall. Because of this, I think the operations are functioning fairly well.”
As time passed, the roles were divided so that the Japanese Self Defence Force focused on the removal of debris and setting up the local infrastructure, while NGOs worked on the provision of food and supplies. Each evening a coordination meeting is held between the local authorities and NGOs active in the area, and as Peace Boat is organising the largest number of volunteers, many important jobs are also given to Peace Boat. Another role we are playing is to send staff and volunteers to work with the local authorities and other NGOs to support their activities also.
“For example, a nutritionist who had been sent by the city authorities had been providing 100 meals in an evacuation centre alone. If that person happened to be not well one day, then the terrible situation of 100 people not having anything to eat would occur. So, Peace Boat sent six people to stay at the evacuation centre and support the meals provision. Such information comes up every day, and so it is really important for us to coordinate our volunteers in such a way to support the overall activities.”
Thus, as long as the needs exist, it is important to ensure that there are enough volunteers to assist.
“For example, it is so important to make sure that the efforts are sustainable – that we can guarantee to provide meals not only today, but also tomorrow. If the number of volunteers decreases, it will be difficult to maintain the activities we are responsible for at the moment, and so we really want to ask volunteers to continue coming to Ishinomaki. Also, those people who have already volunteered once have a good understanding of the situation and the work itself, and so it is a huge help if people can come to volunteer more than once, also.”