What can global philanthropy learn from the #ThamLuangCave rescue?

Some good news!

The rescue of the young football team from the #ThamLuangCave in Thailand has proven – as have countless other situations – that trusting and effectively partnering with local leaders is key to addressing crisis situations AND building long-term resilience.

Rescue efforts were grounded in local expertise, and Thai officials utilized appropriate international support, including that of one of the boys, 14-year-old, stateless Adul Sam-on, who, as the only English speaker in the group (he also speaks Chinese, Burmese and Thai) was the main liaison between the group and the divers. Today the boys have received the medical attention they need and have been reunited with their families.

So what have we learned from the situation (and its news coverage) that is applicable to global philanthropy and the aid sector?

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being called to help. We need folks that are moved to action when others are in need – especially nowadays when more action and less lip service is crucial. Even local farmers, whose land was flooded by the rescue teams pumping vast gallons of water from the caves, were supporting the efforts. (Though perhaps some deeper or more inclusive consultation with people from the area could have prevented the crop losses.)

As for spaceships and rocket submarines… Millionaires are keen on doing philanthropy their way, often overlooking the grassroots leaders already on the ground addressing local issues.

Luckily in this case, the “help” that was offered by Elon Musk was politely declined and was proved not to be needed. Nonetheless, it drew press attention away from local efforts and served to venerate an inappropriate technological response that was mismatched to the context/task at hand.

Yes, there is a role for everyone, but what the Tham Luang Cave rescue has reinforced for us is that it’s about “staying in your lane,” respecting local expertise, and making sure your actions are in solidarity with the real experts.

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