ShelterBox: A proper Cornish success story

Image“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)

I’m just recovering – there’s no other word for it – from a 9 day course run by ShelterBox to train people who are joining their disaster Response Team. As most people in these parts know, Helston-based ShelterBox is a disaster relief agency specialising in sending emergency shelter (tents) and other essential items such as blankets, cooking facilities and tools, to areas of the world affected by natural and man-made disasters. It’s the job of the Response Team to actually deliver the aid, in the organisation’s iconic green boxes, to the disaster zones. Joining the Response Team, which is made up of volunteers from all walks of life and nationalities, is no small undertaking. Those hoping to join the Team must pass an interview and a 4 day selection course before being accepted onto a 9 day intensive training programme aimed at preparing them for the demands of operating in parts of the world that have been hit by earthquakes, floods, civil war and other calamities. As I can testify, it’s a mentally and physically demanding process which tests the ability to absorb information, to work in fluid situations where the rules of the game are often unclear and to understand the complexities involved in getting aid to the needy in often chaotic parts of the world. It’s one of the hardest things I have ever done but also one of the most satisfying. I’m now looking forward to the chance to go out and put what I’ve learnt into practice.

But why, you may ask, am I writing about this in a blog about business, politics and culture in Cornwall? Well, although ShelterBox is an international organisation with affiliates around the globe, its base and, I think its heart, remains in  Cornwall. While funds for its operations come from donors around the world, the people of Cornwall in particular have taken ShelterBox to their hearts. That might have something to do with the fact that, like Cornwall, ShelterBox punches above its weight. The organisation’s £15-20 million annual income makes ShelterBox a comparative minnow in the world of humanitarian aid (Oxfam, for example, had revenue of £385 million last year) but its philosophy of reacting quickly and decisively when a disaster occurs means that its profile and impact is disproportionately large. Other aid agency workers, operating within more bureaucratic structures, are frequently envious of the speed with which ShelterBox is able to move when the need arises. Cornwall’s no-nonsense, get-on-with-it approach to life is reflected in the way ShelterBox goes about its business.

But speed doesn’t mean sloppiness. Spend any amount of time with the ShelterBox team and it quickly becomes apparent that all aspects of the business, from operations to training to procurement are constantly under review. In particular, an almost obsessive attention to detail is lavished on the equipment that is sent into the field. One example is their long term partnership with Vango, one of the world’s largest outdoor equipment manufacturers. The ShelterBox/Vango tent has been constantly refined and improved, reflecting a belief that families in a disaster zone deserve the best possible shelter. The same goes for other items of kit like water purifiers and mosquito nets. You sense that Richard Trevithick and other great Cornish innovators of the past would approve.

Another thing that struck me was that ShelterBox pulls people from all over the world to our little corner of the British Isles. My course was made up of individuals from as far afield as California, Texas, New Zealand and Belgium, plus a handful from other parts of the UK (as well as Cornwall itself, of course). Some of them would have never even heard of Cornwall before getting involved with ShelterBox and would certainly not have envisaged spending the best part of two weeks on a windswept airfield on the Lizard Peninsula! Yet here they were, being crammed with state-of-the-art knowledge about global humanitarian operations and participating in exercises simulating deployments to overseas disaster zones. That’s another thing that I think Cornish businessmen and politicians can take from the ShelterBox example. The scale of the organisation’s ambitions, the quality and focus of the people who run it and those who work on a voluntary basis makes a nonsense of the idea that Cornwall’s peripheral location will always make it difficult for businesses to succeed down here.

So as well as being a success story in the world of humanitarian aid, I think that ShelterBox is also a Cornish success story. And, in true Cornish fashion, success has not bred arrogance. You don’t get any sense that the individuals in ShelterBox believe they are better than the average person as a result of what they do. They simply recognise their obligation as human beings not to sit back and ignore the suffering of others. An obligation, to paraphrase Edmund Burke,  for good men and women NOT to do nothing.

Back in the heyday of Cornish mining, they used to say that wherever you went in the world, at the bottom of every hole in the ground you’d find a Cornish miner. These days, in disaster zones from Haiti to Jordan and from Peru to Myanmar, you’ll find a little piece of Cornwall in the shape of those green Shelter boxes. And that, I think, is something that everybody in Cornwall should be very proud of.

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