The Volunteer Effect

Historically, professional aid workers have looked askance at independent volunteer responders, regarding them as well-meaning amateurs as likely to cause problems as to be helpful. But their growing numbers, and increasing role in the frontline response in the current refugee crisis, are starting to force a rethink. 

In May 2015, a crackdown on people smuggling in Thailand left a boat full of destitute Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants floating in the Indian Ocean. As the governments of the region argued over whose responsibility they were, a small group of Acehnese fishermen took matters into their own hands. Defying their government, they took a flotilla of fishing boats out to what had been dubbed “floating coffins”, and took nearly 2,000 desperate passengers to shore.

There has since been an explosion in the numbers of volunteer aid workers stepping into the humanitarian front line. In Greece, volunteers are pulling refugees and migrants from the sea and providing first aid on the beaches. In Serbia volunteers provide much of the help to refugees arriving in Belgrade.

While this growth is in part a response to increased proximate need, it also stems from the fact that it has never been easier to become a self-appointed humanitarian. All it takes is a personal commitment, a Facebook page and a crowdsourcing funding appeal.

“It is quite revolutionary how social media can enable anyone to tell a story about a situation and garner support on what can be a transient basis,” says Jarina Choudhury of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. She herself recently spent time volunteering while on holiday in Lesvos.

Many are skilled, like the Spanish lifeguards who last week rescued hundreds of people from a capsized boat off Lesvos. And behind them are hundreds of ad hoc groups that have sprung up across Europe to provide everything from second hand clothes to Wi-Fi services in camps. They’ve also got money: to date Proactiva Open Arms (the Spanish lifeguards) alone has raised nearly 300,000 euros.http://www.proactivaopenarms.org/.

The growing numbers and power of volunteers is presenting aid agencies with a conundrum. On the one hand, professional agencies are forced to admit they see that volunteers can succeed where professionals struggle. “This agile, self-mobilising force has lots of benefits because they can cut through red tape, they just turn up, they don’t need to check in with anyone or be concerned with legal issues; they just get on with it, ” says Ben Webster, Head of Emergencies at the British Red Cross.

“These are very challenging situations and humanitarian organisations rarely cover all the needs in a given place,” he added.

The work of volunteers deserves applauding for the vital role they play in situations where there’s insufficient government capacity,” says William Spindler, UNHCR spokesperson.

On the other hand, the professionals worry that untrained and unsupported volunteers are exposing both themselves and those they are trying to help to risks. In Lesvos volunteers have inadvertently divided families when offering them lifts. Some have conducted amateurish distributions leading to violence, handing out inappropriate goods and trying to cope with situations far beyond their technical expertise, such as resuscitating drowning children. Volunteers rarely have any idea of how to manage complex protection issues such as human trafficking.

In Brussels last week, one volunteer wearing a baseball cap and a plaid shirt, and another with dyed green hair and an eyebrow ring, stood out when they found themselves at a meeting with aid agencies and governments to discuss the European refugee crisis. One volunteer was asked whether his group subscribed to humanitarian principles or charters. He looked perplexed.

“The problem with working with volunteers,” he eventually answered, “is that … you can’t really enforce any rules.” Volunteers acknowledge they may not have the bigger picture or knowledge of international structures. But, as another volunteer told IRIN, “we just want to stop people from starving.” 

But such are the numbers of volunteers, particularly in the context of the refugee crisis, that aid agencies have no choice but to figure out how they can work with them. For organisations designed to partner with established, registered structures, working with ad hoc volunteers on the ground – as opposed to those they have recruited and trained themselves - is in practical terms very difficult.

For a start, Webster points out, coordinating amorphous groups of volunteers is a huge challenge. “If you’re trying to do that for hundreds of individuals who aren’t part of an organisation, and who may not be there long, and people don’t know the context, you are trying to deal with a moving, animated object – you can’t pin it down.

It may seem a simple thing to call up an aid agency and offer to help, but for some organisations even this is causing problems. Doctors of the World runs a clinic in Calais which International Programme Manager Gareth Walker says gets 20 to 30 calls a day from volunteers wanting help, for example with organising distributions of donated goods, which is outside the agency’s role. “So our staff are distracted from providing health care. We had to hire someone in London just to field these calls, so liaising with volunteers is actually costing us money.”

Some organisations, however, are making headway. In the UK, humanitarian training specialists RedR recently began offering free seminars on practical issues such as supply chain management, distribution management and humanitarian principles to volunteers working in the informal migrant and refugee camps in Calais, and have been inundated with requests. “We are not here to criticize efforts, but to work with people to help them deliver aid effectively”, programme manager Poppy Hardee told The Guardian.

The current volunteer phenomenon is not just a product of Europe’s refugee crisis. Civilian volunteer initiatives – local and international - were also a feature of the recent earthquake response in Nepal, and ad hoc diaspora and volunteer groups are key to aid delivery in Syria.

In Aceh, the fishermen who led the initial rescue of Rohingya refugees continue to help those they rescued, with the support of local communities. Professional aid worker Lilianne Fan, who has worked in Aceh for many years, has supported the volunteer effort through the Geutanyoe Foundation which she helped found in 2013. She says she and the other volunteers bring a personal touch, warmth and a sense of solidarity that institutions lack. “We often form friendships and connections at a much more personal and individual level than the NGOs,” she says. “Volunteers do things that ordinary civil society organisations can’t either, like one of the fisherman who is now giving music lessons.”

Geutanyoe has eschewed traditional funding routes and has raised over $120,000 through online crowdfunding. “We are now working hard to become self-sustaining,” says Fan. “We’re thinking about social entrepreneurship models and also building a constituency of regular contributors across Aceh, Indonesia and the region.”

Such models are harder for big international organisations in Europe to adopt. But as the barrier to entry for volunteers continues to fall and the constraints (such as diminishing access and security issues) on aid agencies grow, new volunteer movements are likely to play an increasingly important role in future responses.

“This is something we have to work out,” says Walker. “This is going to become a bigger and bigger phenomenon, volunteers have a lot to offer. But it’s not something one agency alone can handle. We need a coordinated, collective approach.”

“We have to acknowledge that volunteers are a new reality in these responses,” says Peter Bouckaert, Emergencies Director of Human Rights Watch, himself newly returned from Lesvos.  “It means that the humanitarian organisations have a new partner on the ground and they have to learn to work together better.

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