Tag Archives: volunteering

When the storm subsides: What happened to grassroots initiatives assisting refugees?

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This blog was originally published on BlISS, the blog of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and is re-posted here. Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert is a Senior Researcher and Research Director at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and Co-director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies.

Image: The International Institute of Social Studies (ISS)

Back in 2015, cardboard placards bearing the words ‘Refugees Welcome’ that were shown in public spaces became an important way for ordinary European citizens to demonstrate solidarity with refugees and other migrants arriving en masse in Europe at the time. Citizen-led initiatives staffed by volunteers mushroomed, providing crucial assistance to refugees when humanitarian organisations were surprised and overwhelmed. But has something changed over the years as the amount of refugees entering Europe became smaller? What happened to these smaller grassroots initiatives as state and professional humanitarian actors gradually took over?

The arrival of migrants to Europe during the summer of 2015 and in the succeeding months saw massive political attention and media coverage at the time due to the sheer scale of the influx. Also remarkable was the widespread mobilisation of volunteers who helped refugees during and after their arduous journeys. Besides those initiatives led by civil society networks, many of the volunteers were ordinary citizens who had never or rarely been involved in volunteer initiatives before. They mobilised across Europe to provide basic assistance to refugees traversing Europe in a number of ways, for example in the form of food, shelter, clothes, access to Wi-Fi, and access to electrical outlets for charging mobile phones.

As the number of people wanting to help grew rapidly, it became necessary to organise volunteers and create structures. And so a flurry of new organisations arose in 2015 in Greece, the north of France around Calais, as well as in Paris – and basically in most of the European countries receiving an increased number of refugees between 2015 and 2016. Yet, as government policies on migration became increasingly strict and as fewer refugees arrived – at least to other European countries than Greece, where those who’ve made it there have mostly been stuck – what has become of these initiatives?

Following two of the main Norwegian volunteer initiatives created in 2015 can give us an insight into different paths some of these organisations have taken. Refugees Welcome Norway (RWN) and A Drop in the Ocean (Dråpen i Havet – DiH ) are two initiatives who took quite different paths, with one assisting refugees arriving in Norway and the other one organising volunteers to go help in Greece. Refugees Welcome Norway became the umbrella organisation for most of the spontaneous volunteer efforts that popped up, first in Oslo, and then across several other cities in Norway. It took its name from other similar organisations that were being formed in Germany and most other European countries at the time.

A Drop in the Ocean was created by a Norwegian woman with personal connections to Greece and who had jumped on the first possible plane to Athens in late August 2015 after having grown increasingly frustrated following radio debates on exactly what number of refugees Norway might take in. She saw many others wanting to follow suit. The initiative quickly started attracting many more volunteers, first from Norway, and then from a range of other countries as well, who wanted to go to Greece and “do something” to help the refugees arriving there. Over the years, it has become a rather well-respected NGO among those organisations doing humanitarian work on the Greek mainland and islands.

Fewer refugees arriving and other actors taking over

The context in which the two initiatives emerged changed over the next year – albeit in different ways. In Norway, fewer refugees arrived from 2016 onwards, primarily due to reinforced border controls, the returning of asylum seekers to Russia (who had crossed over to Norway at its northern border with Russia), and increased restrictions on family reunification. While RWN for a couple of weeks in August and September 2015 was busy providing basic assistance to those waiting in front of the police registration office, itself unprepared for these new arrivals, a new reception and registration office established by the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration by mid-October meant that immediate assistance became the responsibility of the state in collaboration with the Norwegian Red Cross.

In Greece, the situation changed in a different way: fewer refugees and other migrants arrived from March 2016 onwards following the entering into force of the EU-Turkey agreement – yet some boats still arrived in varying numbers in the subsequent years. More importantly, Greece’s border to Europe was sealed off, and those having arrived on the islands were prevented from moving further. For the volunteers in place, the work shifted from reception on the beaches to working in the various ‘camps’ that had been established on the islands. While many more established humanitarian organisations by then had set up their own operations, DiH felt its support was still needed.

Two paths: a preparedness structure in case of a “next refugee crisis” and a professionalising humanitarian organisation

The two organisations developed in different ways over the years, both adapting to changing needs, as well as to varying levels of volunteer ‘supply’, yet both continuing to be characterised by volunteering, either as a political force for change or as individuals contributing to benevolent acts at different levels. As fewer migrants actually reached Norway, the then-leaders of RWN shifted their attention to political lobbying – notably against the government’s forced returns of migrants to Russia. Others involved in RWN in 2015 and 2016 in the meantime launched other local initiatives, which can be read as direct spin-offs from the activities of RWN in the early days: from neighbourhood integration projects (offering the possibility to act as contact points for newly arrived refugees in volunteers’ neighbourhoods) to a second-hand shop handing out clothes to those in need. Several key leaders of RWN also drew on the structure that had been established earlier, with local chapters emerging in multiple cities and common systems made ready to organise, recruit, and deploy volunteers should the number refugees and other migrants rise again.

DiH developed in a different way: it sought to develop itself into a professional humanitarian organisation, all the while not replicating the undesirable sides of the sector. The organisation in many ways sees itself as a reaction to these, i.e. to the formalised structures and bureaucracy plaguing professional humanitarian organisations. When I visited their facilities on the outskirts of Athens a few years ago, they would stress how DiH volunteers were directly interacting with the refugees, getting to know them, as opposed to officials of international organisations who were too busy with paperwork inside their bunker offices. DiH has also become more involved in political lobbying in recent years, in particular towards the Norwegian government and decision-makers, for example by organising awareness campaigns to draw attention to the dire conditions of refugees in the Moria camp and other similar places, or by pressuring Norway to accept more refugees from Greece.

What both organisations have had in common is a strong emphasis on their origins as “popular movements”, based on a multitude of spontaneous desires to “do something” to help out. While formalising their structures, professionalising and adapting to changing needs, they continue to stress that it “should be easy to help”. Both of them have also over these years developed new volunteer recruitment strategies designed precisely to continue to “make it easy”, and to attract new volunteers when these were no longer coming in in large numbers.

Challenging humanitarian practices?

These benevolent acts can be understood both as emerging out of a desire or “need” to help fellow human beings in vulnerable situations (as such identifying primarily as humanitarian acts), as well as acts meant to protest against the non-action or insufficient response by the state and professional humanitarian organisations (as such self-defining as part of a broader social or political movement). Many initiatives started as the former, and evolved into the latter – with many of these volunteers arguing about the impossibility of remaining neutral and apolitical in the face of the injustices lived by the migrants. The intersection between humanitarian needs and protection needs, as well acts of helping out amidst state-led efforts to keep migrants away, makes this an interesting microcosm – also to study what is required for humanitarian aid to be precisely that – a humanitarianism based on humanity and impartiality. While most of the volunteer-based responses to the situation arising in 2015 have evolved into socially and politically engaged initiatives and have defined their actions as “humanitarian” to varying degrees, they nevertheless continue to challenge how humanitarian responses should be understood and practiced in highly politicised contexts.


This blog post is based on an article titled ‘Making It “Easy to Help”: The Evolution of Norwegian Volunteer Initiatives for Refugees’ that was published in International Migration. The article can be accessed freely here.

There must be something I can ‘help with’

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This text first appeared on CMI and is re-posted here. Salla Turunen is a PhD fellow at CMI with a research focus on humanitarian diplomacy and the United Nations.

Illustration by Pernille Jørgensen/CMI.

What is usually white, offers short-term solutions and is often misplaced? An international volunteer.

At the age of 20, I spent two months as a volunteer English teacher in a Buddhist monastery in Nepal. Like many white, Western, and particularly young women, I too wanted to participate in ‘doing global good’. I too saw images of ‘less privileged’, non-white women, children and men in the ‘Global South’, which in contrast to my home surroundings had an effect. I too felt that there must be something I can ‘help with’.

Recently, I read a blog post of We Aren’t Just Vehicles for your Guilt and Privilege: A View from Nepal by Rishi Bhandari, a Nepali who grew up surrounded by international volunteers. Bhandari’s key criticism surrounds volunteer travel in a post-colonial manner: White savior comes to the short-term ‘rescue’ by pursuing to save the illusion that the white savior has created in their mind of the ‘beneficiaries’ and their surroundings. For Bhandari, and for many post-colonial scholars, the perceived privilege comes along with imagined capability to ‘teach’, ‘help’ and ‘empower’. This is problematic, among others, due to lack of local contextual knowledge, Global North epistemologies and mere naivete.

Having done my graduate degree in gender studies and currently doing a PhD in the field of humanitarianism, I identified intellectually several of Bhandari’s arguments. Mary Mostafanezhad (2014) discusses how volunteer tourism commodifies empathy and stretches our imagination on how neoliberal capitalism articulates in global social relations. Michael Mascarenhas (2017) flags that colonial countries have a long-standing tradition to send, particularly young, people overseas in the guise of goodwill, democracy and charity, which translates into the spread of the Western cultural, political and economic hegemony. As for global politics, Johannes Paulmann (2013) argues that the overall humanitarian commitment from the Global North has safeguarded the moral positioning and superiority of the West and the commitment itself is a kind of postcolonial remedy. Yet, despite such intellectual approaches, the blog post was speaking to me on another level – as addressing the thoughts of the 20-year-old me.

Illustration by Pernille Jørgensen/CMI.

There are several different kinds of volunteering opportunities for those who are interested. Importantly, volunteering doesn’t equal to international volunteering. An example of this are national Greek volunteers in crisis-ridden Greece of the 21st century’s second decade, during which volunteering became a governmental, institutional and social reconfiguration of the new Greek and European Union citizen (Rozakou 2016). Despite having had volunteering opportunities inter alia among the elderly, youth and homeless in my home country, such considerations were swept away by the temptation to combine volunteering with travel.

Back in the beginning of this decade, I remember having had a discussion with another Finnish volunteer on her experiences which eventually created a yearning for myself to do something similar. Many volunteer experiences begin this way – from an intersectional perspective, you hear the side of the story from a person who bears resemblance to yourself and you are attracted to their insight. Alternatively, if the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain: After my volunteering, I received numerous inquiries particularly via Facebook from other interested people from the Global North asking about the NGO I ended up working with and my insight and experiences as a volunteer in Nepal.

After a quick Google search for key words “volunteer Nepal” today, I was given 26,700,000 results in 0.83 seconds.

When I began my search for my volunteer travel in 2010, the volunteering opportunities through online searches seemed endless, and they still appear to be so. After a quick Google search for key words “volunteer Nepal” today, I was given 26,700,000 results in 0.83 seconds. At the beginning of my twenties, when scrolling through the World Wide Web for these opportunities, I saw a program for an English teacher, which I felt back then to be an area in which I could ‘contribute’ – interestingly enough as a non-native English speaker.

As far as I would like to remember, my intentions for deciding to become a volunteer were ‘good’ from the position and perspective I then had. As many other young Global North volunteers, I was curious about the world and motivated by the opportunity to see another part of it while simultaneously interacting with people from different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Having recently finished my high school studies, I was in the search of directions and interests for my life and somehow the idea of travelling far in order to see near seemed appealing. And as far as I recall, also my social circles in Finland found my thoughts and determination for international volunteering a fascinating discussion topic, inevitably accumulating my social capital.

The program costs (including residence and food in the monastery) and the flights from Helsinki to Kathmandu and back were around 3000 euros altogether. A hefty investment for a high school graduate in a gap year as I was working in the restaurant field at the time, earning approximately 1300 euros per month. But this was a target I felt withdrawn to direct my savings to. Soon enough I was on the airplane heading to Kathmandu, then completing my volunteering and personal soul-searching after which heading home with an experience of a memorable summer. In Finland, I was interviewed by the local newspaper and radio on my experiences of volunteering and living in a Buddhist monastery, broadening my personal spectacular into a public one.

The consideration that I have made professional gains through such volunteering, is a painful one.

Without going into the details of my volunteer experience itself or the possible usefulness of my work (as these reflections would be only one-sided), I have been reflecting my decision to go in retro-perspective. Particularly, by employing critical thinking tools I have acquired during my years in academia. There I was, a young, well-meaning Western adventurer finding courses for my life at the expense and in the everyday of other people. Simultaneously, I had a sincere feeling of contributing to an enterprise more novel and greater than my individual self. With time and education in social sciences, I become more aware of the history and reproduction of global inequalities which had been embodied in my volunteer experience. My economic situation and overall global positioning as white, Western and travelled individual with English language capabilities (to name a few) enabled me to volunteer in a manner that the majority of the world’s population cannot. With that being said, I am also considering has my new privilege – academic education – somehow overridden my previous privileges in giving me new tools to criticize volunteer travel[1] today in a way which was out of my reach when I made the decision to become a volunteer.

Illustration by Pernille Jørgensen/CMI.

Overall, reflecting volunteer travel from the positionality I have today feels problematic as for me such experience is not an intangible intellectual discussion or societal phenomenon, but a part of my personal and professional past. Later in life, and particularly as a young professional otherwise lacking years of applicable work experiences, I have also stated my international volunteering in my curriculum vitaes, which, undoubtedly, have aided my professional opportunities in my international career. The consideration that I have made professional gains through such volunteering —which grounds and continues to exists on the basis of global inequalities— is a painful one. Expanding from personal agony into systematic structures, both Mary Mostafanezhad and Michael Mascarenhas (2014 & 2017) underline that young volunteers today are also increasingly cognizant of the pressure to gain international experiences to open doors for educational and professional opportunities in which volunteer travel plays a role. Also, prestigious universities and trainee programs have taken such an ‘exposure’ as a part of their programming in ‘qualifying’ young professionals to face the global challenges of today.

This phenomenon feeds also into the professionalization of the humanitarian field, of which Thomas G. Weiss and Michael Barnett (2011) write:

In other words, [humanitarian] volunteers began as amateurs. But increasingly the humanitarian enterprise frowned upon such naïfs and began demanding that staff have real expertise and rewarded them accordingly. A CEO or CFO of a major not-for-profit aid agency should not require less training or fewer skills or relevant work experience than a CEO or CFO of a for-profit Fortune 500 company. And if they are experts, they expect to be paid accordingly. (p. 116, emphasis added.)

Volunteer travel does not seem to have an end in sight, rather, it seems to accelerate in an increasing pace, and it has firm structures in its support and maintenance. Seemingly ever-increasing number of NGOs, INGOs and private sector social corporate responsibility programs provide opportunities in which volunteer travel can be deployed. As discussed, it is also now being more and more integrated and formalized in the spheres of education and professional careers. As scholars, activists and journalists argue, volunteer travel remains deeply problematic as individual, small-scale intervention (whether based on morality, empathy, guilt, curiosity, educational and professional development or something else) lack the means and muscles to redress macro level challenges such as poverty and weak governance. Silver bullet solutions, such as volunteer travel, and the framing of global inequalities in their format are perplexing and contested to begin with, posing the question whose interests these bullets actually serve.

Volunteers are motivated by various shades and impressions of other people’s imagined existence which are given illustrations inter alia in media and aid campaigns’ propaganda and images. Regrettably, volunteer travel continues to reinforce global inequalities by offering patch solutions at its best and without adequate means to address the underlying root causes of suffering. What at first glance seems to be a hearty interaction between a volunteer and a host-community member, can actually contribute to bolstering of inequalities. In addition to lacking the desired macro level impact, the micro, individual level effects take place.

For example, for Rishi Bhandari growing up in Nepal surrounded by international volunteers, it meant the following:

– I first encountered international volunteers when I was five, and I loved them! As a five-year-old kid, who doesn’t enjoy being tossed up into the air and given candies? But the irony was that they always only stayed for a short period of time, so the fun interactions were tainted by the knowledge that it was all going to be over soon. And when they would leave I would feel a keen sense of loss.

– When I reflect on it, I feel like the volunteers were treating us like we were from another planet. We were commodities to be used for a short period of time, not children with feelings and aspirations, or who are prone to attachment issues. There is a certain sense of exoticism associated with volunteering with kids overseas, that you can see on the posters that advertise these experiences.

The images seem to say: “Look at these smiling brown children! They are poor but happy!”

– Volunteers internalise these messages and treat children like toys, who are there to be touched and be tossed around. They didn’t treat us as complex, rounded human beings.

Nepalese culture is a valuable and living entity in its own right.

Rishi Bhandari

Volunteer travel will continue to exist. Volunteers may be young people in their gap year like I was, or they might be retired couples seeking to ‘give back’. International volunteering like other cross-cultural interactions, can break down artificial barriers between people and plant seeds to a deeper understanding of our shared humanity. The problem with volunteer travel is, however, that the movement in its current format is mostly a one-way street. It is the Finnish girl fresh-out of high school student who uses her gap year savings to go teach English to Buddhist monks in Nepal. It is not the young person from Bangladesh who comes to the United States to educate American children without any  professional quaifications equipped only with her or his high school diploma, young enthusiasm and life-experience.  

[1] The term volunteer travel is used in parallel with terms volunteer tourism and voluntourism, commonly referring to international volunteering for short periods of time, usually weeks or some months. Particularly volunteer tourism is often compared to mass tourism in the so-called developing countries, in which the former is seen pursuing to bring positive impacts to the host-communities and destinations whereas the latter has been criticized for the lack of such positive impacts (see for example Harng Luh Sin 2009).

References

Mascarenhas, M. (2017). New Humanitarianism and the Crisis of Charity: Good Intentions on the Road to Help. Indiana University Press.

Mostafanezhad, M. (2014). Volunteer Tourism. Routledge.

Paulmann, J. (2013). Conjunctures in the history of international humanitarian aid during the twentieth century. Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development4(2), 215-238.

Rozakou, K. (2016). Crafting the volunteer: Voluntary associations and the reformation of sociality. Journal of Modern Greek Studies34(1), 79-102.

Sin, H. L. (2009). Volunteer tourism—“involve me and I will learn”?. Annals of Tourism Research36(3), 480-501.

Weiss, T. G., & Barnett, M. (2013). Humanitarianism Contested: Where Angels Fear to Tread. Routledge.