People to People: The Volunteer Phenomenon
The world-gripping scale of the refugee crisis in the last few years, a corresponding ineffectiveness of major INGOs and deliberate pushback by governments has had an intense, motivating effect on an entire generation. Though the concept of volunteering is not new, it is hard to over-estimate the phenomenon of the “people to people” grassroots aid movement which exploded in 2015 and saw thousands of people head off to Calais, to Greece, and all over the world.
When I first opened my front room in the summer of 2015 to collect clothes and shoes to drive over to Calais, I had no idea that it would consume the next three years of my life. Like other rookie volunteers, I soon found myself learning how to pack pallets into a forty-foot shipping container, studying shipping routes, organising a warehouse into the optimal sizes of shoes and coats, and the minutiae of campaigning and legal routes to asylum.
After the chaos of early deliveries direct to Calais over the summer of 2015, groups gradually self-organised – the French volunteer group L‘Auberge des Migrants and Help Refugees opened a new large warehouse to act as a hub for direct aid distribution, and groups such as CalAid and Calais Action did large collections for essential items and delivered them there. In camp an entirely independent, functioning welfare system and mutual support system was created. Volunteer groups such as kitchens (Refugee Community Kitchen and Kitchen in Calais) then proliferated, either run out of the warehouse or in camp. Other volunteers built shelters, schools, and safe community spaces; created and ran projects such as a library, churches, mosques, legal centres, youth centres, a welcome caravan and a women and children’s centre. By mid-2016, conservative estimates taken from warehouse logs and the volunteer enquiry email put the total number of volunteers at around 20,000.
L’Auberge des Migrants had been operating in Calais since 2008, supporting varying numbers of people sleeping rough in the Calais area. By September 2015 there were three thousand people living in the “Jungle”, then numbers rose to over ten thousand by September 2016 according to a census carried out by Help Refugees.
The perfect storm of social media, cheap travel, access to information, and some coverage by the largest media channels made people aware that they could get involved rather than just passively watch their Facebook feed and send money to NGOs. This level of self-realisation and self-activation was motivating beyond any poster campaign. Anyone could go over and help - seeing one’s peers volunteering spread similar motivation through social circles. Social media hubs sprang up – the People to People and Calais Solidarity facebook networks helped new volunteers and new groups find each other, give advice on what to bring, and where to bring it. It was fast, effective, often chaotic and prone of course to the usual dangers of fraud, unreliable management and chaotic communication, but it was also immediate, flexible, and targeted on specific needs.
“I started off just like you,” said the boss of a large INGO to me at a refugee conference. “In the nineties I threw some clothes in my truck and drove to Bosnia. And now –” he indicated the large glittering conference hall around us expressively. “Well, I’m just saying. Maybe one day you’ll be working for one of these organisations here.”
His words were particularly notable because I had just delivered a speech as the token grassroots speaker on exactly why so many ordinary citizens had headed off to European camps in the summer of 2015 – the deeply-held and angry feeling that governments and major INGOs were failing appallingly in helping and accommodating the vast human exodus arriving on the continent. While the policy-made disaster of forced migration had felt like an ethical imperative to help for many of us, for him, the logical career path of volunteering would be to “trade up” from grassroots groups into working for an established, funded, policy-run INGO. Yet, as many of us were seeing in France and Greece, major INGOs were either prevented from effectively working on the ground (Calais) or their efficiency was diluted by policy, funding restrictions and local governmental systems. A shelter that could take six months to sign-off by an INGO could be built in an afternoon by a grassroots group.
It is a tribute to the desire of volunteers not to let bureaucracy or policy stultify a fast response that the huge array of groups not only self-organised but also diversified into so many different types of charity and association, often targeted at specific need rather than general. Many groups such as Help Refugees, Refugee Community Kitchen and Calais Action became NGOs via a restricted fund arrangement with Prism the Gift Fund. Others such as Side by Side With Refugees and Donate4Refugees became small charities themselves, or a company limited by guarantee (Solidarity with Refugees). Still others such as Bras not Bombs retain their grassroots non-profit construction.
Some groups focused primarily on front-line work – distributions, in-camp projects, building – while others supported existing groups or projects through funding, supply or container/ storage provision. There is also a lot more understanding in grassroots-based volunteering about the needs of refugees – the importance of phone credit and internet access for example - and consequent diversification of projects to fit those needs – notably the Phone Credit for Refugees group, and the Refugee Info Bus wifi. Despite frequent duplication, and a minority of promised projects that came to nothing or potentially wasted funding – in the main, projects have been successful and need-based. Many lives have been saved and much suffering alleviated by the fast and flexible responses of grassroots groups.
The challenge for newly formed grassroots charities is now to resist becoming so entrenched in the system that effective action is not possible. Correspondingly, established INGOs should look to support small flexible groups, either by using their media and government influence to support campaigns, helping with funding or co-sponsoring projects or providing resources in lieu (storage, transport, materials). Grassroots groups fill a huge vacuum in the aid world that INGOs currently do not. Recognising the complementary nature of INGOs and grassroots groups, rather than attempting to operate in competition, is necessary to ensure the most effective outcomes in the humanitarian field.