The Refugee Rethink Part 3: The Abundance of Everyday People

We have lived in places of scarcity for so long that we have lost sight of the abundance our world contains.

Youth gather at the end of a Youth Leadership Training in Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in Uganda.

“Just as the rivers we see are much less numerous than the underground streams, so the idealism that is visible is minor compared to what men and women carry in their hearts, unreleased or scarcely released. Mankind is waiting and longing for those who can accomplish the task of untying what is knotted and bringing the underground waters to the surface.” 
– Albert Schweitzer

“Sometimes it is people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”— Alan Turing

In this post, I would like to make three points:

1) As humanitarians, we have lived in places of scarcity for so long that we have lost sight of the abundance that our world contains.
2) As non-profits, we think our purpose is to “do things” in places of scarcity but it is to unleash abundance into these places.
3) As problem-solvers, we will need to engage this abundance if we are to unlock useful solutions.

From Scarcity to Abundance

In 2004 a 9.3 magnitude earthquake shook Indonesia, causing the most devastating tsunami in modern history. Millions of people in fourteen countries were displaced. Homes, roads, and hospitals were devastated. Shortages of food and water were rampant. Yet, within weeks, donors from governments and private citizens soared to over $14 billion — the largest humanitarian response in history.

Here’s the thing: $5.5 billion (40 percent) of that came from private donors in a completely spontaneous, unprecedented response. Those of us working in the INGO community were of course relieved — but we worried that donations to other areas of need would collapse. If all philanthropic activity were directed to one crisis, what would happen to the others?

Leaders of both international and domestic non-profits anxiously waited. To our surprise nothing really happened; instead, for the rest of the year, people gave as they always did (maybe with a little increase).

Our sector largely wrote this off as being due to the CNN effect — unprecedented media coverage led to unprecedented giving. To give you an idea of scale, total private giving for ALL humanitarian aid in 2014 was $5.8 billion (a year that included Ebola and Syria).

To me, this account was insufficient to explain what had just happened, what Amartya Sen described as an “outburst of human sympathy”. I felt like an oil miner who had toiled for years to find oil, and suddenly the greatest oil geyser of all time had spontaneously burst from the ground, produced massive quantities of oil for weeks, and then, abruptly, went back underground.

And, like any oil miner would, I looked agog at my peers and asked, “what was that?”, and more importantly, “where did that come from?” To be told with a resigned shrug, that it was due to the media, and absolutely out of our control…I simply couldn’t accept this.

I had seen abundance — at least in the financial sense (I was yet to learn that this is only a small part of what abundance actually means). I then went on a journey to find the source of that geyser.

And the good news is that I found it.

Here were my insights:

First, the explosion of giving that was directed to the tsunami came from a separate source. General “international charity” giving amounts were unaffected by that explosion of Tsunami giving, because it came from a different pocket. A much deeper one.

Second, it’s all about meaning. The pocket it came from was the deep pocket that funds people’s search for meaning. This includes not just giving to their faith, their education (college alumni), and the arts; it also includes travel, fashion, movies, and food. Things that relate to how people see themselves, the tribe they belong to, and the legacy they wish to leave.

Third, people find immense meaning in helping to make the world a better place. Here’s the kicker: people want to give such that they feel like they are contributing of themselves in a truly meaningful way. The feeling that they have left the world a little better for the time they had here. It’s personal.

This is not about money. It’s about the meaning found in the act. It can be seen in the giving of both small and large amounts whether that is time or money. Recently, my organization had the opportunity to be part of a grassroots campaign to raise funds for Somalia, initiated by a group who called themselves the “Love Army for Somalia”. The bulk of the funds were raised in small amounts by people who found meaning in the action, who saw themselves in the solution, and who therefore spontaneously joined a global “tribe-of-compassion” that responded with immediacy to an urgent need. A sample of comments of donors to that campaign is included below:

The world is more abundant than we think. As humanitarians, we are immersed in some of the world’s most desperate places. Places that seem to be defined by their scarcity. Organizations like my own run hospitals and clinics in the deserts of Darfur, provide millions of gallons of clean water to refugee camps across multiple continents, provide food to thousands of people in the city of Aleppo, and put girls into school in rural Pakistan…and more.

No one could deny that there is a mountain of suffering in the world, and that it is a daily struggle for the refugees we serve to overcome it. When someone has lost everything, when they are absolutely exhausted and empty…well that’s what scarcity is, and what it feels like.

But even in the places of the most scarcity, you find abundance. Why? Because people are there. We unlock this abundance when we allow people to come in and work with us. This is true for the refugee and the everyday person who wants to help them.

So, who has been given the task of unlocking this? As Schweitzer asks above, is there anyone who can “accomplish the task of untying what is knotted and bringing the underground waters to the surface”?

From Doers to Unleashers

Here is my big secret. It’s the answer to the question of why we — non-profit organizations like the American Refugee Committee (ARC) — exist. I’ll back up first, and ask the question with my organization as an example. Why does ARC exist? The most typical answer is to help refugees. But if you ask the United Nation’s Refugee Organization, UNHCR or the US Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, and Oxford’s University’s Refugee Studies Centre why they exist, they will all say the same thing. So, is there an answer — a raison d’etre — that sets us, as a private voluntary non-profit, apart from those other organizations?

How does a non-profit start? At some point, an individual or small group of everyday people decide that the world can be better, and that they can help make that happen — could be for refugees, for the homeless, for troubled youth, etc.

So why do we exist? Non-profits exist to be a channel and vehicle for the idealism of everyday people. This belief and goodwill exists in abundant supply, yet as Schweitzer says, it too often lies under the surface, unreleased or scarcely released. At ARC we connect this abundance with the needs of refugees; for other non-profits it will be something else. And this is something that the UNHCR, the US Government, or an academic institution cannot do.

Too often in our organizations, we toil like diligent watchmakers. Bent over our desks, so focused on our missions that we cannot see the people whose faces are pressed against the window, wanting to be let in, to give of themselves, to be part of what we are trying to do. They don’t want windows of transparency but open doorways that lead to involvement.

This tunnel vision is even true within our organizations. A few years ago, at ARC, we reached out to our 1,800 staff around the world with an ideas competition. We challenged them with this question — in one simple way, how can we make the people we serve feel more joyful, valued or powerful?

Frankly I wasn’t sure what would happen. Our teams work in very tough places, under curfews, incredible constraints and often even under fire. I thought that asking them to go the extra mile by submitting an idea, when they have already gone so many, may be too much.

The first year, we had 120 ideas, the next year 250, then 500, and last year over 1,600 ideas. One of the winners was a Sudanese nurse, a refugee herself, who treats over 200 patients a day in a refugee camp of 110,000 people in Darfur. She had already given so much of herself, and yet still has abundance to spare.

Never a Better Time to Be Who We Are

The world is more abundant today than it has ever been. The source of this abundance lies within everyday people. The key to unlock this abundance comes down to what you choose to believe. I believe that abundance comes from people. We unlock this abundance when we allow people to come in and work with us in ways that are meaningful to them. This is as true for the refugee as for the everyday person who wants to help.

And while many people and places are suffering from terrible scarcity, it is also true that we have a giant river of belief and goodwill that stands eager to engage. We, as non-profits and humanitarians, have the opportunity and the privilege to unleash this engagement. I think about our role as something like this:

Here’s the challenge as I see it — how do we bring an abundant world of amazing people together to work on the toughest problems? More on that soon.