“When Good Intentions Go Awry”

What we learned about donations and innovation from our visit to Greece.

High heels from France. Pasta from Virginia. Winter jackets with broken zippers. These are just a few of the items that may hang in the makeshift “Unneeded” exhibit in the HelpRefugees warehouse in Northern Greece. Warehouse coordinators rotate displays of unsuitable items in the entryway as a gentle reminder to well-intended donors. Organizations that serve refugees pay import taxes, disposal fees, and spend precious hours sifting through boxes of goods that have been sent at great expense. In January NeedsList founders Natasha Freidus and Amanda Levinson spent ten days in Greece, working closely with Campfire Innovation and other partners in the field. This is what we learned.

Consider this: Organizations providing refugee aid in Greece consistently report that two thirds of the donations they receive are not needed or cannot be used. There must be a better way to leverage the energy and concern that has emerged in response to this humanitarian disaster.

Items being packed for Greece. Photo credit, Rachel Thornton

The problem of well-intentioned but unneeded or inappropriate material donations is not unique to the refugee crisis. In calling for “Smart Compassion,” Juanita Rilling of The Center for International Disaster Information says

“Uninvited donations take responders’ time to manage and may put local merchants out of business, creating what relief workers call ‘the second disaster.’ Material donations are also exponentially more expensive for donors to send, incur more costs every time they change hands and leave a big carbon footprint in their wake. This is what happens when good intentions go awry.”

Unsuitable donations, are in many ways symptomatic of larger issues —poor donor education, lack of communication and coordination, duplication of efforts, and inefficiency that pervade the humanitarian sector. Innovative strategies to confront these challenges are emerging from the thousands of ad-hoc grassroots groups across Europe formed to meet the immediate needs of refugees. Unhindered by bureaucratic structures or restrictive grants, these groups have demonstrated their effective use of financial resources and deployment of aid. Below we detail a few of the key challenges facing these grassroots teams in Greece, and the lessons they taught us.

Aid systems in need of aid

As millions of Syrians fled their country and poured into Europe, the world was shocked by images of drowned children, tent cities on tourist beaches, and families sleeping on the streets of Paris. The European refugee crisis has exposed what many large INGOs and governments have known for a long time — our current model of humanitarian aid is outdated and can not meet the demand. The funding gaps to provide aid are huge, and it is a growing challenge to respond quickly and effectively to the increasing and ever-present needs on the ground.

Despite having had over a year to prepare, camps in Greece and elsewhere in Europe were not winterized. In a single week in 2017, three people died in Moria Registration and Detention Centre of cold and exposure to threatening conditions.
Community garden in Calais, photo credit: Danika Jurisic

Grassroots hope

And yet, there are seedlings of hope sprouting across the world. Since the autumn of 2015, the response of civil society to the European refugee crisis has been unprecedented. In Greece alone, volunteer teams of citizens formed hundreds of groups with thousands of volunteers to meet the daily needs of refugees on the islands and mainland. Solutions range from mobile translation apps to baby carrier collections to football for refugees. These grassroots efforts are filling in the huge gaps in services and relief, providing everything from warm shelter for pregnant women, to facilitating family reunification, to asylum information in Arabic, Farsi, etc.

Oftentimes these groups provide aid more quickly, efficiently, and effectively than many of the larger international actors, and they are determined to keep meeting needs for the long haul. Nevertheless, 18 months after the refugee crisis first gained steam, the grassroots response finds itself at a turning point. How can it become sustainable and remain effective? Here are some of the primary challenges and opportunities we’ve identified.

  1. Focusing on dignity. Grassroots groups have rejected the traditional “charity” model, instead focusing on ways to meet refugee needs rooted in dignity. Teams set parameters, for example, about photographing refugees and set up structures people to “shop” for clothes and supplies, and cook their own food. As the warehouse manager at Elpida explained “We want to replace the illusion of scarcity with the feeling of abundance.”
Elpida Warehouse Manager Joel Hernandez explains the “shop” system to Amanda

2. Emerging Smart Strategies: Many grassroots groups have already identified and implemented intelligent strategies to source and distribute aid. Unhindered by bureaucratic structures or restrictive grants, grassroots groups can respond more quickly, use out-of-the-box thinking, and come up with adaptable solutions and implement them faster.

For example, HelpRefugees took their experience running a warehouse in Calais to Thessaloniki, where they established a standard way of labeling and sorting clothes by size by just including a tape measure on the sorting table.

Just up the road outside of Nea Kavala, Art without Borders has been conducting painting and jewelry classes. Art is sold abroad and 100% of the funds to back to the refugee artists.

3. Communication and capacity. As is often the case, many of the most effective groups operate under the radar and struggle to connect with donors. Most are new to the non-profit sector and do not know how to make a case for funding or how to think about measuring impact.

Grassroots groups are hungry for capacity building as well as space to support collective learning and collaboration. These include direct opportunities to identify challenges and potential solutions, as well as online tools such as a warehouse management systems.

Because of a “heads down” approach, very few of these approaches have been documented, shared, or examined. The pressing question now for the humanitarian aid community:

How do we capture this knowledge, learn from it, sustain it, and build on it?

4. A need for coordination

While grassroots efforts allow for spontaneity and flexibility, the downside is that groups often are unaware of local resources. For example, groups throughout Greece are consistently calling for diapers to be shipped from abroad. Meanwhile, one camp in Thessaloniki received a donation of 100,000 size 4 diapers and needs to offload them. Similarly, on Lesvos one NGO started to fundraise for sleeping bags before realizing that another NGO on the island had hundreds untouched in the warehouse. There was a clear recognition of the urgent need for tools to allow grassroots groups to communicate needs effectively to donors, with the UNHCR and other public agencies, governments, larger NGO’s and among themselves.

Think global, buy local.

“Local actors are often best-placed to respond…They understand the culture. They understand the language. …We need to start trusting them more. We can no longer design a program in another capital, not working with local actors and then use [them] as sub-contractors. It doesn’t work.” — Shannon Scribner, humanitarian policy manager for Oxfam America.

We found that a great part of the interest in NeedsList is its potential to redirect funds locally to support Greek businesses. At the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing Co-Chair Kristalina Georgieva called for an increase from 0.2% to 20% of humanitarian funding to the local level. Direct funding allows aid provider to purchase locally and respond to needs more rapidly.

Consider the HelpRefugees fresh food program. A small team now purchases bulk produce directly from a wholesaler at the local market in Thessaloniki on a weekly basis. This means that volunteers can prepare meals more efficiently for the city’s homeless population and ensure that distributions to the surrounding camps is equitable. Likewise, in Athens, a camping goods supplier has offered discounts of up to 40 per cent to refugee aid efforts. Directing resources locally builds in-country capacity and sustainability, boosting employment and the local economy.

A turning point and an opportunity

As the grassroots hits risk of burnout, the philanthropic community is simultaneously addressing “a pivot point in Philanthropy to address human disaster.” The Overseas Development Institute also has recently called for a massive overhaul of funding systems for humanitarian aid.

It’s time to bring together the knowledge and resources of these grassroots actors and create an infrastructure to foster innovation from the field. Without support, capacity building, and strategic of ways to leverage this energy and innovation — these groups will wither away. The entire system of grassroots humanitarian aid will will, in fact, lose the institutional memory and knowledge they have gathered over these 18 months.

As we at NeedsList reflect on these challenges, we look forward to developing our relationship with local actors and others to develop strategies to support and foster a “smart aid” ecosystem.

Stay tuned to learn how we will continue to support SMART AID in collaboration with Campfire Innovation. Please get in touch if you want to join us.

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