What “grassroots humanitarians” keen to travel to Ukraine or its borders need to know before setting off quickly

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(The Conversation) Most Americans want the US government to help Ukraine and pressure Russia to stop its brutal war against its neighbor. To date, more than $1 billion in charitable money flows from the United States to organizations that help Ukrainians, in addition to more than $50 billion in aid approved by Congress.

However, more than a few people take matters into their own hands. They travel to Ukraine and its crowded borders to volunteer their services for weeks or months at a time.


Some of these stories are inspiring: medical teams from Chicago rush to the Polish-Ukrainian border. Fundraisers for an organization with close ties to the US military purchase and deliver military supplies. Ukrainian Americans from Santa Barbara, California help with translation at border checkpoints.

American churches, even those with no ties to Ukraine, are joining the fray. One of my hometowns of Lincoln, Nebraska, is helping with Operation Safe Harbor, which is temporarily sheltering displaced Ukrainians at a hotel in Warsaw.

As a scholar of humanity, I find these works inspiring. But these well-intentioned efforts also make me uncomfortable because they are not always beneficial, especially in the long run. Sometimes they cause more problems.

Trying to get past the pitfalls of large aid groups

There are many terms for people who, alone or in a small group, learn about an unfolding international crisis and decide to take action, often by going to where the problem is. I tend to call them “grassroots humanitarians”, but there are many terms for this seemingly growing trend, including “citizen humanitarian” or “citizen assistance”; “Fourth pillar”; and “Everyday Humanity”.

Another label for these small efforts is “DIY help,” or do-it-yourself help.

This small scale assistance is usually delivered by volunteers or the sole organizer of a low-budget nonprofit organization. It could be providing funding for medical supplies, or even buying and delivering luggage to help fleeing people.

Populist humanism differs from the hierarchical aid industry that was formed during the Cold War through cooperation between governments of industrialized countries, the United Nations, and large NGOs.

This vast sector now provides important services, from resettling refugees to clean water. But despite their objectively positive goals, large aid organizations and agencies have been shaken in recent years by revelations of devastating scandals, high-paid CEOs and accusations that their actions have more to do with donor priorities than with local needs in countries that need help.

Grassroots humanitarians strive to bypass this baggage. Instead of giving money to a huge organization, donors spend it directly. Often this means paying for their own airfare and accommodation so they can provide services themselves. When this involves traveling to where the problem is, it comes with potential risks and problems.

People in war zones and survivors of conflict have many immediate needs. It is difficult to respond effectively in the midst of conflict without proper training, language skills and experience.

What is happening on earth?

When people emerge from afar with their ideas, agendas, and notions of what works, they can add more to the chaos around them. Likewise, even if they start to make a positive change, they may leave once their passion has subsided.

In Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, I have seen how good intentions and seemingly sound ideas for projects can fail to work on the ground. Sometimes they contribute to new problems, because locals compete for attention and promises of money. Scholars found that the actions of aid organizations in parts of Bosnia, for example, intensified the prolonged fighting and suffering in the violence that followed the collapse of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

Individuals and groups wanting to help Bosnian women have provided a lot of money and support to start organizations and pay for mental health care. At the same time, many of these well-meaning efforts led Bosnian groups to feel that they were merely carrying out the wishes of donors, not providing what local women needed. The lack of pre-existing relationships with the local population, language barriers and an ever-changing situation can make it difficult for US grassroots humanitarian organizations to respond effectively, particularly in wartime.

Just like large relief operations, grassroots humanitarians need to listen to the people affected by the crisis that have attracted them and to involve them centrally in the work of the aid.

As I explain in my book on the Balkans, assistance of any kind must be appropriate, transparent, and accountable—all of which is difficult to guarantee when free agents have just appeared. I have found that even people of good will cannot assume that they know what is best for those who survive conflict.

Responsible popular humanity

There are certainly ways to be constructive at the grassroots level.

First, as the Polish government has made clear, it is more useful when donors send money and not clothes or other things. Several border towns in Poland are already filled with piles of donated supplies that they are struggling to sort and distribute.

Second, if you want to donate money, donate to groups rather than strangers who live in the area and people you’ve known traveling there.

GoFundMe stories are inspiring, but there are plenty of scams among them. To check the legitimacy of a nonprofit, you can search databases operated by Charity Watch and Charity Navigator — two independent organizations that help donors assess whether it’s wise to donate to a particular nonprofit — or the Internal Revenue Service.

Thirdly, where possible, give it to local or regional groups with an authorized registry in Ukraine. These organizations are usually better informed, are more likely to last longer and have lower operating costs.

Finally, before volunteering your time, make sure it makes sense for you to travel there. Unless you are invited in person, trained with trauma victims, and have appropriate language skills, it may be best to help from home. Volunteers from the United States can easily confuse and distract local residents from important priorities, such as helping refugees, the homeless, and those most affected by violence.

After all, Poland already hosts about 3 million Ukrainian refugees. The Poles hosting these refugees in their own homes cannot bear the added burden of entertaining guests from afar who are there to help but don’t know their way around, can’t speak Polish or Ukrainian and aren’t sure what to do.

Caring for people is central to creating a better system of giving internationally, but in wartime especially, goodwill is still insufficient.

The crisis in Ukraine that has stretched across its borders has created an opportunity for me to see firsthand whether humanitarian workers should really go there.

I will be spending the summer of 2022 in Poland, collaborating with local researchers to see what grass-roots humanitarians are flowing into Eastern Europe to help Ukrainians actually achieve. I plan to return later in the year for another six months to assess the long-term effects of this influx of well-meaning DIY aids.

This article has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/what-grassroots-humanitarians-eager-to-travel-to-ukraine-or-its-borders-should-know-before-dashing-off-184232.

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