Bildet viser flytkninger på vei mot Østerrike Joachim Seidler/Creative Commons/CC BY 2.0

DESPERATION: Several hundred thousands refugees has arrived to Europe. But millions are displaced in Syria and neighboring countries. The picture shows a group of refugees on their way to Austria.

Making the best of good intentions

Published: 14 Sep 2015

The refugee crisis is sparking a wave of solidarity. To make the best of good intentions, these spontaneous movements should collaborate with existing humanitarian organizations.

Spontaneous networks for humanitarian relief to refugees have exploded all over social media in Norway. The response the last weeks has been nothing short of heart-warming. But  some things might be useful to keep in mind when considering how to contribute.

Money is always better than items

Sending stuff (diapers, food, clothing) from Norway to beneficiaries in crisis areas is less efficient than sending money.

Using money in the local economy is almost always preferable – and hiring local staff in weakened economies is usually preferable to sending volunteers. Greece and Hungary are both countries going through some severe economic difficulties. By using the money locally we help local as well as the refugees and we might even reduce the antipathy against migrant populations.

Mobilizing for local solidarity

Humanitarian relief should ideally be anchored in local organizations.

Local ownership, while not always given the attention it deserves, is one of the most important aspects of any humanitarian project. It builds local solidarity and strengthens civil society.

In the longer term

It is easy to mobilize big when feelings run strong, but spontaneous organizations tend to lose momentum when the news coverage abates. Institutionalized humanitarian organizations can uphold the aid for a longer period of time after the news cameras move elsewhere. 

That said, humanitarian organizations are not immune from media influence – and conflicts with a lot of coverage tend to be over funded relative to those not in the spotlight.

Knowing this, most humanitarian organizations now try to have an exit strategy in place so that the threshold for when to withdraw relief is determined in advance.

Improvised organizations in crisis

One of the never ending challenges for humanitarian relief is to coordinate to ensure that all important needs are catered to.

Spontaneous organizations are seldom linked to the networks and meetings where the coordination work is done. Operating outside these coordinating mechanisms can lead to waste – and in some cases it can even be detrimental to the humanitarian response as a whole.

It is also important to remember that in a crisis the state always has the primary responsibility.  Failing to coordinate with state actors is at best inefficient – and at worst can lead to legal difficulties.

Norwegian humanitarian organizations

There is no reason not to donate to Norwegian Humanitarian organizations. While there is a lot of talk about money being lost in administration – admin generally only takes about 4 percent of the money. This is relatively low compared to the real administration costs for spontaneous volunteers.

In Europe, Norwegian Church Aid have just conducted a thorough needs assessment. The Norwegian Red Cross is helping local Red Cross Societies in Hungary and Greece in their emergency relief efforts. CARE Norway are sending and distributing relief to refugees. For relief in the area closer to Syria, the Norwegian Refugee Council has over a decade’s worth of experience and contacts for relief work in Lebanon. Doctors without borders (MSF) are also very active in the Mediterranean – and have already mobilized three search and rescue ships. 

Lastly, we have to remember that while the situation in Hungary and Greece seems more vivid to us here – the vast majority of displaced Syrians are in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. And while Greece may seem poorly equipped to deal with the crisis, this remains doubly true for Lebanon.

For further insight, follow our seminars about the refugee crisis:

See also: Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies.

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