Most Americans want the U.S. government to aid Ukraine and pressure Russia to cease its brutal war against its neighbor. So far, more than US$1 billion in charitable funds are flowing from the U.S. to organizations that are helping Ukrainians, on top of more than $50 billion in aid Congress has approved.
More than a few people, however, are taking matters into their own hands. They are traveling to Ukraine and its busy borders to volunteer their services for weeks or months at a time.
Some of these stories are inspiring: Medical teams from Chicago rushing to the Polish-Ukrainian border. Fundraisers for an organization with close ties to the U.S. military buying and delivering military supplies. Ukrainian Americans from Santa Barbara, California, helping with translation at border checkpoints.
U.S. churches, even those with no connections to Ukraine, are joining the fray. One from my city of Lincoln, Nebraska, is helping Operation Safe Harbor, which is temporarily housing displaced Ukrainians in a hotel in Warsaw.
As a scholar of humanitarianism, I find these acts inspiring. But these well-meaning efforts also make me uncomfortable because they are not always that helpful, especially in the long run. Sometimes they cause even more problems.
Trying to bypass the pitfalls of big aid groups
There are many terms for people who, on their own or in a small group, learn about an unfolding international crisis and decide to take action, often by going where the trouble is. I tend to call them “grassroots humanitarians,” but there are many terms for this apparently growing trend, including “citizen humanitarianism” or “citizen aid”; “the fourth pillar”; and “everyday humanitarianism.”
Another label for these small-scale efforts is “DIY aid,” or do-it-yourself aid.
This small-scale aid is usually delivered by volunteers or the sole organizer of a low-budget nonprofit. It could be providing the funding for medical supplies, or even buying and delivering luggage to help people who are fleeing.
Grassroots humanitarianism differs from the hierarchical aid industry that formed during the Cold War through the collaboration between the governments of industrialized countries, the United Nations and large nongovernmental organizations.
This vast sector now delivers important services, from refugee resettlement to clean water. But despite their objectively positive purposes, large aid organizations and agencies have been rocked in recent years by revelations regarding damning scandals, highly paid CEOs and accusations that their actions have more to do with their donors’ priorities than local needs in the countries requiring assistance.
Grassroots humanitarians seek to bypass that baggage. Rather than give money to a huge organization, donors just spend it directly. Often this means paying the cost of their own airfare and lodging so they can provide the services on their own. When this involves traveling to where the trouble is, it comes with risks and potential problems.
People in war zones and survivors of conflict have many immediate needs. Responding effectively in the midst of conflicts is hard without the proper training, language skills and experience.
What happens on the ground
When people from far away just show up with their own ideas, agendas and notions of what works, they can add to the chaos around them. Likewise, even if they do start to make a positive difference, they may leave once their passions subside.
In Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan and elsewhere, I’ve 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 are competing for attention and promises of money. Scholars have found that the actions of aid organizations in parts of Bosnia, for example, intensified fighting and prolonged suffering in the violence that followed the former Yugoslavia’s collapse in the early 1990s.
Individuals and groups wanting to help Bosnian women provided a lot of money and support to start organizations and pay for mental health care. At the same time, many of these well-intentioned efforts resulted in Bosnian groups feeling they were merely carrying out the wishes of donors, and not providing what local women needed. A lack of preexisting relationships with local people, language barriers and a constantly changing situation can make it even harder for U.S. grassroots humanitarians to respond effectively, especially in wartime.
Just like large aid operations, grassroots humanitarians need to listen to the people who are affected by the crisis that drew them in and involve them centrally in their aid work.
As I made clear in my book on the Balkans, aid of any kind needs to be appropriate, transparent and accountable – all of which is difficult to guarantee when free agents just show up. I’ve found that even people with good intentions cannot assume they know what is best for those who are surviving a conflict.
Responsible grassroots humanitarianism
To be sure, there are ways to be a constructive grassroots humanitarian.
First, as the Polish government has made clear, it’s more helpful when donors send cash, not clothes or other items. Several border towns in Poland are already littered with piles of donated supplies they are struggling to sort through and distribute.
Second, if you want to give money, donate to groups rather than strangers who live in the region and people you have learned about who are traveling there.
GoFundMe stories are inspiring, but there are plenty of scams among them. To verify that a nonprofit is legitimate, you can search the databases run by Charity Watch and Charity Navigator – two independent organizations that help donors assess whether it’s wise to donate to a specific nonprofit – or the Internal Revenue Service.
Third, where possible, give to local or regional groups with an established record in Ukraine. Those organizations are usually better informed, are likely to stick around longer and have lower operational costs.
Finally, before volunteering your own time, make sure it makes sense for you to travel there. Unless you are personally invited, have training with trauma victims, and have appropriate language skills, it might be best to help from home. Volunteers from the United States can easily overwhelm the locals and distract from important priorities, such as helping refugees, displaced persons and those most affected by violence.
Poland, after all, is already hosting around 3 million Ukrainian refugees. The Poles hosting these refugees in their homes cannot handle the additional 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 it is they ought to be doing.
Caring individuals are central to creating a better system of giving internationally, but in wartime especially, good intentions are still not enough.
The crisis in Ukraine that has spilled across its borders has created an opportunity for me to see firsthand whether the grassroots humanitarians going there really should.
I will spend the summer of 2022 in Poland, teaming up with local researchers to see what the grassroots humanitarians flocking to Eastern Europe to help Ukrainians actually accomplish. I plan to return later in the year for another six months to assess the longer-term effects of this outpouring of well-meaning DIY aid.
Patrice McMahon is a co-principal investigator for a Polish Science Foundation grant funding research about civil society activism.
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