Volunteering is ineffective and inefficient (but you should still do it)

Volunteering is ineffective and inefficient (but you should still do it)

As a consultant I help advise organizations about their operations by questioning their effectiveness and efficiency. In other words, are they doing the right thing and are they doing that thing right? I just can’t help but questioning volunteering in the same way.


Let me start by analysing what the problem is we are providing help for. The problem essentially is the human thing. People fleeing their countries for reasons I can understand, may it be hunger, war or oppression. The solution we should be looking for is how to make sure those people want to stay there. We could make some great efforts in paying proper prices to fair organizations for products such as coffee, cloths and diamonds, thus enabling proper wages. We could stop providing weapons to countries that use them to shoot their children, thus enabling a safer environment. We could stop buying oil from corrupt regimes that will use the money to oppress their citizens, thus enabling free thinkers. But we don’t do any of those things. It costs us too much money.


And so we are left looking at the second best solution. Making sure the people can go to the nearest safe place and return when they feel the conditions have improved. The problem here is these countries are not safe either; they are struggling with wars themselves or have already taken in more than they can handle. The situation here is still hopeless, I cannot blame anyone from moving on further. But we can help. We could give financial aid to countries, which is invested in camps where people have a chance of making a living, children can go to school and there is a future. We could bust the smuggler networks making millions on illegal passages. We do none of that, it take too much time.


Instead we try to stop the people, literally. We fund the country that arrests refugees trying to get to safer places. We fund the country that deliberately let’s people drown and even aids them by stabbing their boats or firing water cannons at them. We send troops to their borders stopping illegal passages and we fund barbed wire fences. Whichever is the cheapest and stops the problem from heading our way. Perhaps we have forgotten our own history?


And even worse, this is not solving the problem. People still are heading our way to apply for asylum in places where they can sleep soundly at night. And this is where I come in, helping them provide a safe passage to set foot in Europe. I feel angry; I wish there was no need for me. Yet I am needed and I want to make it work in the best way possible.


When volunteering around the Greek islands there are several ways to help out. Organisations have specialized in rescuing people on water, providing medical care, distributing food and cloths, building shelters or assisting in the administrative process. So are we doing the right thing and this thing right? Well not exactly.


When looking at rescues from a logistics point of view, there are solutions which are much more effective. I’d define effective as getting people safely into Europe. Why don’t we allow the people to board ferries? Why don’t we send them good boats and life jackets? Why don’t we ride along with them and show them a safe passage? Why don’t we hand out our numbers so they can call us in case of emergencies? It’s illegal.



I would argue making rescue missions obsolete would also be much more efficient. I’d define efficient as getting people into Europe at the lowest costs possible. What if we could save the money that goes into rescuing people, big marine vessels and coast guard ships working non-stop? What if we could save the money that gets lost to smugglers, which could be used by people to buy their own shelter and food? What if we did not need the many volunteers watching the water every day and they could be at home working? What if nobody ends up being traumatized, losing relatives or getting sick during the crossing? We would all win.


Even on a smaller scale there is so much inefficiency that working here can become really discouraging. At the three boat landings I have witnessed so far there were an average of 9 different organizations. Some had specific tasks, some wore uniforms and some had received training. And there were others who came in for two days, made selfies with babies and left again. I’ve seen a man film the entire landing, completely unaware that he was standing in the way. I’ve witnessed a woman grabbing a child and walking away from the boat. The kid lost eye contact with his mother and started crying uncontrollably. I saw volunteers wrapping emergency blankets around people as if it were magic capes. And there are organizations handing out croissants when refugees have to take a bumpy bus ride just minutes later. Mostly the busses end up full of vomit. As discouraging as it may be, it might still be a good thing. The selfies get shared on Facebook, the film is shown in their home country and they all are people who have the kindness in their hearts to want to help.



Sometimes, after getting up at 5 A.M. and a futile 6 hour watch shift, I ask myself why I am here and I remember one specific story. An elderly lady born in 1944 in Berlin told me she was born hopeless, the youngest of 8 children to a single mother. There were great famines and poor babies just died; she was never supposed to live. But she did because every time when was on the verge of collapsing a stranger donated some milk. If not for that drop of milk, she might not have stood here today. So I just keep on going and help, one drop at a time.

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