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What Grassroots Groups Can Teach Us About Smart Aid

The refugee response in Greece has been a breeding ground for smart and small volunteer groups. Joanna Theodorou has been mapping the best of them and capturing lessons learned.

Written by Joanna Theodorou Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Poor, homeless, unemployed and migrant people wait for their laundry to be done in central Athens.LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

Given the clean white space with rows of hangers and neatly folded jumpers, it is only when visitors reach the front desk and a volunteer asks for a container number that you are reminded you are not in a clothing store.

Drop Shop is in the middle of a refugee camp in Greece, home to hundreds of Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and other nationalities. The volunteer-run clothing center is a dignified alternative to the jumbled-up giveaways that have for so long been the norm in camps. There are no half-opened cardboard boxes for people to dig through, no queues, and no volunteers shoving clothing packs out of distribution windows.

A Drop in the Ocean, a non-governmental organization, designed the Drop Shop, which gives camp residents points to spend on their chosen items that are then logged on a digital system. The system is supported by Drop App, a digital logbook tracking stock levels. The inventory is relayed back to donors who can then gauge future donations.

Aid that acts as a constant reminder of people’s hardship is unfortunately commonplace. But in Greece, which was the center of global attention thanks to large movements of people in 2015, we are seeing adapted models that place efficiency at the service of dignity while redefining who can be an aid provider.

What many of these organizations have in common is that their teams are small and smart. They include volunteer projects, small nonprofit organizations and refugee-led initiatives. The projects’ size and their closeness to the situation on the ground are their main advantages, as they allow more direct contact and adaptability to conditions.

At Campfire Innovation, set up three years ago like so many of the grassroots movements we monitor and support, we have sought to catalogue the commonalities among teams showing impact, consistency and creativity. We identified four main characteristics that define what we are calling “smart aid.”

  • Empowerment: Including the voices of refugees in designing services, ensuring choice and providing tools that allow them to restart their lives rather than rely on services.
  • Modest resources: Finding ways to provide the core services and achieve dignified conditions with limited resources.
  • Develop simple and sustainable processes: Ensure the service can be provided consistently in the long term by creating processes such as training, fundraising and operations that maintain the service.
  • Specialization and collaboration: Focusing on the strengths of the team by specializing and avoiding duplication through collaboration.

Teams that meet these criteria can be found in Greece across all fields, from search and rescue to education and psycho-social support. Here are a few:

Habibi.Works: A “makerspace” set up in the middle of the Greek countryside adjacent to a refugee camp and providing skills-development programs ranging from pottery to 3-D printing, all based on the preferences and feedback of their users.

No Border School: A collective specializing in teaching and curriculum development for adults. They do not operate out of a specific location but instead partner up with organizations wanting to develop an education program and take on the task.

Dirty Girls of Lesvos: Combining environmentalism and humanitarian aid, Dirty Girls have salvaged over 600 tons of blankets and clothing from the landfill. Professionally laundering and reusing them instead ensures constant availability of key items, culturally appropriate clothing and an estimated $1 million in savings.

It is widely known that in 2015 roughly 1 million asylum seekers entered Greece. What is less understood is that thousands of volunteers and small independent projects also came to Greece to help refugees and the country itself meet the challenge.

The majority of volunteers had limited field experience so they often leveraged relevant skills from other fields. Greece, a European country more familiar and easily accessible for most of them, made it easier to join the efforts. The large stream of volunteers, pressurized circumstances and mobilization of donations combined with people bringing nontraditional humanitarian aid led to the creation of a host of small and smart projects.

Campfire Innovation was born from this grassroots movement. We were inspired by how the sense of community and solidarity sparked solutions. We saw the innovation and intent shared by volunteers huddled around fires on lookout spots on the island of Lesvos and sharing meals with refugees in the chaotic encampment at Idomeni on Greece’s northern border.

Our mission early on was to showcase these rising role models. Over time we have have developed into something that resembles what tech startups call an “accelerator.” We have shifted from defining smart aid to identifying the hurdles teams face and providing those teams with tools and resources to overcome them, such as support with accounting, developing internal processes and opportunities for visibility.

Growing the capacity of small organizations is more important than ever. In Greece the historic emergency is over but more than 50,000 asylum seekers remain. Each month new arrivals touch 2,000 and challenges around integration and employability abound. Since the peak of the crisis, large international aid organizations were the focal point of refugee assistance, with 190 million euros of the 385 million euros allocated by the E.U. to the U.N. refugee agency and large international NGOs.

From here on, financing will increasingly be channeled to the Greek state and local authorities. This transition makes it possible and imperative for smaller organizations to play an active part alongside Greek authorities.

Smart and small organizations now have a track record of achievement and a network of more than 1,000 active volunteers and activities that stretch right across Greece.

We are focused on these priority areas: collaborating locally, and communication and transparency. Cooperation between volunteer organizations and local government hasn’t always been smooth; it can be a lot easier to collaborate at a local scale. Meanwhile, for collaboration to happen we need to see clearer communication of plans on the part of the government. Grassroots organizations are good at thinking on their feet but even better if they can clearly see where the gaps are.

The grassroots community in Greece has bred some stand-out examples and shown us the incredible value of small and smart organizations and their tremendous potential for innovation. But there are many more across the world that display similar characteristics. Their models and solutions can inspire others, including larger international NGOs, to innovate. They can be valuable local partners and improve the lives of many thousands of people.

These projects are in their early stages, striving to develop just as they are continuously providing support to vulnerable people. The only way for that new form of innovation and these new actors to develop is by investing time and resources to developing their organizational capacity and structure. Otherwise, we risk seeing too few of these examples reach their potential at a time when innovative thinking and new solutions are needed more than ever.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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