Do-It-Yourself Aid: Refugees and a Humanitarian Revolution

Do-It-Yourself Aid: Refugees and a Humanitarian Revolution

By Laura Secorun Palet


Because some actual good could come of this tragedy.

By Laura Secorun Palet

In late December, 50 terrified refugees were stranded on an island off the Greek coast after their boat wrecked. One of them managed to make a phone call, and a few hours later, they were rescued by the coast guard. The call hadn’t been to the coast guard, though, but to a small Berlin-based humanitarian startup you’ve likely never heard of. 

Alarm Phone didn’t even exist a year ago; today, it receives dozens of distress calls every day from boats attempting to cross the Mediterranean border. The company then contacts local search and rescue authorities. And it’s just one of a growing group of humanitarian startups helping migrants reach Europe safely. This DIY, grassroots response to the refugee crisis has given birth to everything from crowdsourced phrase books to emergency apps and bitcoin fundraising. It could even represent a shift in the way we approach humanitarian crises, says Gilles Carbonnier, a professor of international economics at the Graduate Institute of Geneva.

The debate about aid efficiency (or lack thereof) has been brewing for years. Yet, Carbonnier says, it’s the drama and urgency of the Syrian refugee crisis that may have finally set things in motion. A million souls arrived in Europe last year, but both established international nongovernmental organizations and local administrations were just scraping by to meet the most basic needs of newcomers. That created “a strong sense of frustration for people,” says Peter Hofstee. The 27-year-old Dutch graduate in international relations is creating a time bank to incentivize volunteers, allowing people to gift their time and skills instead of a check to refugees. “Giving money is just not enough anymore,” he says. “People crave a more personal interaction, and they want to see the results firsthand.”

There’s good to be done beyond collecting canned food, signatures and donations. Take Refugees Welcome, an initiative that pairs refugees with spare rooms.

For a new generation of tech-savvy, entrepreneurial minds, slow, bureaucratic humanitarian organizations look like inefficient dinosaurs. After all, techies know how to leverage the speed and flexibility of the digital era. Hofstee’s venture, for one, began as an impromptu meeting at his co-working space in Barcelona, Spain. Someone said they had to do something about the refugee situation, and a couple of months later, a team of 30 (all with other jobs as designers, writers or coders) has got a site called Beta Bank nearly ready to go and a long list of conventional NGOs interested in the service.

Digital disrupters are also changing the fundraising game. While big NGOs still place ads showing the fear-stricken faces of children on buses, many benefactors are opting for crowdfunding money to give directly to refugees. And that may actually work better. According to Canada’s Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, more than half of privately sponsored refugees reported earnings in their first year in Canada, compared with 14 percent of government-assisted refugees. Large players are starting to take notice, and to copy. In October, the powerful U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees took to Kickstarter — a platform better known for sponsoring sci-fi gadgets and obscure board games — to crowdfund $1.7 million in aid for refugees.

But there’s good to be done beyond collecting canned food, signatures and donations. Take Refugees Welcome, an initiative that pairs refugees with spare rooms. “We are not a humanitarian organization,” insists Monika Prończuk, head of the initiative in Poland. The goal, she says, isn’t to just help by giving refugees free services, but to “connect and empower people,” which, she says, not only helps refugees integrate but also helps host communities fight bigotry.

There is some risk to the free-for-all-to-help approach. Maybe the grassroots initiatives and homegrown heroes are overlapping efforts with or diverting funds from larger institutions that could make a bigger, broader impact. Humanitarian work requires training, experience and sensitivity — otherwise, “aid may not reach those families who most need it, or even end up in the wrong hands altogether,” says Ariane Rummery, an UNHCR spokeswoman.

And there are also many things these young, tech-savvy organizations still can’t do, like effectively lobby governments to open borders, or organize blanket distribution for hundreds of thousands of people. That’s why, Carbonnier argues, the best-case scenario is not one in which big NGOs are replaced, but one in which they collaborate with these smaller, more agile agents and learn from them. UNHCR and Doctors Without Borders are already doing that, with efforts to discover and integrate better, tech-savvier ways to do what they’ve done for decades. “Some of the grassroots innovations show incredible promise,” Rummery acknowledges. A promise, she says, the world can’t afford to ignore.