Last August I gave up my apartment in Switzerland to travel to Lesvos by motorbike. The plan was to visit NGOs on the way and find out what kind of new applications, i.e. digital services, could support NGO activities. The idea behind: even if a new app will just increase efficiency by a few percentages, the total gain when all NGO use it will be substantial.
I do not see my work as a particularly heroic activity compared to other grass root work – especially in the light that I am well funded. Mostly it means observing for some time and then sitting in a cafe, sipping cappuccino and putting the idea into code. It is a contribution that can improve the situation.
The first digital service I coded was a volunteer management system. Until now, not one single organisation uses it. To me it looked like that any organisation I talked to just did not find it sexy enough to use it. People want to be the “cool-gang” and for them such stylish tool just does not fit into their self-perception. They rather use an excel sheet …
My next project was the QR code system to help distribution. Each refugee would receive a card with a unique QR code. With that card the refugee could get food, goods from a warehouse, have appointments, etc. The benefit: No more excel sheets to keep track of what people got, cross-cooperation between warehouses (one warehouse would know what the other distributed), easy handling (just a cellphone to scan the cards), less fraud, etc.
Now, in my extreme naivete I expected that every NGO would be pleased that someone helps them in their effort to help. Reality could not be more different. People – that means volunteers in key positions like leaders/heads – were not even willing to talk to me! Even an relaxed conversation to coordinate my efforts to the real needs was possible. Such a talk could happen during an evening meal in a restaurant, during a coffee break or just anywhere. It takes less than an hour. Even half an hour would have been fine. Wrong! I could not get people even for this first stage.
I sent the proposals in digital form, too. People did not read it but claimed they did. When I spoke to them a few weeks later – after they had rejected the proposal already – they had no clue about it at all!
I tried to speak to one guy with pretty good reputation. He just finished an interview with a newspaper or magazine. Instead of listening for just under ten minutes, he shouted at me how useless I was and that there were hundreds like me. Well, instead of five minutes listening five minutes shouting might be more pleasurable.
Like that it continued. A day care centre rejected the project twice on flimsy grounds and they still – nine month after the initial offer – need about seven people for their distribution every single day. The QR system would need only one person – and no extra gas stove in winter so that volunteers do not freeze the fingers typing numbers to check if the refugee showing his police paper is entitled to receive …
Volunteering looks to me more and more like an ego-game where importance, fame and sex-appeal are the only things that drives them. Cooperation, mutual respect, including people and their work whenever possible, efficiency in the sense that giving tasks away to other that can do it better, etc. seem to be alien traits in this world. But exactly these qualities are needed to help and make a difference. It is the inclusion of people, the adaption to one another, the mutual respect for each other and one's work that creates a supportive whole that is greater than the individual. No single NGO and even less no single individual can bring the needed relief to the refugees alone. If cooperation is not given the priority it deserves and each NGO and each volunteer is just looking for personal gratification and fame the stated goal of supporting refugees will not be served. Volunteering will become an ego-game for narcissists before it collapses entirely.
I have definitely enough!
Hopefully others can change the game …
1 Visiting good restaurants was another part of the trip.
2 To his credit, it was not an informed decision he made: he had not the slightest idea about the project itself.