The Role of NGOs and their Effectiveness

By Sabina Gordon

With 65.8 million of the world’s population now being classed as refugees, it is evident that we are living in an increasingly complex world, characterised by dispersed border enforcement and rising statelessness. Given this, it is unsurprising that we have seen a greater involvement on behalf of NGOs in dealing with the refugee crisis, helping to monitor and advocate intergovernmental organisations all the while contributing directly through fieldwork. Whilst many praise NGOs for their functional ability however, my recent experience working for an NGO in Greece has forced me to question the efficiency and legitimacy of these participants in the realm of the civil society. Are NGOs the best actors to deal with this crisis? What support do they need?

Picture’s taken by Sabina whilst volunteering | Sabina Gordon

Inspired by my study of development economics, I applied this summer to work for the Swiss NGO FoodKind, a humanitarian organisation which aims to provide food and compassion to those who are food insecure and whose basic human rights are not being met. When I initially started, FoodKind were based in Patras, Greece’s third largest city and home to the largest port in Western Greece. Our daily routine consisted of chopping, cooking and distributing food to the refugees, most of whom lived in abandoned factories near the main port and in the brush running parallel to the train tracks, an area referred to as ‘the Jungle’.

Whilst persistent news headlines revealing the precarious nature of those affected by the refugee crisis had prepared me somewhat for what I was to see, it was not until my first distribution run to the factories that I understood the gravity of their situation. Crawling through a small hole in the fence to get into the factory, it became clear that these men were lacking all basic facilities. Drinking water came from a small stream running through the factory and they were sleeping in cold, damp conditions on the floor. Their immense gratitude towards us, as we gave them 2 prepared meals, highlighted further the extent of their deprivation and their reliance on FoodKind to live day to day. When they were told by the coordinator that the NGO was thinking of relocating, the men all grew very concerned, asking several questions regarding the plans being made for them. What so many Westerners take for granted as an inevitable security, these men were fighting for every day.

Picture’s taken by Sabina whilst volunteering | Sabina Gordon

In this respect, the role of a NGO was necessary in supporting these men, providing basic freedoms in areas where the Greek government could not. It was not until on the last distribution before our relocation where I questioned the extent of this support. I sat with one of the volunteers for DocMobile, a medical charity associated with FoodKind, as she attended to the refugees’ various illnesses. Suddenly, a couple loud slams from one of the rooms and the refugees began sprinting in masses to the furthest side of the factory, fleeing into tight corners and spaces to hide. The police had stormed in, attempting to arrest some of the men.

It was then when it occurred to me the instability and volatility of these refugees’ lives. Whilst food aid was necessary for these men to live, the freedoms they continued to lack despite our support was immense. With no status in Greece, none of the refugees could earn incomes for themselves, trapped in this cycle of dependency. This fuelled greater hostility between the refugees, taking away purpose from their lives and forcing them to sit idle, waiting for their uncertain future. Almost every day we would hear of stories of the refugees trying to get arrested just so they could go back to Athens for a couple days before being returned to this intermediary zone – a desperate plight for something to do.

Picture’s taken by Sabina whilst volunteering | Sabina Gordon

Thus, whilst I deem food aid important, I find some NGOs role in supporting these men somewhat limited. Seeing development as freedom, rather than material goods and economic standings, reveals the severe poverty in which these men are living. This is made worse by the fact that most of the victims of this crisis led flourishing lives before, thus holding an understanding of their potential and making their current situation even more insufferable. This is not to say that NGOs work in these situations are redundant, however. Not only do they provide the refugees with basic abilities to live, they generate an atmosphere of hope and support. Success often feeds on itself and when a situation improves, beliefs and behaviours of the men are affected also. In this regard, NGOs such as FoodKind do well in starting a virtuous cycle for the men. After several difficult conversations I had with the refugees, aggressively miming common interests to each other as language stood in our way, I realised the value that these men found in simply having the opportunity to speak to other people; understanding that there was hope.

In terms of moving forward in the refugee crisis, a more holistic approach needs to be formed, helping NGOs, the government and intergovernmental organisations to work together. Our relocation to Oinafyta camp highlighted this strongly. What the International Organisation for Migration lacked for in creativity and compassion, NGOs made up for. What NGOs lacked in efficiency and material resources, governments, not just the Greek, have potential to intervene. Different strengths need to be drawn on to transfer these refugees from helpless prisoners to active and integrated participants.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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