My experience with NGOs and “institutionalized” Help

In the past I have spoken a bit harshly about Ngos. I intend to keep it that way. I suspect that the last thing the human species needs right now is somebody to pick up the pieces. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t support turning a blind eye to pain, loss, or grief. Quite the opposite. I just think that the whole concept of humanity and humanitarian action can no longer be isolated in strict institutional frameworks, manipulated as a political instrument to keep things on an even keel.

Personal virtue, morals, kindness and integrity. These are principles that do not interest anyone anymore in politics or in most professions as a matter of fact. Somehow they are seen as dated principles, linked to dying religious beliefs and truth is they carry an innuendo of embarrassment as well. Yes, embarrassment, because kindness is seen as a form of weakness. Try writing in a job application Cover Letter something like “I am an honest or just person” instead of the equivalent of “I am a corporate slave”. You don’t like where this is going? Ok, let’s move on.

My experience working for a prominent Greek NGO which in this blog I call The Public Sector for obvious reasons has been an interesting one. Its rampant bureaucracy and shocking deliberate isolation had created a surreal Orwellian landscape where extremes of Kindness and Evil existed side by side, making no pretenses. At the same time there was a total absence of grey zones in which a somehow healthy, productive, professional environment can contain the beast inside of us. In there you were likely to meet the most benevolent souls, often ordered around by the ones whose personal demons had found the most fertile ground to run wild.

The good people you met in there were almost definitely good by nature, and their goodness in this restrained and isolated environment was maximized perhaps analogically to the levels of the inhumanity of others. These kind people were kind in all aspects of their lives and obviously treated their friends, spouses and colleagues with respect. Their work helping people in this sense never ended. It was not a mission, a project or a plan but essentially a way of life.

I am thinking that, in fact, this is the only way to go ahead. You simply cannot “help” people 9-5. You can certainly try, but in the long run will not get very far. And once you try to institutionalize kindness, compassion and humanity then you are more likely part of a society that has devalued humanitarian principles.

Another simple example can be drawn from my experience in first world Sweden. A few months living there and I took up a Language Volunteer role for an Ngo helping Immigrants coming from EU countries.(not necessarily EU citizens). At that time, despite my legal rights as the wife of someone who worked full time in Sweden, the bureaucracy was preventing me for months from getting a Personal Number. (The Holy Grail of Survival in Sweden).The majority of Language Volunteers had similar profiles and stories to share: they were mostly well educated multilingual South European (and not only) women who had moved in Sweden to be with someone, either that someone was a husband, a boyfriend or family in general.

They all had more or less the same legal issues that caused great frustration and strain in their lives and relationships. In fact, many of them were not much better off from the immigrants visiting the Center to get food, shelter, clothing, Internet, Communication and legal advice. However what they needed most was a piece of solid legal advice about their pending cases and the shady laws that supposedly covered their rights as EU citizens. I for example turned to the Human Rights lawyer in the Center to ask a simple routine question about how I can deal with my inexplicably pending case. Instead I received no reply. The irony was that, as volunteers, we were asked to perform a number of such phone calls to help visitors to the Center. But we could not get further support for our own cases if we did not give up our status as volunteers and instead ask support as immigrants. Instead we were strongly encouraged every week to attend Free Counseling that was offered to all volunteers. Ironically, venting about our problems for an hour every Tuesday was fully funded and guideline approved, while getting a 5 minute practical advice about how to solve them was not.

Which leads me again to where I started. Personal virtue, morals, kindness and integrity. Can you really be humanitarian by the book? Or does the sole act of helping others conflict with the way our whole system works? Education, experience, planning, funding are always very important. But they are useless when people-leaders especially- lack charisma and integrity.

I don’t object to systematic efforts. But please bring Goodness back in the field and people who genuinely want to help others.

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