Working against the grain: the vilification of NGOs in Greece

At school, representatives from charities often came to speak on Friday morning assemblies. They spoke of fairtrade products, of Herculean fundraising feats, and of impoverishment villages needing our help. They exhorted us to take the harder path, to set aside personal ambitions and to work towards a higher and more universal vision.

And at such an early age, we were convinced.

In the UK, the charity sector is so big that we do not question it. From infancy to old age, we are bombarded by on a daily basis by adverts, appeals, causes, campaigns and calls to action. They reach us in newspapers and on the streets, through our inboxes, televisions and letterboxes, in charity shops and churches, synagogues and cinemas, mosques and music halls.

The UK is a success story of the institutionalisation of charitable giving.

And it feels so good. As donors, we’re offered a vast platter. From a thick menu of causes, we get to pick the one that matches our values most closely. Who we support and how we support is part of our identity. As we run our marathons, host coffee mornings and wear second-hand clothes, it’s not just the charity that stands to gain, but our own standing in society. We construct mutually-rewarding relationships with our chosen charities: with their brands, their work and their message.

But what’s it like outside this bubble?

For the past 3 years, I’ve worked with NGOs in one of the toughest areas in Greece. But working on the frontline with refugees, it isn’t secondary trauma, homesickness, or the chronic humanitarian crisis that tires me out. It’s working in a context where those who work with charities are vilified.

Take this video, released yesterday by the so-called Pentecostal Race Committee on the island of Chios, an outright attack on the work of NGOs (called ‘MKOs’ in Greek).

Accompanied by a slanderous article claiming charities falsely solicit money on Facebook and work in cahoots with political parties, the video is typical of a wider network that shares misinformation and stokes hostility.

What is true is that since 2015, NGOs and the voluntary sector have stepped in all across Greece, in an attempt to meet huge needs in protection, nutrition, WASH, education and legal support for refugees. This has brought thousands of people - experienced professionals and good-intentioned volunteers alike - to places like the Aegean islands.

Though our combined efforts have not been able to ‘fix’ the continuing humanitarian catastrophe, our work has safeguarded thousands of lives, bringing much-needed relief and upholding basic human rights.

This is not to say that our presence has been wholly positive. Far from it. For the small host communities on the Aegean islands, international aid workers and volunteers have changed the make-up of local society. They have driven up rent prices, overcrowded local houses and, often coming for just a few days or weeks, shown little sympathy to those unable to fly back home. There is widespread local resentment towards the white saviour complex of volunteers who can fly home and leave behind this tragic situation, whilst locals remain caught up in the crossfire between European politics and mass human migration.

But the vilification of NGOs is for the most part based on a series of incorrect assumptions and a lack of information. Many simply believe that too much money is spent on NGO services versus local services. They believe the presence of NGOs attracts yet more refugees to the islands. They believe that NGO staff are paid wildly high salaries. Finally, they decry NGOs for spreading an image of their islands that has destroyed tourism and in turn the economy over the past years.

Whilst there are strong rebuttals to all of these, as well as some truths, the real issue remains a lack of communication. Don’t get me wrong, over the years, I have become increasingly aware of the ill-informed and disrespectful work and behaviours of many from the NGO community. We are far from perfect. But our greatest mistake is the failure to establish positive and open communication with local communities. The combination of language barriers and short-term volunteering has bred mutual disinterest and social dislocation. This has torn at the very fabric of society.

How can we mend this rift? Or is it too late? As tensions only seem to rise, these are the questions that bring me down and can evaporate my positive mindset in minutes.

So to those among whom I live with love and respect, know this: that we are here to support not only asylum-seekers but also the local communities and their hospitals, schools, shops and public services that have been massively and unfairly overburdened by governmental and European abandonment.

But I cannot regret my work. Without the continuing efforts of charities and NGOs, thousands more lives would be at risk, tens of thousands of children would be living without protection, and the world would be blind to human rights abuses taking place on a daily basis.

As hard as it is, we are also here as witnesses to a historical atrocity.

So it is for these reasons that I hope to find common ground. I seek understanding and collaboration. So that together with local community and NGOs, who share a vision of dignified living and an end to a bankrupt system that has brought misery to hundreds of thousands of local people and asylum seekers.

But to get there, we can’t be afraid to start talking.