Prawa autorskie: Marcin Stepien / Agencja Wyborcza.plMarcin Stepien / Age...

Publikujemy angielskie tłumaczenie tekstu Agnieszki Jędrzejczyk: „Jak wspierać pomagających w kryzysach humanitarnych: polska lekcja dla świata".

When a humanitarian crisis erupts somewhere in the world, the governments of the affluent countries, UN agencies and large aid organizations look for local NGOs to handle humanitarian or refugee aid. They also identify the appropriate local government institutions – and provide aid.

Sensible? Not always.

This is well illustrated by the Polish example of aid to the refugees from Ukraine

Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing from Putin’s war have received aid in Poland, but not from the government and not from specialized large aid organizations. Because these have not yet managed to spread their wings with regard to cooperation with those who have already acted. Meanwhile, as confirmed by activists, the local authorities were in no hurry to organize aid in many places, because the voivods (government representatives in the field) claimed they would handle it.

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People on site with no experience are helping

The aid campaign was therefore organized from the bottom up. This was done by groups of citizens, organizations and initiatives that knew how to organize themselves to take action. These people had learned this because they had been involved in public matters before Putin’s war. They had been solving local problems, but also organized themselves in defence of the rule of law, women’s rights, refugees and LGBT+ people. This is why many of the activists were in the crosshairs of the authorities and experienced harassment. So they certainly could not expect support from the government. Meanwhile, global aid organizations did not see them.

This phenomenon was written up by OKO.press in a report prepared in the project entitled ‘In the crosshairs’: aid to Ukraine was organized in defiance of the authorities and despite government harassment of the activists.

‘The Polish example now gives people a lot to think about. It is resounding because of the scale of the bottom-up organization and its effectiveness. It reveals the general problem: in humanitarian crises, aid from around the world does not come to those who will make the best use of it, because they are outside the system – formally, they have no experience with humanitarian aid and working with refugees,’ says Marta Lempart, leader of the All-Poland Women’s Strike.

The Women’s Strike network saw the problem

The Women’s Strike is a special network because it is locally rooted but centrally supported. And although it does not specialize in humanitarian aid, it rapidly organized such aid for Ukraine and co-organized it at more than 50 refugee aid centres. The ‘Headquarters’ went into action to find the funding needed to provide aid on this scale – and opened its own aid centre in Warsaw at ul. Wiejska. These centres were staffed by hundreds of volunteers – also largely without any previous experience of helping refugees.

That is why the Women’s Strike is using its example in the battle to change approaches, globally.

‘I’ve just spent a week in New York with a delegation from Action Aid, as part of the UN Women/ Peace/ Security week – talking to government representatives and global networks and organizations to make them aware of this. Support for national and local bottom-up initiatives that have become involved in humanitarian aid during a military crisis, even though they had previously been doing something else, should be the rule. And not the exception, to which the governments, institutions and sponsors financing these organizations graciously acquiesce,’ says Marta Lempart.

‘After all, when such a crisis breaks out in a country like Poland, there is no organization on site, on the scale that is needed, which specializes in providing humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees. Meanwhile, the state is late and – as is the case in Poland – offers limited assistance or just lies that it is providing it. Poland has become an excellent example that genuine, well-diagnosed aid that is adapted to the needs of the refugees is organized from the bottom up. By organizations and groups that were previously involved with other matters, regardless of what they have in their statutes. And regardless of whether or not they are registered at all.’

Two months to convince donors and sponsors

Marta Lempart says the Women’s Strike network was selected by the global ActionAid NGO (a federation of 45 country offices, which works with local communities). After Putin’s attack on Ukraine, ActionAid’s staff started to identify groups providing aid to refugees in Poland. They supported the Strike and its aid centres.

But ActionAid’s activities were not standard. So, in deciding to support the Women’s Strike network, the organization had to convince its donors and sponsors that this method of providing aid was good, effective and risk-free.

‘It took ActionAid two months – of asking, convincing, finding a way – to activate a second round of funding for the Women’s Strike network. Negotiating with their donors. But the Women’s Strike is a large enough network that we were able to wait. We moved our other funds to help Ukraine. We took a risk. And on top of what we received for local aid support for Ukraine from ActionAid and from IPPF, we raised the same amount again through our Ukraine collection (that was a total of almost a million zlotys). But we are the privileged exception – so this situation is simultaneously fortunate and scandalous.

Smaller, only local NGOs, unregistered collectives, which are not in a larger network, have no chance. Global aid organizations won’t find them, or they will find them, but they will be unable to fight for them – and, after all, it’s on their shoulders that the biggest burden of aid rests,’ says Lempart. And adds:

‘This has to change now. Throughout the world. The Polish example is perfectly suited for this.

The scale of aid provided to Ukraine in Poland helps people providing humanitarian aid at global level to understand the problem. The local spurt, as well as the knowledge and competence of local organizations, initiatives, collectives and groups, is what is important. Meanwhile, they are currently ‘outside the system’. Not only do they have no chance of receiving financial support, but they won’t get all the logistical and organizational support that is needed in humanitarian crises.’

The world needs to understand that it is possible to provide aid more effectively

Agnieszka Jędrzejczyk, OKO.press: And that’s why we are now receiving information that local activists are at the limit of their endurance. They are exhausted by the work, stress and knowledge that no one will help them – and there is a shortage of aid for refugees, because donations for them are no longer flowing as strongly as in the spring. It’s expensive, there’s a crisis and no one has any strength left.

Marta Lempart: Aid organized in this way, with the awareness of a terrible war being waged next door, based on heroism and the assumption that we have to endure, cannot be dragged out for long. In the fear that there is no money or there will soon to be no money to provide it. This is not just a Polish problem. The global aid system has defective mechanisms for supporting local partners. It targets national organizations with experience in humanitarian aid – and if it targets local organizations, it chooses those that are already formally in the system.

The principle of localism in humanitarian aid obviously exists in the global system. But it isn’t implemented in practice. Unfortunately, it has become accepted that reality is reality, work is work, results are results, but still, specialization in humanitarian/refugee aid and years of experience in this area are necessary. Facts cannot obstruct the official path.

Well, and knowledge of English. Because all the materials are in English, instead of the language of the country where everything is happening.

It’s true, the nature of humanitarian crises requires international cooperation. That’s why people in organizations providing such aid speak English. But just think, how many of the local activists who have hurried to help Ukraine in Poland know English well enough to go on training courses in English after work – and after being on aid duty?

The knowledge of how to help must be passed on in the local languages! But meanwhile, we have paragraph 22 – local collectives cannot enter the support system because they do not have trained resources. Training support is offered to them, but only in English. They don’t take advantage of this – and this enables them to be excluded from the support. Because they don’t satisfy the conditions! But the most important thing is that everything is correct in the table. And yes, this training is crucial – I agree with that. But this should be a problem that can be solved and not an accusation and an argument to leave anyone at all without support in their activities!

And if there is no training?

Then the situation becomes really dangerous. Local groups and organizations solve many difficult issues. But humanitarian aid in times of war is another thing altogether.

People with refugee experience can be and often are traumatized. If you don’t know how post-traumatic stress manifests itself, if you aren’t trained, even to a minimum extent, then you aren’t prepared for specific behaviour – which you will assess as being incomprehensible, unacceptable and frustrating.

If you don’t have any support in your work with your ideas about your role as an aid worker or, more importantly, with myths about what aid workers should look like or how they should behave, then there is a huge risk that this will come out uncontrollably. You start to tell the outside world about it and your frustration, your story becomes a leading argument for opponents of the aid. ‘The cousin who works at the aid centre.’ This is a slowly increasing, deferred disaster. We are treading on very thin ice.

The sponsors are afraid of these situations, which is why they target professionalized organizations. Because the people there know how to cope with such situations. But there is another way of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater today – to train volunteers to cope with stress. Starting with the simple procedure of not telling third parties what happens at the aid centre. We talk about it in the support group, we work through it. And that is true of everything you need to know. Just that it has to be organized.

Aid centres were often based on the work of people who, after a full day of ‘regular’ work and housekeeping, would then go to the centre for 12 hours at night – because people in need were there. And so it went on day after day. The OKO.press report shows that, after eight months of work, the Polish civic society is at its limit. People are not coping.

The response of the Women’s Strike network to this is the Psychoemergency service for the aid workers, which has already encompassed further areas. But in order to reach out for such help, people have to know they are experiencing a crisis – and, by then, it is usually late. So a system needs to be developed which, in such situations, for example, makes financial support conditional on the volunteers being trained and having compulsory support groups, consultations with therapists (with dates to choose from), and if not – they go on an obligatory break for a month. This can be done.

People have to know how much they can do – because you can help precisely so much. No more.

But how can this be changed?

We are living in a world in which procedures are thought up to make it easier and more convenient for donors. This is pointless, because the result is that the aid efforts are wasted. The people involved in this know this perfectly well.

I still remember it from my work at PFRON (the State Fund for the Rehabilitation of Disabled People). The system was rigid, supporting mainly a few dozen of the largest organizations. However, the government (PO-PSL) allowed changes to be made, which I was fortunate enough to introduce: decentralized and simple criteria for collecting applications, the assessment of applications by experts, an important role for local branches of the Fund (this was their great achievement, I will never understand why they don’t boast about it).

Suddenly, it became possible to support 500 organizations. Almost 1,000 initiatives in a single tender! Including such tiny, local ones – e.g. organizing hippotherapy for autistic kids, created by the parents themselves. Previously, they would never have had the opportunity to receive such support. Not only that – for me, this is the key argument against all the statements that ‘it can’t be done’. PFRON is a government institution – but, contrary to popular belief, there were people there who knew how to change it all; it was enough to let them work. If it worked there, such a change can be introduced everywhere.

We need a similar change at global level. There are people in the aid organizations who know how to do this. Action Aid is precisely one of the examples.

We, in the Women’s Strike network, also went through such a process – when there was little money, there was no problem, everything was based on trust. And when a lot more appeared – we tried to put a system in place and it was a disaster. In theory, it was all very simple and as flexible as possible, and we thought everything was OK; it seemed fair, but we found out that nevertheless, for the people, it had the features of this philanthropic clientelism. That the perception is such that you have to keep asking until someone graciously decides to give.

I’m ashamed of that now; the first edition was a failure in this respect. Not in terms of organizational or formal issues, but in terms of our core values. Fortunately, successive editions of our Campaign Fund – because that’s what it’s all about – are satisfying the principle at stake, namely that money is collective and we share it. And not that there is some divine it, which graciously gives someone something. We’ve changed the system: we assess the financial needs that are submitted functionally and not formally. The rules are clear and quite simple. Settlements are based on stating what has been done.

In order to convince people to make the changes, it’s very important to precisely describe the Polish example. Not that ‘Poland helped’ or ‘the Polish government helped’ (because the latter is simply a lie). But it is also insufficient to use the common term referred to as ‘the people helped’. Such a collective, vague entity makes the situation easier for those who do not want change. The argument in its favour is that, after all, specific initiatives, neighbourhood groups and organizations have taken to provide aid in Poland. Local collectives that had not previously been providing humanitarian aid.

The Women’s Strike’s network of aid for Ukraine was huge. Some activists told us they were postponing or slowing down ‘strike’ projects to transfer their efforts to helping Ukraine.

So a problem appeared for our traditional donors. How do we account for what we are doing: because if we support mothers from Ukraine with nappies, does that qualify as support for women or refugee aid? And if we are providing menstrual products there – then what? Are we fighting menstrual poverty or supporting victims of war?

We managed to convince the International Planned Parenthood Federation that it was worth financing a ‘piece of the war’ as part of our collective aid for women. And they convinced their sponsors.

Well, fine, but if aid for refugees goes through organizations that have a profile that differs from humanitarian aid, there could be trouble. Women’s Strike activists told me that they sometimes have to limit their ‘strike’ activities so as not to irritate local partners. They don’t flaunt ‘strike’ symbols or display Women’s Strike information materials. So you can’t simultaneously help Ukrainian women and women in need of abortions or victims of domestic violence – one rules out the other. So perhaps the objections of your donors are valid?

The girls from the Women’s Strike are very strongly rooted locally. This is the essence of the strength of organizations created locally and operating locally. I sometimes think some of us acting locally underestimate our strength. We are the ones to who people come when they have a problem. Any problem. Local communities don’t classify life according to the types of NGO activity. So they come even if the Women’s Strike clashes with their thoughts.

One thing needs to be developed: we are not here to be liked by everyone. We are here to do something important and meaningful. In doing so, we can work with others not only through shared values, but also with the use of language of mutual benefit. The results that are achieved.

We are constantly ensuring that there are Abortion Dream Team leaflets at the aid centres supported by the Women’s Strike for Ukraine. That there is information for women on what to do if they are victims of violence (as part of the Fellow-Neighbours project). That there would be psychological support – for volunteers and for refugees.

War and humanitarian crises don’t happen far from such things – I think that’s clear. And we don’t forget what we’re fighting for. For everything.

Agnieszka Jędrzejczyk

Z wykształcenia historyczka. Od 1989 do 2011 r. reporterka sejmowa, a potem redaktorka w „Gazecie Wyborczej”, do grudnia 2015 r. - w administracji rządowej (w zespołach, które przygotowały nową ustawę o zbiórkach publicznych i zmieniły – na krótko – zasady konsultacji publicznych). Do lipca 2021 r. w Biurze Rzecznika Praw Obywatelskich. Laureatka Pióra Nadziei 2022