The complexities of hope: writing about volunteering at Lesvos

This post is part of a series linked to the workshop “Assessing the Anthropology of Humanitarianism: Ethnography, Impact, Critique”.


“We will bring you to safety” an American 23 year old woman tells an Afghan woman who lives with her children in Moria Camp. Moria Refugee camp, located on the Greek island of Lesvos, is built for 2 000 people but today hosts around 7 – 9 000 people. The Afghan mother is two months pregnant and has taken a long journey to reach Europe. A journey which now has reached a state of indefinite waiting at Lesvos due to the containment policy of the EU and the Turkish – EU deal. Asylum seekers who reach the island, regularly on small floating boats from the Turkish shore, are usually not allowed to leave it before their asylum application has been processed. The Afghan woman speaks little to no English and has turned up for the Mini drops – a new offer for children and women that the NGO “Drops in the Ocean” has set up in a rented house in Moria village, a village close to the camp. Volunteers from the Drops in the Ocean were at the camp’s gate at 5pm as promised to take her and other women to this new place, a 20 minute walk in the hot summer sun. However, rumors say that there will be hard fights between the Arabs and Afghans in the camp that evening. , One hour from now and we see rows of people leaving with all their belongings in their blue UNHCR rucksacks. Some bring their children in their trolley, carry them on their hip or the children walk behind their parents wearing too-big sandals. The American young woman from Drops in the Ocean continues telling the Afghan woman: “There will be problems here and we will take you down there to safety.” She turns frustrated to the rest of the group, including me, saying: “She does not understand!” No one says anything. Finally, I intervene because I don’t want us to trick the Afghan woman into coming with us. I don’t want to part her from the rest of her family or men, if she has any, because I am sure that she can take much better care of herself than what we can. The American only arrived by plane to Lesvos yesterday and is living at the Hotel Blue for 100 EUR a night, and the rest of us come to the camp in rented cars with our yellow vests. I tell the Afghan woman that the café at the village is ‘cancelled today, tomorrow open’. She seems to understand and says ‘ok’. The demonstration in front of the entrance gate that morning is over – the police are present, but no more than usual. I go into Maria café to buy us some extra water since the plan has completely changed. There are only a few men in the café this afternoon.

This was the first encounter with the voluntary organization A Drop in the Ocean from my fieldwork in Lesvos this July . A Drop in the Ocean was created specifically to sponsor volunteer activities. Since the 1990s, there has been an increase of these types of organizations (Lasker 2017). While some organizations are non-profit and do not require a fee for volunteering, others are for-profit commercial firms that offer fee-paying “voluntary work” placements. As short-term international volunteer programs have become more popular, they have been the target of criticism, sometimes called “slum tourism”, “drive-by humanitarianism”, “voluntourism” (Lasker 2017:13) or on a more positive note “solidarity humanitarianism” (Rozakou 2017) and “volunteer humanitarianism” (Sandri 2018).

There is much to be said about this, and other similar organizations, that set out with the ‘hope to help’ (Malkki 2015). Researchers have questioned whether short-term missions are helpful or harmful to host communities. Knott (2017) has discussed how volunteers at Lesvos have a limited ability to help because they lack knowledge of the language, have no specially required skills and have incomplete knowledge of the situation. The idea that “doing something is always better than doing nothing” contributes to restraining critical thinking concerning how they carry out the help (Knott 2017). Others have called attention to the power dimension that the voluntary organizations and volunteers find themselves in. NGOs and humanitarian organizations are so linked to governmental functioning of power that the two become contingent upon each other: the control function (including asylum policies and management of refugees) is accompanied by a function of protection (Agier 2011). Both the controlling and caring hand frequently claim to pursue humanitarian interventions, partly for legitimating reasons, although the latter tries to distinguish itself from the former. Yet, volunteering organizations become unwillingly and unwittingly entangled in the politics of control, containment and management and contribute to a politics of control, i.e. by humanizing actions that they morally reject (Agier 2011).  Another strand of research examines the meaning of volunteering from the point of view of the volunteers. Malkki’s (2015) research on practices of humanitarianism among the Finnish Red Cross workers (professionals and volunteers) is important here. She suggests that their practices are driven by a form of self-escape, and that care for the other is a situational care for the self.

The importance of doubt

The role of volunteers, their positionality and the question of doing good or doing harm are important aspects of the politics of international volunteering. During my fieldwork I had moments when I was hesitant about the ethics of practices that I, as a participant observing anthropologist, contributed with during my fieldwork. Doubt was, however, not only part of my anthropological positioning. Other volunteers expressed uncertainty about their positioning and practices. Emilie, for example, an American student in her early twenties continuously contemplated what she was doing and whether her presence contributed to something positive during her stay in Lesvos. She told me:

“I think that maybe my fear is that I am hurting rather than helping, and hurting is also an action and if you provide people with false hope, if you make promises that you cannot keep, all of this is ultimately hurtful to the community that you are trying to help. And I have no doubt about the good intentions that most people have and that most organizations have, but intentions are very different from what actually improves the lives of people in the long term, you know. Especially if you think about the complexities of hope.”

Being with volunteers during some intense weeks while doing fieldwork, listening to their stories concerning why they had come to Lesvos, participating in their everyday practices of trying to do something good, I found it dissatisfactory to remain within an anthropological critique of good intention. It does no justice to my fieldwork encounters and experience. Is there a way out? Are there ways to understand the practices of doing good which situates volunteers in the humanitarian field of practices and all their pitfalls, as differently constituted than merely part of unwittingly and unconsciously part of doing wrong, merely being a tourist or even doing evil? Is there hope for ethical practice in the field of international voluntarism? Can we think of their practices in a different way while simultaneously recognizing the power imbalances at hand, and the gendered, class, and race dynamics?

The complexities of hope, which I have named this intervention, is not only about the complexities in which the volunteers are finding themselves, or the constant interchangeable position of doing harm and doing good. It also refers to my own position of writing: while recognizing that “volunteering for refugees” is entangled in ethical and political power dimensions, there must be space to recognize that for many volunteers their experience was shaped by their mode of being in the world before arriving and would shape the ways in which they continued to inhabit the world in the future, as by no means flawless, but as ethically concerned human beings. This recognition, I believe, without dismissing critique or to become lured to romanticism, provides the chance to investigate afresh the possibility of actions as movement of international solidarity, hospitality and potentially ethical citizenship.


Agier, Michel (2011). Managing the undesirables. Refugee camps and humanitarian government. Cambridge: Polity

Knott, Alexander (2017). Guests on the Aegean: interactions between migrants and volunteers at Europe’s southern border. Mobilities, 13(3): 349-366.

Lasker, Judith N. (2017). Hoping to help. The promises and pitfalls of global health volunteering. Cornell: IRL Press

Malkki, Liisa. H. (2015). The need to help. The domestic arts of international humanitarianism. Durham and London: Duke University Press

Sandri, Elisa (2018) ‘Volunteer Humanitarianism’: volunteers and humanitarian aid in the Jungle refugee camp of Calais. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 44(1): 65-80.

Rozakou, Katerina (2017). Solidarity #humanitarianism: the blurred boundaries of humanitarianism in Greece. Etnofoor, 29(2): 99-104.

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