Back in May of this year, Za’atar NGO celebrated its fourth anniversary. Four years through which we learnt and reflected a lot – on humanitarian work, what it means to volunteer, to empower, and more. That is why, on this occasion, we had the idea to share with potential volunteers and fellow NGO workers four lessons we learnt those past four years.
A journey is a story of landscapes, noises and flavours, bodies and faces, discoveries and encounters. This becomes even truer when travelling to volunteer – being part of a team, working alongside people from all walks and sizes to accompany, support and empower migrant, refugee and asylum-seeker people.
Za’atar Summer Series 2020 – 3/4
Volunteer-beneficiary: a complex and specific relationship.
Welcoming them all, meeting new faces every day, recognizing some as time goes on, one may find themselves share common tastes or thoughts, privileged moments or conversations and create a beautiful bond with one or a few beneficiaries. From human to human, suddenly connecting, beyond prejudice and borders.
However, one should not forget the specific framework and complexity of the volunteer-beneficiary relationship. Any interaction between a volunteer, working for an NGO whose mission is to accompany and support a specific group of vulnerable people, and one of its beneficiaries, implies an undeniable power dynamic. The former indeed finds themselves in a position of material, legal and existential stability and comfort while the latter surely lives in precarious conditions preventing them to navigate the environment as easily and freely, and therefore requiring some help or assistance. Keeping this in mind, working with a will to empower is a way to challenge this hierarchical relationship and give the beneficiaries the access, knowledge and means to achieve their own autonomy so that they, one day, do not need those services anymore.
In such conditions, deepened ties with one beneficiary may inevitably lead to some kind of favouritism in a framework where neutrality and equal treatment for all is required, to the detriment – and perhaps incomprehension of all the others. Beneficiaries may as well believe that, by tying strong links with volunteers, they could have an easier access to goods or services – housing or money, to the risk of establishing a situation of dependency.
Therefore, while approaching beneficiaries with benevolence, warmth and kindness is important and precious, being aware of the conditions, limits and asymmetry of the relationship one, as a volunteer in their work space, can build with vulnerable people they are in charge of accompanying and supporting on their way towards self-reliance and autonomy, is essential.
And this, to achieve one’s mission as a volunteer to its best – that is, to empower all.