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Faith, hope and love - volunteering in crises

Amid all the terrible and shocking things happening right now, I want to highlight the humanity that exists in the people who helping and taking in refugees from Ukraine.

Since the wildfire in Västmanland in 2014, I have been researching crisis voluntarism. A few weeks ago, a colleague and I got an article published (read the article here). It’s about how volunteers are often – and rather carelessly – described as a “mixed blessing”, and in the article we try to unpack what is really meant when different actors use this term. In brief, it deals with the fact that there are both pros and cons to volunteer involvement. In our study, we are researching the Västmanland fire, and we show that the point in time at which volunteers arrive during an event affects how other actors view them. Another factor is whether the volunteers bring resources or skills that are necessary at the time they arrive, and that the need for help varies between crises and changes during the course of the crisis. Lastly, it is also easier to provide assistance if you are organised in the same way as the people or organisations with whom you will be working.

For example, early on during the Västmanland fire, residents in the area provided great assistance by supplying food and beverages to those combating the fire. At that point, there was no organised food supply, expect for what was provided by volunteers. Another example is that a few individuals with competence in food handling were quickly enlisted and became part of the official rescue operation. Since there was no planning for food supply and there was a lack of expertise in food handling in the official rescue operation, these people became very important in meeting an existing need for food and beverages while the fire was being combatted. But there were also volunteers who were not needed and were largely in the way. These people had neither the resources nor the skills needed at the time. Many of the unnecessary items that were donated also created lots of work for the authorities for a long time after the fire, which essentially created an additional crisis within the crisis. Volunteers also played an important role during the 2018 fires. There were volunteers who fully organised the firefighting efforts before the arrival of the emergency services, which were busy fighting another wildfire. Volunteers also helped with food supplies in several places in the country. In addition, during the large influx of refugees in 2015, you could see that volunteers made invaluable contributions when they received refugees at Malmö Central Station, for example. In interviews we have conducted, we could also see that, depending on the perspective, the volunteers’ efforts were viewed as either positive or problematic. During the coronavirus pandemic, food played an important role, and there were many volunteers who purchased food and other necessities for at-risk groups.

Research into crisis voluntarism has long shown that, during a crisis, people and items converge at the site. Just as we can see in the examples above from my own research, and as Charles E. Fritz described in a research paper from 1957, we can now see a build-up of both items and people along the Polish border with Ukraine. I truly admire everyone who contributes in different ways, but make sure to contribute with resources needed at the current time, so that your contribution actually helps and does not end up creating a new crisis within the crisis. So, before you send clothes, make sure that people in the affected area are actually asking for clothes and not baby food or money.

I hope I have managed to highlight the considerable help that volunteer involvement provides in crises, and I would like to conclude with a quote from an interview following the Västmanland fire that demonstrates the love that exists even in a terrible situation:

“There was a lot of heart in the community. There were extraordinary efforts from everyone in the surrounding areas, not just us. It was amazing to see how Sweden works in that kind of situation.

Kerstin Eriksson

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