The long-term benefits of NGO work

As discussed in previous posts on this platform, my partner and I recently spent five months working for a medical non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Thessaloniki, Greece. After an intense last week, during which we handed over the medical coordination, wrapped up unfinished work and said our goodbyes to new friends and colleagues, we travelled to the island of Skopelos. Holidaying between luscious green forests and sun-flooded beaches, the evenings spent among Greeks at their laid-back and hospitable best, it’s been tempting to be lulled into reconciliation with this beautiful continent. Yet while I’ve immersed myself in the pleasures of island life and caught up some sleep, death and torture on the Evros river, the natural border between Greece and Turkey, continue. As do the mistreatment of refugees in detention centers, illegal pushbacks to Turkey and brutal broom operations in Athens and Thessaloniki,[1] all of which are the deliberate consequences of decisions made by our elected representatives in Brussels and Athens.

Frustrating as it is to bear witness to the misdeeds of those in power, NGO work was in some sense almost a relief to me; the European Union (EU) may choose to turn a blind eye to or even encourage human rights abuses in its periphery but at least we, our organisation, provided quality healthcare to people on the move and displayed a more humane side of the continent. The clinical work, too, was as instructive as any other rotation in my prior training, while the rapid turnover of volunteers provided for an enjoyable social life. All of which leads to the question, now with some distance from Thessaloniki: was it useful? Or did our time in Greece mainly benefit ourselves, a phenomenon sometimes cynically called ‘voluntourism’? It is a thought that has repeatedly crossed my mind but which is, in my opinion, not justified. 

On the contrary, I believe that our work had a number of direct and in some cases more subtle benefits. The most obvious is the effort of our NGO’s clinic, which continues to provide consultations, wound care and physiotherapy to hundreds of patients per month. These individuals are either illegalized and therefore have no access to healthcare or have been granted an asylum seeker status but struggle, for various reasons, to receive treatment in Greek healthcare institutions. As described in more detail in a previous article, there is no evidence to suggest that Greek authorities might suddenly decide to provide adequate health services to refugees if NGOs such as ours withdrew from the scene, making the clinic indispensable to the community we serve.

A significant downside of medical NGOs, however, is that they tend to be apolitical. No matter how many people we treat for scabies or hypertension, our work does little to address the causes of refugees’ circumstances. The same can be said for many of our partner organisations providing necessities such as legal aid, food or education. An exception I experienced during my time in Greece was the work of the decidedly political Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a collection of NGOs based in Greece and the Balkans with the mission of monitoring ‘‘human rights violations at the external borders of the European Union and advocat[ing] to stop the violence exerted against people on the move’’.[2] The bulk of BVMN’s work consists of multi-hour interviews with individuals who have suffered pushbacks, with occurrences recorded as precisely as possible and later published in anonymous form.

Yet I don’t believe that a primarily political focus is essential in order to make a lasting difference. Beside the fact that temporary interventions by apolitical NGOs are crucial to provide every-day necessities, such projects also function as a breeding ground for more long-term changes. The majority of volunteers I met were highly motivated individuals with a wide age-range of around 20-65. Frustrated with the EU’s political decisions, many had decided to give up salaries or sacrifice annual leave in order to help out in Thessaloniki. Many of these, especially those who stayed for several months, gained deep insights into the challenges and abuses facing refugees in Greece. I expect these experiences to have lifelong effects on their conduct ‘back home’, such as decisions made in voting booths, commitments to refugee services or donations to local charities. Former volunteers also often share their knowledge through conversations, social media posts or even the odd mainstream publication, helping their fellow citizens to grasp the shameful truth of EU policies. After all, significant improvements to refugees’ circumstances would have to be enforced by elected parliaments, making an informed populace a prerequisite for such changes. 

A further long-term advantage of NGO work can be found in the relationships between volunteers and beneficiaries. Before my arrival I presumed a classic giver-taker hierarchy, which was far from the truth. Our organisation, for instance, engages three ‘cultural mediators’ from the refugee community. Their main task is to translate during consultations, but also explicitly entails the facilitation of smoother interactions between healthcare workers and patients. Several of our partner organisations had a similar system, engaging a number of community volunteers or even employees. Working together on a daily basis with a common purpose, we often found ourselves discussing each other’s heritage, culture and future plans. I learned about daily Islamic rituals, the flight routes to Europe, the situation for refugees in Turkey and the plight of Shiites and different points of view on the Taliban in Afghanistan. I’m also confident of having offered my fair share of knowledge and opinions in return and thus believe that these relationships were profoundly advantageous to both sides. Meanwhile, it wasn’t only the co-workers from the community who benefitted. Numerous NGOs in Thessaloniki provide social spaces for food distribution, school classes and other activities, thus also facilitating regular exchanges and discussions between volunteers and beneficiaries. 

For better or worse, each interaction refugees have with staff at detention centers, border guards and NGO workers shapes how they experience their new home. It’s therefore precisely here, in the daily contact with people who have fled to Europe, that I believe volunteers have a long-lasting positive impact. The relationships described above could serve as a blueprint of what should be happening at a larger scale. In light of climate change, growing political instability and labor shortages with their resulting dependance on worker influxes, migration to Europe is all but certain to increase rather than decrease over the next decades. The EU would thus be well advised to focus on how best to integrate these new citizens rather than spending time and money on inhumane and ultimately futile efforts of preventing migration. After all, as with the millions of immigrants that disembarked on Ellis Island in New York City from the late nineteenth Century onwards, the manner in which human beings are received makes all the difference. It’s in our hands whether they develop a feeling of patriotic duty and desire to contribute or else cultivate a sense of resentment, each with foreseeable consequences. The new Americans – required as they were as workers in modern industries and farming – were welcomed with relatively open arms and allowed to help shape the fate of the young nation. Had they been brutally oppressed and herded into camps, history may well have unfolded differently.

Editor’s note: The author recently worked as a volunteer doctor for a medical NGO in Greece. Their media policy requests that the name of the organisation not be mentioned in politically biased posts online, in order to protect their neutrality.


[1] See for example and