Issue 67 - Article 10

Adapting approaches: training volunteers responding to the refugee crisis

September 15, 2016
Rachel Erskine and Katie Robertson
Volunteers attending a training session run by RedR UK.
11 min read

During 2016 more than 240,000 refugees and vulnerable migrants have arrived in Europe after crossing the Mediterranean Sea. A further one million made the same journey in 2015. See For RedR staff, the parallels were striking: 35 years previously, Peter Guthrie’s experiences of working in a Malaysian refugee camp during the Vietnamese boat people crisis moved him to set up the organisation. Since then, RedR has worked to ensure that those responding to humanitarian crises have the skills to do so safely and effectively, by providing training and technical support to aid workers, NGOs and first responders all over the world.

How it started

The scale of new arrivals in Europe was met by an outpouring of public goodwill. In many cases this took the form of European volunteers taking practical steps to help. Where the formal humanitarian system was slow to respond to the crisis, these volunteers were able to launch their own responses to the situation. Emerging grassroots initiatives in the UK were very quickly engaged in everything from collecting clothes and shoes to cooking meals and opening their doors to people needing shelter.

Impressive as these initiatives were, volunteers quickly began to feel overwhelmed. Very few had experience of, or formal training in, humanitarian work. For a range of reasons, these volunteers were operating outside the existing humanitarian system. While the desire to remain independent was key to their approach, it also meant they were unable to benefit from the experience or support of existing structures. Moreover, many were unaware of the vast array of resources available to humanitarian workers, often open source and free of charge: tools like the Sphere standards, HPN materials and guidance produced by ALNAP. They were working passionately, and in many cases effectively – but were in obvious need of support.

The need for a RedR response was clearly felt amongst the organisation’s staff. Through contact and communication with volunteers, mainly via existing professional and personal networks, we were gaining an increasing understanding of how volunteer groups were operating and, crucially, an awareness of the ‘mistakes’ these groups were making, and how these mirrored lessons the humanitarian sector has learnt in the past. Chief among these were the importance of coordination, and how wrong things can go in its absence – a realisation which underpins the UN Cluster system, for example – and the need for generally accepted standards. There were reports of newly created organisations struggling to process the volume of donations they were receiving, distributions igniting tensions and volunteers experiencing burnout.

What we did

Unable to secure funding through standard channels, RedR raised over £3,000 from staff fundraising activities including cake, craft and book sales, a pub quiz and donations collected through the BT MyDonate platform. Using these funds and time donated by RedR staff and trainers, we developed a one-day training course to address the challenges identified by the volunteers. The course was designed to help participants view the response at a range of levels, from big picture to individual, as well as from the perspective of the people affected. Following an overview of the situation, sessions covered specific issues, such as needs assessment, coordination, distributions and security. Sphere standards, accountability, protection and vulnerability were introduced, with a focus on ‘do no harm’, before a final session encouraged participants to maintain and promote their own well-being. The course was delivered three times in September and October 2015, twice in London and once in Cardiff, reaching 64 volunteers. With wide-ranging backgrounds, most had experience of volunteering in Calais while others had concrete plans to go there. None was a humanitarian professional. All wanted to use their existing skills to improve the situation, but required guidance as to how to apply these skills. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with all the participants rating the course as good or excellent. ‘I think it’s fantastic that you stepped in to build the capacity of communities like mine, and to share learning’ said Joy Cherkaoui, a volunteer with the Dumfries and Galloway Refugee Action group.

Enabling factors

The willingness of our staff to go over and above their existing work commitments enabled us to design, develop and deliver an appropriate training course quickly, and in line with the needs identified. We were able to draw on material from existing RedR courses, specifically those aimed at new and aspiring aid workers. Time donated by our freelance trainers to design and deliver the course pro bono meant the training could be offered cost-free to participants. Existing partners also helped: the Sphere Project donated copies of the Sphere handbook and InterHealth delivered the session on well-being without charge.

RedR’s unusual position in the humanitarian sector also proved to be an enabling factor. As a second-tier organisation – one that supports and facilitates the frontline provision of aid, rather than delivering it directly – RedR is slightly removed from the system. Similarly, our low public profile, while challenging at times, proved to be an advantage in this case. RedR was not among the ‘household name’ agencies perceived to be failing to respond effectively: we were free to connect with the community and gather information from those on the ground, through social media and one-to-one contact. As a result, we were able to go some way to bridging the gap between the ‘official’ humanitarian system and the grassroots response.

We also drew on the expertise of those operating in Calais, including established INGOs and new organisations. Solidarités International and Médecins du Monde (MDM) shared their on-the-ground experiences in northern France, and CalAid provided vital insight into the grassroots response. This ensured that the training facilitated learning, and was not just a direct transfer from trainer to participant.

Adapting our model

A defining feature of RedR’s work is that we engage with humanitarian responders at all levels. Throughout its history, RedR has worked to build the humanitarian knowledge and skills of non-humanitarians. This includes work with the private sector, with first responders including teachers and local government, and the training of National Health Service (NHS) and Foreign Medical Team healthcare workers during the Ebola response. In each case, we have had to adapt our operational model to best meet the needs of the audience.

This can also have implications for the way we communicate with the target group in question. This was a case in point: the grassroots movement was not an audience that could be reached through our typical channels of communication. With this in mind, we turned to social media, where volunteers were mobilising and organising. On the night of 15 September we advertised our first training session on the Facebook group ‘Calais – People to People Solidarity – Action from UK’. See The reaction was unprecedented. By the next morning, RedR staff had been contacted by dozens of volunteers interested in attending the training: we received 54 email requests overnight, and almost as many Facebook enquiries. There were calls for additional dates and training events in other parts of the country. Our concerns that suggesting training was necessary would be seen as a criticism of the work volunteers were doing appeared to be unfounded. ‘Thanks RedR UK for offering this invaluable training’ said one member of the Facebook group. ‘Many volunteers are eager, willing and ready to learn.’ We also tweeted prolifically, posting targeted tweets and asking followers to retweet us. One follower commented: ‘Great to see pros donating tech expertise … It’s a smart idea! Lateral thinking, and support to a great civil society movement that could use technical skills’.

More recent social media posts have been similarly well received. At this stage, it is hard to know whether the warm response to this very specific and time-sensitive initiative will result in greater awareness of RedR’s wider work. But this new, less rigid approach to communications certainly helped us to connect with a new community, respond to a clear and pressing need and transform a groundswell of good feeling into practical action. Our connection with the community also enabled us to develop training content based very closely on the needs identified by the volunteers. The speed and breadth of communication through social media meant that, in the space of a few days, volunteers communicated the challenges they were facing, and RedR designed and delivered training to address them.

The three one-day training sessions in autumn 2015 were delivered free of charge. Globally, RedR’s open training programmes usually operate on a cost-recovery basis – participant fees are calculated to cover the costs incurred by running the training event. Over the last 35 years, we have learned that it is important that participants make an investment in training – be this a financial investment, a time investment in pre-course learning, or both. This helps to ensure the right participants attend the course, and that they are fully engaged. In the case of the staff-funded refugee response training, it was felt that the target audience were already investing so many of their own resources in their response activities that it would not be appropriate to use the usual cost-recovery model.

In practice, drop-out rates were unusually high. While it has been difficult to fully understand the reasons for this, given the difficulties in gaining feedback from those who did not attend, anecdotal evidence suggests a leading cause was volunteers’ belief that they could not afford to take time out from their response activities to attend the training. In response to ongoing demand for training, a paid-for course was scheduled in late November 2015, after the staff-raised funds had been exhausted. The course had to be cancelled due to a lack of sign-ups, suggesting that indeed the volunteer audience could not pay for training. Subsequently, a nominal registration fee has been used for future iterations of the course in 2016. Dropout rates amongst those who have paid this fee remain low, indicating that course fees should reflect overall investment in the training by participants.

Ongoing response

The success of the initial RedR response attracted the attention of other organisations. In January 2016 we received support from the Humanitarian Leadership Academy (HLA) to expand the course into a two-day training session run in London, Calais, Belgrade and Lesvos. Between April and June 2016 a further eight courses were run in partnership with HLA, drawing on the expertise of pro bono trainers from other INGOs now involved in the response, and reaching additional locations in Croatia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Slovenia. In addition, RedR was supported by the Stanley Thomas Johnson Foundation to deliver ten training courses in key locations across Europe before coordinating a lessons learnt workshop in London in September 2016.

RedR’s response recognises that volunteers are filling a gap in the humanitarian response to the refugee crisis. Aware that these highly motivated individuals were committed to continuing their activities, we set out to help them do so in a more effective and safer way. Feedback from participants suggests that this objective has been achieved.

‘One of the key things I took away from the training is about accountability’, says Dan Teuma, who was trained by RedR in September 2015 while working for CalAid. He has since gone on to establish The Worldwide Tribe, working in Greece and Turkey. ‘I am now far more conscious about the impact of my and others’ actions with regards to delivering support and aid: making sure that I also look at the bigger picture and not just the immediate impact of our actions.’

The evolving situation on the ground has required RedR to keep adapting and updating our response. In recent months, we have expanded the range of options we are offering, including tailored consultancy support, free online resources on well-being and self-care and mentoring. Perhaps the biggest lesson we have learned, as an organisation, is the need for flexibility. We have had to adapt our operational model – and keep adapting it as the crisis evolves: from the initial staff-led funding drive to a different way of communicating with our audience, a more rapid and frequent process of course design and review and an alternative approach to investment in learning through free or highly subsidised training. In many ways, RedR’s response mirrors that of the volunteers – people passionate about the cause, donating their time and employing their existing skills to contribute to improving the situation of refugees across Europe.

Katie Robertson is a Programme Manager in RedR UK’s Europe and Global Initiatives department. Rachel Erskine is RedR UK’s Communications Coordinator.


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