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What ‘Mass Humanitarians’ Aspiring to Travel to Ukraine or its Borders Need to Know Before They Fly Away

(The Conversation is an independent, non-commercial source for news, analysis, and commentary from academic experts.)

(TALK) Most Americans want the US government to help Ukraine and put pressure on Russia to end its brutal war against its neighbor. To date, more than $1 billion in philanthropic funds have flowed from the United States to organizations that help Ukrainians, in addition to more than $50 billion in aid approved by Congress.

However, many people take matters into their own hands. They go to Ukraine and its busy borders to volunteer their services for weeks or months.

Some of these stories are inspiring: Medical teams from Chicago rush to the Polish-Ukrainian border. Fundraising for an organization with close ties to the US military that buys and delivers military supplies. Ukrainian-Americans from Santa Barbara, California assist with translation at border crossings.

US churches, even those not affiliated with Ukraine, are joining the fray. One from my city of Lincoln, Nebraska, is helping with Operation Safe Harbor, which is temporarily hosting displaced Ukrainians in a hotel in Warsaw.

As a humanities scholar, I find these activities inspiring. But these well-intentioned efforts also make me uncomfortable because they are not always beneficial, especially in the long run. Sometimes they cause even more problems.

Trying to get around the traps of large help groups

There are many terms for people who, alone or in a small group, become aware of an unfolding international crisis and decide to act, often going where the problem is. I tend to call them “grassroots humanists”, but there are many terms for this apparently growing trend, including “civic humanism” or “civic aid”; “fourth pillar”; and “everyday humanism”.

Another label for these small efforts is “do-it-yourself help” or “do-it-yourself help.”

This small amount of help is usually provided by volunteers or the sole organizer of a low-budget non-profit organization. This could be funding medical supplies or even buying and delivering luggage to help people who are on the run.

Grassroots humanism is different from the hierarchical aid industry that was shaped during the Cold War through collaboration between industrialized governments, the UN, and large non-governmental organizations.

This vast sector now provides important services, from the resettlement of refugees to clean water. But despite their objectively positive aims, major organizations and aid agencies have been rocked in recent years by revelations of revealing scandals, highly paid executives, and accusations that their actions have more to do with their donors…

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