Ukraine: one year after the invasion began

The humanitarian system faced with its contradictions…

Dnipro inUkraine @Vianney/SolidaritesInternational

One year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered a crisis unprecedented in Europe since the Second World War, the humanitarian system is not free of contradictions in this country, the most salient of which seems to be its hesitation between priority to cover needs and priority to cover its own structural risks. Report of a field visit.

I had the opportunity, during a recent visit to the teams of a French NGO (SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL) intervening in Ukraine, to try to perceive the stakes of the humanitarian system facing this crisis, one year after the beginning of the Russian invasion. This visit was not long enough to claim a complete and thorough understanding. Nevertheless, I will give here my perceptions at the end of the visit.

The state of humanitarian needs

Before the perceptions, let’s take a look at the state of humanitarian needs in Ukraine, as the latest OCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) report gives the figures. At the time of writing, 17.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, 5.4 million are internally displaced, and 8 million are refugees abroad. 9.3 million people need food assistance, 14.5 million need health assistance, 11.2 million need assistance in terms of shelter and assistance in the rehabilitation/equipment of individual or collective living spaces. 16 million people need assistance with access to water, hygiene and sanitation, and 1.7 million had additional needs in December 2022 related to the harsh winter in the country (clothing, supplies, generators, etc.). Water, gas, and electricity infrastructures are hit relentlessly, particularly impacting populations near the front lines. Finally, the risk of epidemics remains high in the collective centers housing displaced persons, most of whom need food aid and supplies, and some need generators. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), there were nearly 18,000 civilian casualties at the end of 2022. The WHO estimates that a quarter of the Ukrainian population is at risk of developing severe mental illness as a result of the war. According to OCHA data, there are nearly 700 humanitarian NGOs in Ukraine, 60% of which are national, with 524 completed programs and 446 ongoing interventions. As an indication, the “Pooled Funds” set up by the United Nations have allocated 252 million dollars since February 24 until the end of December 2022, of which 192 million dollars through the “Ukraine Humanitarian Fund” (UHF), and 60 million dollars through the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).

SI’s team of day laborers prepares 50 hygiene kits for distribution to IDPs. SI is meeting the basic needs of displaced people in the Odessa region by providing hygiene kits, food packages and non-food items. Odesa, January 17, 2023. @SolidaritesInternational

Contradictory funding: the money is there

The first characteristic of this humanitarian crisis is that it is contradictory from the point of view of financing: whereas in most humanitarian situations to which they must respond, humanitarian organizations “run after money”, here, there is no lack of money. This is a “political” desire on the part of the funders to show to public opinion that they are committed to Ukraine on all fronts. By the way, donors no longer pay much attention to the notion of neutrality and have chosen their side, Ukraine. The humanitarian financial system accepts in this particular context to be, in the name of a good cause, in a form of contradiction with the great principles it has always put forward (and thus converges with the feeling of many Ukrainians, humanitarian or not, for whom the notion of neutrality is incomprehensible and unacceptable). Funding is therefore within reach for NGOs, and most of the big structures in this country have a budget of around 100 / 150 m euros… The main and well-known donors are all there: in addition to the Pooled Funds, the French structures have to deal with ECHO, BHA (ex American OFDA), Unicef, AFD, the CDCS of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and others, … The reversal of the financial parameter poses for humanitarian organizations in the field not the question of the viability of their system, but that of their capacity to “absorb” (what is called in humanitarian jargon the “scale up” or rapid development of a mission, with all the organizational stakes and tensions that this implies) and ultimately that of their capacity to “deliver”, i.e. to provide / implement the necessary humanitarian aid in time.

Contradiction of recruitment: the hunt for internationals and the absence of an overhang for them in Ukraine

Another parameter to be taken into account for humanitarian organizations in Ukraine is the difficulty to recruit, especially experienced international staff. In contradiction with the usual tendency that leads international NGO employees to willingly get involved in crises that make the headlines, many NGOs here have to deal with HR tension and sometimes turnover in key positions. Why is this so? First of all, of course, experienced profiles are “hunted” by all structures, in a very competitive environment in terms of salary offers… Secondly, the Ukrainian security context, i.e. the recurrent “air alerts” (air alerts generally linked to potential or proven missile strikes in the areas where NGOs generally live and operate), or possible bombings in cases where they choose to operate within range of artillery, can be prohibitive, or difficult to manage for some people (and this is legitimate). Without talking about risks, these alerts lead to long hours of confinement in safe rooms, or to immobilization, which is time-consuming and stressful. Strikes on Ukrainian energy systems produce extensive power and/or water cuts… As an anecdote, there was not a day during my visit without prolonged power cuts or alerts… Assuming this relative discomfort is a choice that not all make (especially when the family behind is afraid and puts pressure on), and there is no need to judge, even if it is nothing compared to that of the most vulnerable populations near the front lines.

For the Ukrainian teams of NGOs, it is necessary to be aware that a turnover of internationals in key positions can create for them, rightly or wrongly, a feeling of imbalance in terms of knowledge of programs and issues / constraints. However, in Ukraine, the legitimacy of international employees of humanitarian organizations has to be demonstrated by them… Given the high degree of training, qualification and often experience of national members of NGOs, there is no overhanging position for “expats”, as they say, here, as it can be in some missions elsewhere in the world. All the more so as, for many, the Ukrainian nationals, unlike in some of the other countries where humanitarian organizations intervene, are not yet “worn out” by long years of war and crisis; on the contrary, they are generally full of desire, initiative and freshness… This “challenges” us and it feels good…

This credibility in front of Ukrainian nationals, the NGOs also play it on the field of their tools. Ukraine is a country at the cutting edge of digital technology, and the younger generations, and even the not so young, are often more connected on a daily basis than we are at home… The obsolescence, even relative, of some of the accounting, financial or logistical management tools, as well as that of the diagnostic and beneficiary selection tools, often not very well adapted to a context such as that of Ukraine, where it is difficult to grasp and define the notion of “vulnerable person”, also has a cost in terms of credibility in front of the national members.

Ukrainian National Volunteers with the Ukrainian Red Cross. @ICRC

No one is waiting for us in Ukraine

The issue of the credibility of humanitarian organizations in Ukraine is even more at stake in the capacity to “deliver” the aid promised (and financed by donors). This point is all the more crucial as a hundred Ukrainian organizations have denounced, since August 24, 2022, in an open letter, the lack of funding directed towards them, while the big international structures are financed… We have to keep in mind that, in this country and in these circumstances, no one is waiting for us… The civil society is extremely dynamic, inventive, daring. It is taking itself in hand, like the many national associations and initiatives mobilizing through networks, and of course the Ukrainian Red Cross. And the example of the administrative territorial entities (Oblast: region; Raion: department; Hromada: territorial community, and finally Gromada: commune) which are extremely lively and enterprising. I had the opportunity to see this for myself when I met the person in charge of social protection in the town of Uman, who is in charge of receiving the displaced persons, of whom there are many in this town, because it is a hub of passage to the West when fleeing the Donbass, and some of them settle there while waiting. The energy of this woman, her availability and her will to do more and better for more people and for longer (in partnership with international NGOs, in this case SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL) were both impressive and as natural… And this is not an isolated case, many women in Ukraine move mountains every day, in positions of responsibility in municipalities or local NGOs

Contradiction of the humanitarian system in Ukraine: covering needs or covering its own structural risks?

The capacity to deliver, the central issue of humanitarian aid in Ukraine today, is being questioned – in addition to a form of risk aversion that is holding back certain structures from going to the most affected areas – because of a phenomenon that I would call the “cascade of the return to the bureaucratic precautionary principle”. What does this mean? It is the return of the donors of the humanitarian system to standard procedures, after a first period of emergency very mediatized and politicized, where all the governments / donors wanted to show that they were helping Ukraine… The procedures were then lightened, simplified and in “emergency” mode… This return of donor procedures to the standard world translates, in a predictable way, in terms of longer signature processes, and in controls / more fastidious audits… However, most NGOs cannot afford large amounts in “ineligible” (amounts allocated but not eligible because of missing supporting documents or non-compliance with standard procedures, and therefore to be reimbursed)… The latter thus apply in return and in cascade all their standard procedures, often with a zeal, an excessive formalism, and above all a slowness of the processes, notably of purchasing and validation, which can significantly delay the implementation of an expected program… Here again, the risk of loss of credibility in front of the national teams of the NGOs, as well as of the local partners and above all of the beneficiaries, can be important. One can thus have the feeling that, in Ukraine, one year after the beginning of the crisis, the humanitarian system seems to hesitate between giving priority to covering needs and giving priority to covering its own structural risks… NGOs are more affected than they want to be by this phenomenon, which they nonetheless contribute to by their “precautionary zeal.

Destruction in the district of Kiev, Photo by Aris Messinis / AFP

What needs are covered, and where?

The coverage of needs, precisely. What are the needs covered by the NGOs in Ukraine today? First of all, we do not come across many international “colleagues” in the field… We even wonder where all these structures listed by OCHA are and where they operate. OCHA, which, moreover, seems to be encountering difficulties, in certain regions, to effectively allow the coordination of those who are acting; the “overlappings” (overlapping and duplication of interventions by NGOs doing the same thing in the same place for the same people) are not absent from the Ukrainian picture… Beyond that, in a country at war which is experiencing a 40% drop in its GDP, with an unemployment rate of 39%, what is the nature of the needs that are being covered the most ? Emergency? Post-emergency? The definition is difficult, in the “back” areas of the country, with beneficiaries who are displaced persons having fled the East and its fighting. In other contexts, they would often be in camps. There are no camps in Ukraine; some are staying with local people, those who can rent a house, but then struggle to feed themselves. Others are housed in collective centers, which are often not appropriate or equipped; it is then necessary to ensure the rehabilitation of the premises, access to water, hygiene and sanitation, redo electricity, insulation and heating, equip kitchens, canteens… We are not in the “lifesaving” business, but neither are we in the “early recovery” business, which would imply a return to their homes of these displaced persons, a beginning of reconstruction and economic recovery that could be accompanied… Relative emergency zone but real needs… Things are clearer when it comes to actions such as watertrucking (distribution of drinking water by truck), provided in this case by SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL, which I was able to attend in Mykolaiv, a town in the south of the country: 600 to 700 people served per truck and per day, those coming on foot, waiting for their turn at the distribution ramp in the freezing cold; sometimes some, commissioned by their building or their street corner, come in turn by car, the trunk and the back seats loaded with cans and jerry cans… The urgency of the need, born of the destruction by the strikes of the water distribution networks, is obvious. In Kherson, a city bombed almost every day, SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL, taking reasonable and managed risks, also provides water trucking, and as in Mykolaiv, the trucks leave almost empty … For NGOs “voluntarists”, it is necessary to try to cover the needs even more acute, “going to the East”; regions of Dnipro, Kharkiv, as, again, SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL, whose largest share of contracts of operation is in these areas. This NGO chooses, for example, not to “transfer the risks” to carry out, when possible, emergency distributions in Kramatorsk, about thirty kilometers from the front lines, and therefore within range of artillery, or for example in the largely destroyed village of Protopovika in the Kharkiv Oblast. This type of voluntarism is, it seems to me, the best way to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable, those who have the most acute needs in the areas directly affected by the war. But by remaining responsible: the recent deaths of two “volunteers”, Andrew Bragshaw and Christopher Parry, hit by a bombing while trying to evacuate civilians from the town of Soledar, remind us that the refusal by humanitarians of the “transfer of risk” must also sometimes be a refusal of too great a risk… Things are decided on a case by case basis, day by day, with anticipation, a complete and fine reading of all the security indicators.

In conclusion

From this visit to Ukraine, I have come away with the feeling that the functioning of the humanitarian system must be adapted to this crisis. This crisis places us before a form of operational necessity: The bureaucratic reflex of covering structural risks must be restricted, so as not to forget the purpose of the said system, which is to respond in time to the needs of human beings in distress… And why not plead with donors for the implementation of a simplified and rapid RRM (Rapid Response Mechanism) system for areas close to the front line? …

One last impression, beyond the strictly humanitarian issues: Ukraine is a large country, and travelling from one region to another requires long hours by car. Quite often, along the roads, I have seen cemeteries. The old part, born from successive generations, is easily recognizable, patinated by time; the recent parts, made of fresh, new graves, often surmounted by a small Ukrainian flag, also. But these are often as important, and sometimes bigger, than the old parts. This is also the impact of a war.

Pierre Brunet
Writer and Humanitarian

Born in 1961 in Paris to a French father and a Spanish mother, Pierre Brunet found his first vocation as a freelance journalist. In 1994, he crossed paths with humanitarian aid and volunteered in Rwanda, which had been devastated by genocide. In early 1995, he left on a humanitarian mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, then torn by civil war. There he took on the responsibilities of program coordinator in Sarajevo, then head of mission.
Upon his return to France at the end of 1996, he joined the headquarters of the French NGO SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL, for which he had gone on mission. He will be in charge of communication and fundraising, while returning to the field, as in Afghanistan in 2003, and starting to write… In 2011, while remaining involved in humanitarian work, he commits himself totally to writing, and devotes an essential part of his time to his vocation of writer.
Pierre Brunet is Vice-President of the association SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL. He has been in the field in the North-East of Syria, in the “jungle” of Calais in November 2015, and in Greece and Macedonia with migrants in April 2016.