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Is Ukraine’s aid bonanza coming at the expense of other crises?

‘It presents a challenge and opportunity for donors to dig deep and find additional resources.’

Emanuele Del Rosso/Cartoon Movement

As near-record levels of funding fill the coffers of the Ukrainian aid response, humanitarian insiders worry that resources may be diverted from other crises that are receiving scant attention and remain badly underfunded – from Afghanistan to Yemen to the Horn of Africa.

Numerous factors are contributing to the unusually generous outpouring for Ukraine: the huge geopolitical significance and economic fallout of the Russian invasion; the sheer speed and scale of the displacement crisis; not to mention the 24/7, wall-to-wall media coverage.

But some also see double standards, even elements of racism, in the lopsided levels of assistance going to Ukraine compared to other crises raging around the world.

Meanwhile, those coordinating international aid efforts are confronted by a growing gap between funding and needs, a bleak donor outlook, and the risk that the war in Ukraine is turbocharging a global food and cost-of-living crisis.

The United States announced on 24 March that it is donating $1 billion to help countries in Europe absorb refugees from Ukraine. That’s on top of the $1.5 billion pledged by donor states to support humanitarian efforts in Ukraine and neighbouring countries at a funding conference earlier this month. "This is among the fastest and most generous responses a humanitarian flash appeal has ever received," UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told journalists after the Geneva gathering. 

That outcome sits in stark contrast to last week’s pledging conference for Yemen, where donors raised less than a third of the $4.3 billion the UN deemed necessary to respond to one of the world’s largest and most complex humanitarian emergencies. 

In Yemen, crippled basic services and a collapsed economy have left an estimated 20.7 million people (more than two thirds of the population) in need of urgent assistance – amid escalating conflict involving numerous different actors. 

After the Yemen pledging event, the UN’s top humanitarian, Martin Griffiths, noted his “disappointment”. Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, was more explicit: “The people of Yemen need the same level of support and solidarity that we’ve seen for the people of Ukraine.”

Persistently underfunded – but acute – crises

It’s not just Yemen that’s receiving a fraction of what it needs from the world’s richest nations. Humanitarian crises are spiralling out of control in many parts of the globe: Afghanistan, where international sanctions on the Taliban have cut off a large proportion of the usual assistance even as the economy and healthcare systems collapse; the Horn of Africa, which risks slipping almost unnoticed towards famine; Ethiopia, where the epicentre of conflict has moved from Tigray to the Afar region; and post-coup Myanmar, where critics of international inaction have described an “aid void”.

Read more → Beyond Ukraine: Eight more humanitarian disasters that demand your attention

For those trying to conduct a coordinated global aid response, the worry is that oversized attention on Ukraine will suck resources – both financial and human – from other crises that are already facing unprecedented funding shortages. 

Ukraine has also received almost three times as much as the next highest recipient of the UN’s rapid response funding mechanism, with $60 million going towards its appeal. 

“If we care so much about people suffering in Ukraine, we should care as much about people in [places like] Somalia, Burkina Faso, South Sudan, Pakistan, where the scale of need is high,” Gareth Price-Jones, executive secretary of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, an alliance of international aid groups, told The New Humanitarian. “It’s so frustrating that [other countries] don’t get the level of support they’re entitled to. We’re struggling because [they] don’t have the same geopolitical element to [them].”

Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, these funding shortages were leading to curtailed programmes and cut rations in responses around the world.

Despite relatively high levels of donor contributions in 2021 – 46 percent of requirements met – the $20.5 billion gap to what was needed was still the largest ever.

That gap only looks likely to grow. Donor states who took on debt to boost their social services during the pandemic are now facing runaway inflation and a cost of living crisis – with everything from the price of gas at the pump to basic foodstuffs going through the roof.

The mass media effect

Since the start of the Russian invasion, there has been a near-constant barrage of Western media coverage of the conflict, which clearly drives generosity among private citizens, even if experts believe its effect on donor governments is more limited.

On 2 March, the day after the UN appeal was launched, 20 of the 22 stories on the BBC’s “World” page were related to Russia and Ukraine. It wasn’t alone. On the same day, Ukraine coverage took up the first eight stories on Al Jazeera’s homepage, and all six of its opinions. 

Citizens have certainly responded, digging into their pockets despite the uncertain economic times to amass vast levels of private donations for Ukraine.

All kinds of donations are popping up: from the more than $54.7 million donated in crypto-assets, to people booking and paying for $15 million worth of phantom lodging on Airbnb to inject fast cash into the hands of Ukrainians. College students have developed lodging apps, and celebrities are in the mix as well – a GoFundMe campaign started by Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, who was born in Ukraine, has raised over $35 million

Such aid largesse isn’t unheard of. Certain high-profile emergencies have generated overwhelming solidarity and private giving in the past. The 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami response is the most striking case in point: Near-non-stop media coverage and its timing around Christmas spurred unprecedented levels of generosity, so much so that some groups had to turn off the faucet because it was too much for them to actually spend.

Aid groups and governments are urging well-intentioned people to send cash rather than shipping and trucking stuff – clothing, blankets, and teddy bears – from afar. Poland has specifically requested this kind of giving stops, as the “unloading, storage, selection and distribution procedure – generates disproportionate amounts of additional work and cost”.

But in addition to the onslaught of media attention, experts note that there’s a mix of influences driving the generosity; a “big ecosystem” of factors, as Kate Wright, a fellow in media and communication at the University of Edinburgh, told The New Humanitarian. 

“In almost all cases, the allocation of humanitarian aid to one crisis and not another is driven by a combination of humanitarian concerns, levels of unmet need, and political concerns… [in other words] strategic relevance,” said Martin Scott, senior lecturer in media and international development at the University of East Anglia, referring to institutional donor behaviour.

Scott noted that while “the media is encouraging us to care and feel…, facilitating those donations” at an individual level, it is geopolitics driving donor states’ aid allocations to Ukraine. “It’s one of the fastest refugee crises in a long time,” he explained. “There are huge amounts of unmet humanitarian need. And refugees are literally going straight into the countries of some of the biggest humanitarian donors.”

Racism vs. neighbourly solidarity

But while many are lauding this amazing generosity, some observers are asking why only now, why only for Ukrainians, why not for Ethiopians, for Syrians, for Iraqis, for Palestinians – and claim that it is racism driving the disparity. 

“Those critiques [about racism] are well heard,” said Price-Jones. He likened the situation to his time working in Kosovo in the late 1990s – a conflict, also on European soil, that garnered several times more funding than comparable crises at the time. “Those critiques are much louder now,” he reflected.   

Others, like Smruti Patel, a coordinator for Alliance for Empowering Partnership (A4EP), a network supporting organisations in the Global South, see a more nuanced picture. “The imbalance with Ukraine is not due to pure racism,” she told The New Humanitarian. “When something is near and you can see and feel it, it has a different way of tugging on your heart than other, more far away places.”

The warmth of the regional welcome isn’t all that different from what other parts of the world experience, stressed Gabriella Waaijman, Save the Children’s global humanitarian director. “During the war in South Sudan, you saw Uganda and Kenya and other neighbouring countries open their doors and allow millions of people to settle in their countries,” she said. “It’s neighbours responding to the needs of their neighbours.” 

However, what did incense Patel was the racism being dished out to people other than Ukrainians showing up at borders. “They were greeted with [violence] instead of open arms,” she said. “That is what strikes most people… as racist.”

The media has also been critiqued for its racist undertones – normalising conflict and brutality in far away places, especially in African and Middle Eastern countries, while displaying shock and outrage when it happens in Europe.

Ukraine diversion? 

Given all these concerns, many humanitarians are advocating that whatever is donated towards Ukraine must come on top of what donors will give elsewhere – it mustn’t be diverted from aid funding for existing crises.

ALNAP, an organisation dedicated to learning in the aid sector, said there’s a strong impulse historically among donors and aid groups to divert resources from ongoing lower-profile crises to new high-profile emergencies, often to the detriment of other people equally in need.

Waaijman said Save the Children is already experiencing this funding diversion among its donors: One communicated that their funding for programmes in Venezuela would have to be cut short because they need the money for Ukraine. Others noted the same, but didn’t want to publicise the details for fear of damaging relationships. 

“What the children in Ukraine have gone through is horrendous and deserves our support,” said Waaijman. “But there are children in so many other places who have equally gone through hell and survived bombardments and displacements and had to leave everything behind. They deserve our love and solidarity too.”

At the UN pledging event for Ukraine, numerous ministers parroted a consistent message: This will not be diverted from elsewhere; this will be additional funding. This was repeated by European foreign ministers at a humanitarian event in Brussels on Monday. And Jutta Urpilainen, the EU’s commissioner for international partnerships, told journalists in Geneva on Thursday: “I want to pass a message that we have not forgotten the rest of the world.”

“It’s the first time I remember hearing anything like this – so many donors saying the same thing,” Julie Thompson, an official at the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, told The New Humanitarian. “It would be dangerous to allow funding for Ukraine to draw away from the high needs overall for this year. It presents a challenge and opportunity for donors to dig deep and find additional resources.”

However, several aid observers reckoned it was inevitable that such high levels of new funding for Ukraine would put a dent in donor appetites elsewhere.

Most donor states set aid budgets at the beginning of the fiscal year, and tap into reserves for unforeseen crises: a rapid escalation of conflict or a sudden onset disaster. Those reserves could be eaten up by Ukraine, and if there’s another emergency later in the year, many observers wondered where that funding would come from, especially given the dire macroeconomic outlook.

“There are children in so many other places who have equally gone through hell and survived bombardments and displacements and had to leave everything behind. They deserve our love and solidarity too.”

And despite the reassurances, Filippo Grandi, the head of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, remains “very worried.” He told the European Humanitarian Forum in Brussels that some states, including European member states, are utilising [Official Development Assistance] to respond to hosting refugees. “Unless we ringfence the resources that are dedicated to responding to crises... in all parts of the world, we risk – once, hopefully, the crisis in Ukraine dies down – … a huge backfire of other crises that have become much worse and even more difficult to address.”

How to spend it?

In Ukraine and neighbouring countries, Waaijman wasn’t so worried about the amount of funding – the needs will be high for the foreseeable future – but the time pressure in which to spend the money.

Right now, she said, people coming across the borders are those who can afford to. In a few months time, the people left in Ukraine will be the most vulnerable, and humanitarian access is likely to improve. “So,” she added, “if we spend all our money in the first six months of the response, we’re potentially not spending on the most vulnerable.”

To avoid this imbalance and time crunch in which to spend, aid groups advocate for money to be more flexible, so it can be spent at their discretion – for example on an underfunded crisis or on needs that fall outside a short spending window. However, overall, donors remain reluctant to give unrestricted funds – data from 2020 shows only 17 percent of humanitarian funding to UN organisations was unearmarked. 

Many of the big international NGOs (INGOs) and UN agencies are just setting up their operations for Ukraine. Meanwhile, countless local groups are providing aid. Patel urged donors to invest in those local groups – because when attention wanes, as it will, the international groups will inevitably turn elsewhere. “If we put that same investment into local capacity, then the response will be sustained” even when the cameras turn off, she explained. 

Most of all, however, aid insiders were concerned about the longer term fallout of the Ukraine conflict on global food insecurity and poverty levels – ripple effects that will make many underfunded humanitarian emergencies even more acute.  

“The world is watching,” said Patel. “This is about trust, about seeing a conscious effort to make sure that others have equal resources as well.” 

Data visualisation by Josie Rozzelle. Edited by Andrew Gully.

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