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Is Ukraine the next tipping point for humanitarian aid reform?

‘This is a chance to accelerate progress… and make the curve sharper towards better aid.’

Residents of Mariupol, a port in eastern Ukraine, gather to receive humanitarian aid on 28 April 2022. The city became fully occupied by Russian forces in early May after a months-long siege. Alexander Ermochenko/REUTERS
Residents of Mariupol, a port in eastern Ukraine, gather to receive humanitarian aid on 28 April 2022. The city became fully occupied by Russian forces in early May after a months-long siege.

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Mega-crises have the potential to trigger sector-wide humanitarian reform. The aid responses to these crises are usually highly visible, attract generous levels of funding, and involve numerous and varied humanitarian responders. They also expose areas where there has been insufficient progress and where aid approaches may need a rethink.

Ukraine is today’s mega-crisis. 

The pressure is on to avoid past mistakes that the sector knows all too well. And some are hopeful that some of the solutions being applied in Ukraine can be exported elsewhere. 

Crises like these come around every few years. The failed response to the 1994 Rwandan genocide led to a more professional aid sector. The response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami kickstarted improved accountability and a more coordinated humanitarian system. The 2010 Haiti earthquake spurred reforms for better leadership and a more proactive approach to communicating with affected communities. The 2013 response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines reignited calls for putting local responders in the lead. 

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters a sixth month, some thorny challenges have, again, come to the fore. They include: getting money into the hands of an active local population that is leading the bulk of the response; reconciling bedrock humanitarian principles like neutrality and impartiality in a context where donors are largely supporting Ukrainian interests and where they’re not universally accepted; and balancing an appropriate aid package for middle-class Europeans with what is provided in other settings around the globe.

Billions of dollars are pouring into Ukraine and its neighbouring host states, a testament to the geopolitical significance of the conflict. But the response is also exposing exceptions and double standards

Here’s a look at some of the key issues to have emerged in Ukraine, and at the ways those both inside and outside the aid sector are working to address them – perhaps setting a path forward for changes in other responses, now and in the future.

Non-traditional humanitarians, and non-traditional ways of funding them

You don’t have to wear a blue badge to be a humanitarian: Pop-up volunteer brigades, community groups, or next-door neighbours are frontline responders in any crisis. That’s especially true in Ukraine, where a new cast of aid providers is challenging narrow assumptions of what makes a humanitarian – and who can receive official funding.

From the outset, much of the work has been done through volunteer networks. Those might be a group of women providing hot meals to their neighbours, young people delivering food to the elderly, or a few people organising evacuations by buying a used car and some fuel.

“The majority of people who are doing the response are the neighbours, the youth, church groups – people who felt solidarity and decided to act,” Esteban Sacco, acting head of office in Ukraine for the UN’s emergency aid body, OCHA, told a webinar hosted by ALNAP, an aid evaluation network, and others in early July. 

As many of these groups don’t have an organisational bank account and aren’t formally registered as humanitarian NGOs, they aren’t eligible for the traditional humanitarian funding that goes to local organisations, Sacco explained, speaking from Lviv in western Ukraine.

“If we want to help volunteers who don’t have a bank account, I need to bring [them money] in a suitcase. Are we willing to change to allow for that?” he asked. 

Institutional donors, whose funds come from taxpayers, hold a high degree of fiduciary accountability and compliance to minimise corruption. It is seen as particularly crucial in Ukraine, which ranked second to last in Europe on the Corruption Perceptions Index in 2021 – ahead of only Russia. 

“We have a due diligence set up over the years, with donors, about accountability and transparency, and now [we are] seeing how we can break the system, bend the rules,” Sacco said.

Donor countries may be willing to tolerate more risk of corruption and waste because supporting Ukraine aligns with their broader geopolitical interests. But funding these off-the-books volunteer groups sets a precedent for the aid sector. If it’s acceptable in Ukraine, why not elsewhere?

“We’ll be asked the same questions in all the countries we work, because [these groups] exist too in those countries,” Sacco said. 

Taking the plunge: Shifting money and decision-making to local groups

The Ukraine crisis is exposing the aid sector’s failure to make good on promises to shift power and funding to frontline groups. Despite their presence and action from the outset, local NGOs are still getting the short end of the stick. 

According to research by UK-based aid analysts Humanitarian Outcomes, only 0.003 percent of appeal funding for Ukraine went directly to national NGOs by the end of May. The figure is well below an already low bar (some 1.2 percent went to local groups globally in 2021), and exponentially short of long-standing targets.

By now, many local organisations in the region are running out of steam, exhausting their resources, burning out. Industry insiders have questioned how it’s possible that these groups were so blatantly excluded in the appeals despite the 25 percent direct-funding promises flaunted in global policy commitments

It comes down to the aid system’s persistent intolerance of financial risks and its stringent compliance measures, which disincentivise international actors to sub-grant to some of the most important actors, said Abby Stoddard, co-founder of Humanitarian Outcomes, who also spoke at the ALNAP-hosted gathering. 

Local organisations – and international ones too – have long begrudged the rigorous vetting processes required to meet fiduciary compliance in order to receive funding from donor governments, or from many UN agencies or INGOs. Meeting them is simply not feasible for many local groups, in Ukraine and elsewhere, especially those working around the clock on the front lines to provide aid. 

“The vetting processes for groups who barely have time to take care of their families and neighbours [don’t] make sense,” Stoddard said. 

She noted that organisational change won’t happen without incentives. Donors should pressure international groups to pass money on to these local groups, she said. “How fast can you deliver to volunteer organisations? Let that be their application [for funding], and that first grant should be the pilot where it’s tested.” 

“If this doesn’t happen in Ukraine and Europe, it obviously won’t happen elsewhere.”

Patrick Saez, a senior research fellow at the Humanitarian Policy Group, a UK-based think tank, agreed. “When is it ok [for international organisations] to say, ‘no, I’m not going to work in Ukraine actually, but will work through local civil society organisations’,” he said in June by phone.

“There are so many missed opportunities to rethink the way they work,” Saez said. “If this doesn’t happen in Ukraine and Europe, it obviously won’t happen elsewhere.”

Meanwhile, as many international organisations do the opposite – set up office space and look for lodgings for their expat staff – there is concern that expats are pricing IDPs out of affordable accommodation.

Some groups are already implementing more direct funding models. Christian Aid, for example, has been working through a local partner, The Ukrainian Alliance for Public Health, to distribute small grants to what Michael Mosselmans, head of the UK-based charity’s humanitarian division, calls “community pop-up groups”. 

Due to Ukrainian law, these groups must also be registered as NGOs to receive funding. Christian Aid is helping the smaller pop-ups to get registered if they wish, while also advocating to change the rules. 

Much of the funding for local groups in Ukraine has come from the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), a fundraising alliance of 15 British organisations. The DEC has made its funding for Ukraine more flexible and adaptive, having learned from past mega-crises where flexibility was key to more effective programming. 

With 17.5 million GBP ($21 million) to spend over the next three to five years from DEC – the largest amount Christian Aid has received from the alliance since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami – Mosselmans told The New Humanitarian he hopes they’ll be able to implement this local-centred approach on a higher scale than in previous responses. 

“If we are able to demonstrate that this way… works, some donors may be less wary to do it elsewhere,” he said.

But if donors truly mean to cede control to local outfits, they must be comfortable with locals’ choices. Christian Aid applied their approach in Haiti, giving funding directly to local groups to decide how best to spend it. Some used it to rebuild roads to access the market, others to clear canals. But one group used the money to organise a football competition, which brought relief to the community. 

“That’s what I like best about this [way of working],” said Mosselmans. “You might say, ‘you can give money to people for food, water, shelter’, but there’s [also] a role for football.” 

But Mosselmans acknowledged that the road to significant sector-wide reform will be long.

“It’s a slow, gradual, bumpy journey over decades,” he said. “[This is] a chance to accelerate progress… and make the curve sharper towards better aid.”

Challenging the concept of neutrality: Honesty and weapons

Can weapons or even indirect military support be considered humanitarian aid? The very idea is anathema to those holding traditional views on humanitarian neutrality, but it’s a genuine question from many Ukrainians.

The civilian population and the military say they face a common enemy in Ukraine, and aid workers have observed that those benefiting from emergency aid don’t understand why assistance can’t also go to the military. That the question is even being asked is a sign of how the crisis in Ukraine is challenging a sector that holds the principle of neutrality as sacrosanct.

“When you talk about principles to health authorities, they say, ‘We’re trying to save our population; we don’t give a damn about humanitarian principles’,” said François Grünewald, whose organisation, Groupe URD, is researching aid coordination and solidarity in Ukraine.

This neutrality dilemma isn’t new, but it may be more stark here than in other conflict zones, where civilians are typically caught in the middle of multiple fighting factions. Ukraine is resurfacing an uncomfortable hypocrisy: International aid groups like to stress their neutrality, but they also accept funds from donors who have open geopolitical interests, and who often also support the Ukrainian military (albeit through different budget lines).

Aid groups operating in Ukraine also recognise that there’s no way to control where their assistance ends up.

“I’m pretty sure that cash is [going] to a woman who will send it to her husband or father on the front line,” Sacco said. “We provide food to people who will share with their son who is working [in] a defence force.” 

While relief organisations and donors may be able to look the other way in that last mile of delivery for Ukraine, it’s hard to ignore the apparent double standard. For example, would they be comfortable with aid being diverted to family members of a terrorist group in Somalia or Afghanistan? 

It’s beautiful for Ukrainians; it’s a bit disgusting for the others.” 

And this isn’t the only double standard. The EU’s countless harsh border policies – supporting the Libyan Coast Guard, financing camps in Greece, tolerating pushbacks in Croatia and at the Poland-Belarus border – all conflict with the Ukrainian experience. 

While the red carpet has been rolled out for fleeing Ukrainians, Grünewald noted: It’s beautiful for Ukranians; it’s a bit disgusting for the others.” 

Middle-class needs: Pet food and washing machines

Humanitarian responders abide by a set of operational standards that dictate the minimum basics of aid delivery: how many kilocalories per person per day, how many litres of water, how many tarps per family unit. 

Ukraine responders may find pet food rations added to the list. 

"You have people who are often highly educated, living… in modern cities… with the young people used to going on holiday skiing or surfing in Europe. You don't deal with them by bringing the classical humanitarian package,” said Grünewald. 

“We had a similar debate in the Balkans and Kosovo,” he said, recalling the war in the late 1990s when some suggested there should be “maximum standards”, given the large amounts of assistance being provided in comparison with other humanitarian crises. In 1999, the per capita allocation for people in Kosovo was $207; people in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the time received only $8. 

“The debate then was: ‘Why do we give something sophisticated for Kosovars and just bags of maize in Mozambique? Are we providing according to need or according to cultural habits?’”

Today’s questions aren’t so different. 

Requests for assistance from people in Ukraine have ranged from washing machines in centres housing dozens of women and children, to pet food.

During the evacuation from the now-Russian-occupied city of Mariupol, Sacco met Ukrainians who had sheltered with their pets, sharing their food with them. During his recent trip to Ukraine, Mosselmans saw cats and dogs that displaced people had brought with them to shelters. 

Despite donor promises that their attention remains on crises beyond Ukraine, aid groups and the people they support are feeling the repercussions of contradictory actions, as the Ukraine response sucks resources from many other crises

While healthy Ukrainian pets could constitute a legitimate psychosocial project for children and families, funding for it may come at the expense of underfunded food security operations in Ethiopia, protection services in Yemen, or health provision in South Sudan. 

“In another context it would be unthinkable… financing food for pets,” Sacco said. 

Unthinkable for parts of the world where humanitarian funding is less than half of what is needed, and where extreme hunger plus crippling poverty mean that aid responders struggle to provide just the basics.

Edited by Josephine Schmidt.

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