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One year on, Ukraine exposes the limits of well-funded international aid

‘There are a lot of people falling through the cracks.’

A woman carries a box in a room full of humanitarian assistance items in Ukraine. Dmytro Smolienko/Abaca Press
Local volunteer Natalia Losieva distributes humanitarian assistance in southeastern Ukraine on 9 February 2023. Local NGOs are leading the response but struggling to get the resources and support they need from international organisations.

As the power returns following one of the now frequent electricity cuts that ripple across Ukraine, Kylyna Kurochka logs on to her laptop and finds herself faced with dozens of messages, each one begging for help.

“I'm 73 years old, my husband 78. We are IDPs (internally displaced people)... I have cancer and I have to have chemotherapy… We would be very grateful to you...” 

Until 12 months ago, Tarilka, the organisation Kurochka works for as a project manager, was a small food bank on the edge of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Now, it is one of hundreds of national NGOs and volunteer initiatives responding to the human suffering caused by Russia’s invasion, which began almost one year ago, on 24 February.

The requests Kurochka receives stack up over Facebook, Instagram, and email. Few – if any – will get a response. “We don't have the resources,” Kurochka says. “We’re doing what we can, but it’s always a struggle.”

In many ways, Kurochka’s experience is indicative of the paradox of the humanitarian response to Russia’s invasion. 

In the past year, Ukraine has received pledges of almost $17 billion in bilateral humanitarian aid – a number equivalent to more than half of all international humanitarian assistance in 2021. But despite the massive infusion of resources, Ukrainian organisations and volunteer initiatives on the front lines are struggling to secure much-needed financial support – even while acting as crucial intermediaries for international NGOs (INGOs) and UN agencies.

The process of applying for funding is so complicated and time-consuming that local NGOs can’t access the money they desperately need, more than a dozen Ukrainian aid workers told The New Humanitarian. Representatives of major international NGOs said their organisations were doing the best they could in dire circumstances, but accepted they were still falling short: bogged down by bureaucracy and human resources, or pressed to distribute aid as quickly and widely as possible, even if it means failing to meet Ukrainians’ real needs. 

“There are a lot of people falling through the cracks,” says Dora Chomiak, board president of Razom, a Ukrainian-American human rights organisation that has distributed more than $50 million in humanitarian aid in the past year through local NGOs and activist groups. “Frankly, I'd expected the larger aid organisations to have their act together more.”

Russia’s invasion has killed thousands of civilians and left almost 18 million people out of a population of around 43 million in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, according to the UN’s aid coordination body, OCHA. Many remain trapped close to the fighting in towns and villages largely inaccessible to INGOs or official aid convoys, who deem the areas too dangerous to visit. 

Around 14 million civilians have fled their homes – as IDPs or as refugees to other countries – while Russia’s repeated targeting of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure sees millions living in sub-zero temperatures without reliable electricity, water, and heating. Many are also lacking access to basic necessities and services such as food, medical care, and education. 

“The enemy of humanitarian intervention is statistics. When you get too deep into statistics, you lose sight of what people really need.”

“The damage is massive,” says Roberto Vila-Sexto, Ukraine country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). “The money that comes in, goes out relatively fast compared to other emergencies.”

Meanwhile, Russia appears to be launching a fresh offensive, intensifying its bombardment of Ukrainian towns and cities and ramping up military activity along frontlines in the east of the country.

Local and international aid workers say their organisations are already overwhelmed by the scale of need and agree that the amount of money being donated to Ukraine is justified – despite some criticism of resources and attention being diverted from other crises around the world. That so many people are still suffering in Ukraine is not because of intentional waste, they told The New Humanitarian, but a clear indication of the humanitarian sector’s need to prioritise long-term, flexible funding.*

Donor pressure and logistical challenges 

Cash transfer programmes are often the most effective form of humanitarian aid. Yet rigid funding conditions and unrealistic deadlines from donors are pushing organisations in Ukraine to prioritise faster and less impactful activities, such as indiscriminately handing out food parcels and hygiene kits, says Andrew Chernousov, a former UN consultant who is now a lawyer with Ukrainian nonprofit Voices of Children

“If you have 100,000 bucks and you have to spend them in one month, the only way to spend it is to arrange these huge distributions,” he says, adding that such programmes are driven by pressure to promote how many people an organisation has helped rather than real demand. 

“When [organisations] say they have supported 2,000 families, of course that is impressive. But the enemy of humanitarian intervention is statistics. When you get too deep into statistics, you lose sight of what people really need,” Chernousov adds. 

Expectations of what Ukrainians need during an emergency are often disconnected from reality, and donors frequently send what appears to be surplus stock rather than things that will actually help, according to local aid workers. Because of the power imbalance between foreign donors and NGOs, the items are usually accepted anyway. “We have received many, many, many products that are close to expiry or have already expired,” Chernousov says. “It's not the way of doing things, to refuse.”

“People from large aid organisations have told me that they were thrown for a loop when they confronted Ukraine because of Ukraine's established civil society and infrastructure.”

Often, food and medication expire before reaching their destination because they’ve sat in warehouses across Europe for months, according to Chernousov. “The processing capacity is not enough,” he says. “The logistics, the distribution, the delivery, and so on, are all late.” 

Aid might prove more effective if international NGOs had taken the time to adapt their programmes to the local context, says Chomiak, from Razom. “On several occasions, people from large aid organisations have told me that they were thrown for a loop when they confronted Ukraine because of Ukraine's established civil society and infrastructure,” she says. “There was active messaging that Ukraine was some backwards kind of place.” 

Iana Dashkovska, of children’s cancer charity Zaporuka, says she’s witnessed widespread ignorance of Ukraine’s healthcare system. International aid workers appear surprised to meet foreign doctors who have travelled to Ukraine to study rather than teach, she says, while donated medical technology is often years – if not decades – out of date. “We need new equipment, not old equipment,” she says. 

Meanwhile, a lack of flexibility among leading humanitarian agencies has led to waste and needs being left unmet. According to Dashkovska, some INGOs did not budget enough money for blankets last year and were unable to adjust their budgets when it became clear there would be a massive need for them once cold weather hit. They are now distributing thin, cheap blankets that are useless against the cold, she says. 

Dashkovska also recalls an urgent request for insulin in April that took more than five months to be processed, leaving patients to suffer untreated. By the time the shipment arrived, in September, insulin was easily available again. “The doctors sent the donations back,” she says.

The seemingly arbitrary lines that divide humanitarian and development funding also prevent NGOs from working at full capacity: More than 100,000 homes need rebuilding across Ukraine, but many humanitarian organisations are only allowed to carry out “light and medium” repairs, such as fixing broken windows or doors, says Anne-Marie Kerrigan-Derriche, senior external relations adviser for Ukraine at the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. Anything more intensive is typically considered a job for development NGOs – who rarely have access to the billions of dollars raised in humanitarian funds. 

Basic human resource issues and recruitment competition are also hampering essential aid operations. As dozens of NGOs scale up simultaneously, the process of hiring and training new employees can take months, says Vila-Sexto, from NRC, adding that some roles have to be advertised as many as 10 times, as local staff leave to take up better paid roles or more exciting opportunities with the UN.

“Every week, there’s a new gap that you thought you had already covered,” he says. “You invest all that time, and you come out empty handed.” 

Local response lacking recognition and support

As the international community makes slow progress, Ukrainian organisations and volunteers are leading the response – often at great personal risk. Sometimes unable to access or afford protective equipment, they brave Russian shelling to bring emergency aid to those near the front lines. 

Without Ukrainian volunteers and NGOs, it would be “impossible” for international organisations to deliver aid, says Karolina Soliar, coordinator of advocacy campaigns for Ukraine’s National Network for the Development of Local Philanthropy, also known as Philanthropy. She notes an industry-wide lack of transparency about this dynamic. “In their yearly reports… [foreign NGOs] are not mentioning the list of organisations that were part of their delivery system,” she says. 

In June last year, 14 of Philanthropy’s member organisations published an open letter asking donors and INGOs to streamline the process of applying for funds, and to credit Ukrainian nationals for their pivotal role in distributing aid. In the weeks that followed, more than 300 charities around the world added their signatures in support. But nine months later, little has changed. 

“In their yearly reports, foreign NGOs are not mentioning the list of organisations that were part of their delivery system.”

Local NGOs and volunteer-led initiatives “don’t understand how to apply for grants because the forms are very, very complicated and they don’t speak the necessary languages,” Dashkovska says. “If there’s a shelter in a small village, run by local people, they can’t apply – it’s impossible.”

“For organisations like the NRC, we’ve been working for a long time, so we understand the requirements," agrees Vila-Sexto. “I cannot even imagine a national NGO having to navigate the amount of bureaucracy behind a grant.”

Meanwhile, INGOs expect full progress reports from their local partners, written in English every two weeks, and it’s not uncommon for them to insist on approving every expense in advance. Corruption was a major issue in Ukraine before the war, so Ukrainian charities say these demands make sense, but still find them hard to fulfil. “Flexibility, that’s what they’re lacking,” says Kurochka, from Tarilka. “But I understand why [INGOs] are not flexible.”

Sometimes, the inflexibility is hard to justify, according to Soliar. In one instance, Philanthropy identified an empty school that could be used as accommodation for people who had lost their homes. But the network’s international funders couldn’t supply the necessary materials because they were only approved for use on private properties. 

“I cannot even imagine a national NGO having to navigate the amount of bureaucracy behind a grant.”

The 280 Days Charity Fund, a Ukrainian NGO working with vulnerable pregnant women and newborns, describes similar difficulties in procuring equipment for the country’s maternity hospitals. “We cannot choose [a supplier] that is to our liking,” co-founder Yulia Ridchenko says. “[Our partners] have to approve them. All this is controlled… It is a challenge.” 

Combined with the chaos of war, these issues are forcing people to live in unacceptable conditions, according to Charles Gaudry, head of emergency response for the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). While in Ukraine in January, he visited a shelter run by another NGO that had yet to install any boilers, forcing 45 residents to heat water on a two-ring stove. “They’re surviving, but it’s really very, very basic,” he says. “And that’s just one example of one building. There’s probably far worse.” 

If humanitarian agencies really want to help as many people as possible in Ukraine, they would make it easier for Ukrainian organisations to access their funding, and trust they know what to do with it, says Tetiana Stawnychy, president of the NGO Caritas Ukraine. “Order and transparency are important,” she says. “But building up the agency of local NGOs is also part of building up resilience in society.”

(*This section was edited on 15 February 2023 to remove a quote from Tetiana Stawnychy, the president of Caritas Ukraine. Stawnychy said it was not an accurate representation of her view of the international aid response.)

Edited by Eric Reidy.

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