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How the focus on Ukraine is hurting other humanitarian responses

‘The long-term picture is a bleak one.’

Worsening drought is pushing millions in Somalia towards starvation, including these women and children waiting for a malnutrition screening on 24 May 2022. The war in Ukraine has driven up the cost of providing aid and diverted attention and resources. Feisal Omar/REUTERS
Worsening drought is pushing millions in Somalia towards starvation, including these women and children waiting for a malnutrition screening on 24 May 2022. The war in Ukraine has driven up the cost of providing aid and diverted attention and resources.

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In the more than four months since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, aid workers say attention, resources, and expertise have been diverted away from crises elsewhere, forcing cuts to life-saving services and interrupting the distribution of vital supplies.

Now, as rates of inflation spike and supply chains falter, many of those working for humanitarian organisations in vulnerable regions say they’re unable to assist those in desperate need, while donors look the other way.

Across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the story is largely the same, according to more than two dozen aid workers interviewed by The New Humanitarian: Despite increasingly urgent fundraising campaigns for countries on the brink of disaster, political interest remains fixed on Ukraine, with donor pledges following suit – even though many senior humanitarian figures argue that funds are now more urgently needed elsewhere. 

“There is no sensible humanitarian group who would say that they are not, at the moment, fully funded for Ukraine,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). “And none of them would say that they have enough funding for, say, Somalia.” 

Even in Ukraine, the high level of funding isn’t necessarily trickling down to local organisations working on the front lines, Egeland added. And aid workers and displaced people there say assistance still isn’t reaching people who need it fast enough, or at times at all. 

Read more → Ukraine aid response shifts gears for the long haul  

The gulf in donor support globally is wide. The UN’s appeal for Ukraine is more than 80 percent funded for this year. In comparison, the UN response plan for Afghanistan is around 38 percent funded, Yemen’s is around 27 percent funded, and Sudan’s is around 20 percent funded. 

Such disparity is concerning for Hajir Maalim, Action Against Hunger’s regional director for the Horn and Eastern Africa – where this year’s rainy season was potentially the driest on record and more than 18 million people are experiencing high levels of food insecurity and rising malnutrition due to drought.

 Look at our data breakdown of the Ukraine effect

After more than a decade of experience providing emergency aid in countries including Ethiopia and Yemen, it’s not the growing crises in the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Haiti, or dozens of other countries around the world that worry him. “It’s the lack of [international] response,” Maalim told The New Humanitarian.

With inflation further stretching scant budgets, aid workers fear additional funding cuts loom on the horizon. “The signals suggest it’s coming,” said Egeland. “The long-term picture is a bleak one.”

A perfect storm

That the conflict in Ukraine would affect international humanitarian supply chains was immediately obvious following Russia’s invasion, according to Egeland.

Almost overnight, rates of inflation – already climbing following the coronavirus pandemic – skyrocketed, sending international markets spiralling out of control and pushing countries thousands of miles away towards economic collapse. Global fuel prices doubled and food costs spiked in tandem, the latter worsened by a sudden halt in exports from Ukraine and Russia, both agricultural superpowers that had until February provided 44 percent of Africa’s wheat.

For aid organisations, the repercussions are grave. The cost of transporting emergency supplies to crisis zones has shot upwards, with the supplies themselves now costing at least 20 percent more than before. Just weeks after the invasion began, many humanitarian groups began to admit they were already struggling to keep up.

In the Horn of Africa, the impact of the war in Ukraine coincided with the worsening drought, to devastating effect. Children are starving, and nobody is sending help, said Ahmed Khalif, Action Against Hunger’s country director in Somalia. In recent months, the number of Somalis seeking urgent support has multiplied, while the aid sector’s already-limited resources are running worryingly low. Khalif and his peers have suspended crucial resilience-building programmes to invest their remaining resources in emergency interventions, such as distributing food and water, but death rates are still beginning to climb.

The funding they’re receiving is not nearly enough, Khalif said. Somalia’s malnutrition centres are full of children who haven’t eaten in days – skin loose over sharp bones, their mothers’ eyes frightened and wide. Recently, he has started meeting men his father’s age who describe losing whole herds of goats to disease and drought. As they beg Khalif for help, they cry. 

“I can feel their pain,” Khalif told The New Humanitarian by phone. “There's so much that could have been done to prevent things from deteriorating to that extent.” 

The soaring cost of fuel also means people are going without emergency medical treatment, with generator-dependent health clinics no longer able to afford to treat patients during the night. At least one large NGO-supported hospital on the outskirts of Mogadishu is only operating for 12 hours a day, down from 24. If a woman in labour needs assistance during the off hours, guards have to turn her away.

Elsewhere, the story is much the same. In Yemen – where more than 23 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance – monthly cash handouts that previously provided between $70-$100 per household are being stretched between four or five families at a time, while sachets of Plumpy’nut, a fortified peanut paste used to treat severe malnutrition, have become so expensive that aid workers report handing it out in half-portions to starving children. 

Global gaze fixed on Ukraine

In the weeks that followed the outbreak of war in Ukraine, NGOs in Latin America and the Horn of Africa say numerous attention-raising visits from diplomatic figureheads and leading officials were abruptly postponed. In May, UN relief chief Martin Griffiths travelled to Kenya on a two-day trip. It had originally been scheduled for February but was delayed by the onset of the Ukraine war. “That’s three months of essential time lost,” said Maalim.

During the last drought in 2017, the Horn of Africa benefited from multiple visits from senior political figures, each working to mobilise resources to the region, Maalim added. “The level of effort that was put into previous crises compared to the one today is very different,” he said.

Now, it seems countries have to reach breaking point in order to receive even a morsel of international attention and assistance.

For example, inflation in Sri Lanka has reached record highs over the past four months, with children dying because their parents can’t afford the fuel they need to travel to hospital. Doctors in one government hospital outside Colombo described being forced to perform invasive, painful procedures without anaesthesia, yet they believed the situation still isn't desperate enough to capture the world's interest – nor attract its financial support. 

As donors divert millions in development funding towards Eastern Europe, the south Asian country is edging closer towards what should be a preventable collapse. “If it turns into a humanitarian emergency, then there will be some attention and some funds, but we want to avoid that,” said UNICEF’s Sri Lanka representative, Christian Skoog.

Approximately $150,000 from Sweden, initially pledged to support child protection programmes in Sri Lanka, has already been reallocated to Ukraine instead, according to Skoog. “We need more funding now,” she said. 

“Tell me any place on Earth with 14 million people who were displaced in three months. There are no examples in recent history of the same thing happening.” 

But the issue goes beyond funding. In the early days of the war in Ukraine, emergency responders were redeployed from all over the world to meet the crowds of exhausted refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion. The expertise such staff provided was critical, according to Egeland from NRC. “[Ukraine] is a major emergency,” he said. “Tell me any place on Earth with 14 million people who were displaced in three months. There are no examples in recent history of the same thing happening.” 

Even so, the massive movement of staff is proving problematic, with aid workers left behind in other parts of the world saying the absence of their colleagues – combined with rising costs and dwindling resources – has made them unable to operate at full capacity. 

In Haiti, where political instability has seen poverty and gang violence reach dangerous heights, support on the ground is notably lacking. “Not only are our needs increasing, our ability to address the needs is decreasing,” Cara Buck, Mercy Corps’ country director in Port-au-Prince, told The New Humanitarian. 

At least one senior-level colleague who had been set to work with Buck’s team has been reassigned to Ukraine instead. “It has tangible effects on what we're trying to do here, because the resources and individuals that typically would be supporting us are no longer supporting us,” said Buck. “It's extremely frustrating.”

A long-term shift?

With no signs of the situation in Ukraine improving in the near future, NGOs and UN agencies are expanding their footprint in Eastern Europe: opening dozens of offices in neighbouring countries, and advertising hundreds of roles for staff. 

William Spindler, senior external engagement coordinator for the Americas for the UN’s refugee agency, told The New Humanitarian that while UNHCR is yet to feel the full impact of funding cuts in the region – the reallocation of human resources is already taking a toll.

“The only thing that is really affecting our operations is the loss of experience to Ukraine,” Spindler said. “The people who we normally have on standby in case of emergencies have already gone.” Now, UNHCR is talking about redeploying additional staff from other operations in Latin America to Ukraine, he added.

“Personally, when I go into a nutritional centre and find a child less than five years old dying in front of my eyes because of lack of access to water or food, I'm not the same when I go into that centre as when I come out of it.”

Filling the roles in other parts of the world that so many aid workers have vacated so they can work on Ukraine is proving an additional challenge. “There are some examples of it becoming [more difficult] to find qualified people to go to hardship posts in more remote places, compared to Europe,” said Egeland. “That’s a concern.”

For many of those who remain in the field, morale is at an all-time low.

In the past four months, Maalim has seen an increasing number of staff members struggle with their mental health. “Personally, when I go into a nutritional centre and find a child less than five years old dying in front of my eyes because of lack of access to water or food, I'm not the same when I go into that centre as when I come out of it,” he said. “Our current inability to assist people is having massive implications on our staff on the ground because they can’t support the people in need.” 

It doesn’t help that, as inflation rises, staff salaries have also taken a hit. Local employees for NGOs based in Africa and Latin America told The New Humanitarian that they and their colleagues are struggling to afford the fuel they need to get to work, while others expressed concern that if costs continue to surge, they won’t be able to afford to feed their own families. 

One full-time staff member for an international organisation in the Democratic Republic of Congo said he is considering taking a second job in the evenings – otherwise he won’t be able to afford to pay rent. “It affects me psychologically,” he told The New Humanitarian, asking to remain anonymous because he fears professional repercussions if his employer finds out he is planning to work two jobs. “You need money to survive,” he added.

Some organisations, such as Mercy Corps and NRC, have already begun the process of reviewing team members’ salaries to respond to the rapidly inflating cost of living. “Staff are really feeling the bite of price rises,” said Caitlin Brady, NRC’s country director in the DRC. “But probably we won’t be able to give them as much as they need – just because the situation here is so underfunded.” 

Need for sector-wide reform

For many, the conflict in Ukraine highlights pre-existing issues within the aid sector – exposing a world where attention spans are short, and funders are all-too fickle.

Last year, on Saturday 14 August, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti’s westernmost peninsula, killing more than 2,200 and leaving half a million people in need of urgent support. Over the following 48 hours, Buck and her team at Mercy Corps gave more than a dozen media interviews in a bid to raise funds. “But by Monday we knew that our window to advocate and increase visibility on Haiti was over,” she said. “After that, everyone moved on to Afghanistan.”

With the number of global disasters on the rise, experts say the humanitarian sector’s current approach to responding to crises is increasingly unsustainable – not to mention arguably dangerous.

“When you suddenly leave populations less protected, they're more likely to fall into further conflict,” said Tjada D'Oyen McKenna, Mercy Corps’ CEO. “You just amplify the problems and create more situations of instability. And that's exactly what we're supposed to be fighting.”

Many senior aid workers and experts believe the solution lies in sector-wide reform, shifting the current model of rapid emergency response to one of crisis prevention, where programmes last long-term and resources are less at risk of being abruptly diverted or cut. 

Oscar Gomez, associate professor of international relations and peace studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, supports this approach, but added that he would also like to see humanitarian actors pushing for more flexible contracts with public and private donors, enabling them to raise the full amount of funds they need for each crisis, while retaining the freedom to divert any excess elsewhere.

“Organisations could say, ‘You know, we don't need more money for Ukraine, so any additional money that you give us, we might move to a different crisis because the need is there’,” said Gomez. “But this is something that organisations don't want to do, because they don’t want to say no to money.” 

Until major players show willingness to publicly admit when they’ve reached their funding targets for a certain region, Gomez fears a repeat of the situation that followed the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. “You had all kinds of people out there doing stuff that didn't make sense, just because they had the money and they needed to spend it,” he said.

Five thousand miles away from Kyiv, in the Horn of Africa, Khalif from Action Against Hunger is struggling to remain hopeful about when help will return to Somalia. With every day that passes, more children are dying. “It’s never getting better, and we’re not getting the resources that we need,” he said. “We’re doing as much as we can, but it’s not enough. We need food. We need water. We need money.”

Edited by Eric Reidy.

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