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Reporter’s Diary: How did international aid misread Ukraine?

‘Perhaps it was a mistake we all made, of optimism, or of naive hope and belief that humanitarian principles can prevail.’

Children play outside of a school in May 2018 in Mariinka, near the line of contact that separated territory in eastern Ukraine held de facto by Russia from that under Ukrainian control.
Children play outside of a school in May 2018 in Mariinka, near the line of contact that separated territory in eastern Ukraine held de facto by Russia from that under Ukrainian control. (Lily Hyde/TNH)

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For eight years, as the conflict between proxy Russian forces and the Ukrainian army simmered in the Donbas region, the international aid and development communities prepared steadily for peace. In the course of just a few weeks, almost all their gains have been erased, as Ukraine has been engulfed again by war.

Even with all the aid infrastructure and capacity they had built since 2014, international agencies were caught utterly flat-footed when it came to being ready to address the massive, urgent needs caused by Russia’s full-scale invasion. Russia now looks set to concentrate all its forces on capturing Donbas, and there are no international organisations left on the ground in the east to provide desperately needed assistance.  

The week before the bigger war started, I was editing materials for a US-funded development programme, in Kyiv where I’ve lived for more than 15 years working as a journalist and as a consultant for health and development NGOs. As Russian troops amassed on the border, the documents described educational and small business successes that had helped people rebuild their lives and revitalise towns in Donbas. 

At the same time, I was reading news reports and receiving emergency alerts from the British government. While one set of messages in my email inbox was telling me to leave the country immediately, the other was highlighting universities in eastern Ukraine that were opening new classes, or farmers developing new lines of artisan cheeses.

Ukraine had come such a long way from the beginning of the war. And yet the war was just beginning.

‘Europe’s forgotten war’

East Ukraine in summer 2014 was my first experience of war. I was completely, woefully unprepared for it, shocked by the indiscriminate killing and by the total collapse of essential services. I visited frontline towns like Mariinka and Krasnohorivka that were being devastated by ongoing shelling. There was no gas, electricity, or water. People were living in dank basements, cooking what little food they had outside on fires. I felt as though I’d gone back to some primitive Dark Ages. 

I travelled with local volunteers – mostly from Protestant churches – who were evacuating civilians and delivering bread, cheap pasta, and diapers. These aid efforts were often chaotic and inefficient, and the volunteers took horrendous risks. But they were there, and international aid agencies were not. That’s when I got my first glimpse of how long it takes an international emergency response to get off the ground. That, too, shocked me.

The volunteers took horrendous risks. But they were there, and international aid agencies were not.

Within a year, after all the assessments had been done, every aid organisation I’d ever heard of was in eastern Ukraine. In Mariinka, the white jeeps beloved of aid agencies became a familiar sight, and the glass panels in the door of the town administration were covered in stickers with agency logos. Half the people in town carried aid-branded backpacks. Water tanks were provided to the schools and administration building. Second-hand clothes donated from all over piled up in the town’s House of Culture (a Soviet-era community centre). Organisations provided firewood, cash assistance, medicines, and legal and psychological counselling – even the Pope got involved, donating solid fuel stoves. 

Residents of the towns became experts at what they could get from where. Oleh, one of the first local volunteers I’d met, complained that all the aid was promoting a culture of freeloading, ruining communities’ initiative to make their own lives better.

But the attention didn’t last. By 2016, the annual aid budget requested for eastern Ukraine by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, was underfunded by over 50 percent – a trend that continued into 2021. Donors, as well as news editors, were less and less interested in the ongoing suffering of the largely elderly population living without healthcare, public services, or transport near the line of contact that separated territory held de facto by Russia from that under Ukrainian control. The conflict in Donbas became “Europe’s forgotten war”. 

As the line of contact became fixed, and fighting settled into a low-level, intractable, dreary grind that even Ukrainians in Kyiv could ignore, international agencies started to pivot away from emergency response. New funding opportunities focused on early recovery, self-sufficiency, and resilience – principles behind the triple nexus, which aims to have humanitarian, development, and peace actors work together to deliver aid, reduce risks and vulnerabilities, and ultimately end humanitarian needs. 

Mariinka’s high street – half ruined and wholly deserted in 2014 – gradually came back to life. An ATM opened, then a hairdresser, a bakery, and, finally, a café. The bakery was Oleh’s initiative, and aimed to create jobs while providing discounted bread to residents. Local cultural workers even started to put together a new exhibit in the Mariinka town museum dedicated to the conflict. 

Some of the humanitarian response, like cash assistance or water provision, saved lives and livelihoods. Some of it – like impractical donated evening gowns, or a town gas system that was repaired only for it to be impossible to supply gas from over the line of contact – became a bit of a joke. People still died every now and again, hit by shelling or blown up by a mine. But the region was trying to move forward.

During my visits, I learnt to stop asking people, “Why are you still here?”. Mariinka or Zolote or Avdiivka was their home, whether they were pensioners struggling to access basic medicines, utility workers risking their lives to repair water pipes under shelling, or teachers at schools where the windows were lined with sandbags and where mine safety awareness was a standard part of the curriculum.

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A landmine warning sign nestled in wildflowers near the crossing point in the line of contact in Stanytsia Luhanska, Luhansk oblast, July 2021.
Lily Hyde/TNH
A landmine warning sign nestled in wildflowers near the crossing point in the line of contact in Stanytsia Luhanska, Luhansk oblast, July 2021.

Preparing for peace

Along with humanitarian agencies and donors, the Ukrainian government and civil society were also starting to think beyond the war and about recovery and peace. 

In 2020 and 2021, I edited reports examining potential reintegration of the occupied territories in the east. Ukrainian think tanks documented a growing economic, informational, and social divide between Ukraine-controlled territory and that controlled by Russia. COVID-19 restrictions had been used as an excuse, primarily by the Russia-controlled side, to limit traffic across the line of contact, cutting family ties that had survived years of war. 

Ukraine and its international partners tried to counter this divide by offering university places without entrance exams, work opportunities, and a supposedly brighter future. The way to reunite the country was to rebuild a prosperous, peaceful, and free Ukraine as an alternative to life under Russian control. 

Even in early February 2022, as the warnings became increasingly dire, I mostly witnessed a sense of surprise from international agencies that the world was finally taking notice of Europe’s forgotten war.

While the aid response stayed underfunded, development banks and foreign government development agencies put huge funds towards repairing roads and medical, educational, and social facilities in eastern Ukraine. Organisations and donors coordinated with the Ukrainian government and local authorities to plan a complete overhaul of regional water supply networks and a new railway line. 

By 2021, OCHA and the humanitarian clusters had started preparing to withdraw from Ukraine, looking to hand over programmes to local authorities and community initiative groups they had nurtured. Donors like USAID and the EU funded multi-year economic and social development strategies for cities like Mariupol and Kramatorsk, seeking to position them away from Russia and within the European and global economy. 

The US-funded project I worked for launched a campaign promoting east Ukrainian goods and services, and opportunities for business investment. Another NGO that I did some communications work for continued to issue plaintive reminders that people along the line of contact were still living with no healthcare, transport, or even water supply. 

No one talked much publicly about conflict escalation and how to prepare for it. Even in early February 2022, as the warnings became increasingly dire, I mostly witnessed a sense of surprise from international agencies that the world was finally taking notice of Europe’s forgotten war, accompanied by frustration that the interest was overwhelmingly focused on military developments, and not civilians. 

One agency spokesperson told me that, in terms of humanitarian needs, the situation on the ground was “not something that is new”. 

And then the unthinkable “something new” happened. 

Erased 

Since late February, that infrastructure in Donbas that was repaired by humanitarian programmes, and those buildings that were rebuilt and equipped by development grants, have been under constant bombardment. The revived and boosted essential services have collapsed. People are once more sheltering in basements and cooking the little food they have over open fires. A hospital in Vuhledar had just got new windows when Oleh saw them all blown out by a cluster munition on 27 February, killing four medical workers and wounding six others.

While war is now affecting the whole country, the situation in towns in Donbas is worse than it was in 2014. And the international aid agencies are not there. They halted field programmes in eastern Ukraine within days, even hours, of the new invasion. Staff who remained in offices in Kramatorsk, Mariupol, and Severodonetsk are being shelled and blockaded. From new offices hastily set up in west Ukraine, or over the border in Poland or Slovakia, agencies with an eight-year history in Ukraine are scrambling to respond to the massive new crisis – at least 12 million people are estimated to be in need of humanitarian assistance as civilians throughout the country have been indiscriminately targeted, supply lines have been disrupted, and essential services in frontline areas have collapsed.

He has been displaced from yet another home by war, but is still careening along roads under shelling, delivering bread, pasta, and diapers – as if it’s 2014 again. 

According to the UN, the most intense hostilities and highest civilian casualty rates are still in Donbas. The Ukrainian government has called on all residents to leave the region, as Russia focuses its assault there after being pushed back from Kyiv. It is increasingly difficult to find out what is happening in the small towns on or near what used to be the line of contact. 

I recently managed to speak to Oleh, the volunteer who first took me to Mariinka. He has been displaced from yet another home by war, but is still careening along roads under shelling, delivering bread, pasta, and diapers – as if it’s 2014 again. After the attack on the hospital in Vuhledar, he helped pick up the corpses. Recently, his van was nearly hit by shelling. 

“Mariinka is being wiped off the face of the Earth,” he told me. “Eighty percent of what you know there has gone.” 

I think of the things I know from Mariinka: a new children’s playground; a “last bell” celebration to mark the end of the school year; laughing women in the bakery picking through comical donated clothes as they waited to take from the oven a korovai – a festive wedding loaf they had decorated with flowers and stars.

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Residents swimming in a flooded quarry known locally as 'the Maldives' in Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine, July 2021.
Lily Hyde/TNH
Residents swimming in a flooded quarry known locally as “the Maldives” in Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine, July 2021.

I last visited Donbas on a reporting trip in summer 2021, driving along the whole line of contact from north to south. The region is often described as a blighted post-war, post-industrial wasteland, but that summer it was beautiful. Red signs warning of landmines nestled in masses of wild flowers; fields of yellow wheat shimmered under blue skies.

In small settlements like Zolote, people were still living in the ruins of 2014, with no water and no public transport. In other towns, like Mariinka, houses, schools, and hospitals had new roofs and windows. A folksy restaurant in Avdiivka was hosting a huge wedding party. It was probably my first visit to the front line in eight years when, in almost a week, I didn’t hear a single, distant gunshot or explosion.

Looking back over the aid response in Donbas, it’s easy to wonder how we misread the signs. It’s easy, too, to be disappointed that even with all the expertise and infrastructure built over eight years, the UN and the major agencies proved so unready for today’s crisis. 

But perhaps it was a mistake we all made, of optimism, or of naive hope and belief that humanitarian principles can prevail. For eight years in Ukraine, the humanitarian and development community had prepared for peace. Instead, it should have been preparing for war.

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