invasion of Ukraine on February 22 sent shockwaves around the world. More than
11 million people have been displaced, including two-thirds of Ukraine's
that, nearly four million have fled to neighboring countries, including
Hungary, Moldova, and Poland. Records
posted on April 13, 2022 document 2,685 civilian deaths. Finally, 2,613 people
were reported to have been injured, according to the Office of the United
Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR ) 
Volodymyr Dubovyk, professor of international relations at Mechnikov National
University in Odessa, Ukraine, believes the number of displaced persons is much
higher. “Western Ukraine is full of people from eastern, southern and central
Ukraine. And I think it's even an undercount. It may be even more than you just
mentioned. I think it's about one-third of the population of the country which
has just been urgently uprooted. And we are talking about not some small
trickling out of population to the west, but a very quick movement of people.”
the end of March, Devex's Funding Platform has recorded more than $12 billion
in financial assistance to Ukraine has been committed to the country, although,
not all of that is humanitarian-focused. A search of the platform's database
reveals more than $1.5 billion of primarily humanitarian grant funding,
allocated by national governments and other funders between Feb. 24 and March
18. Additionally, Devex discovered almost $11 billion in loans, not all of
which will be spent on aid. However, new pledges of additional assistance are
being received weekly.
European Union has already provided €90 million out of a total of €550 million
in assistance, to fund food, health care, housing, and other necessities for those
most vulnerable in Ukraine and refugees in Moldova. In addition to humanitarian
grant funding, the EU has also provided hundreds of millions in loans, directly
and through the European Investment Bank.
the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is partially owned
by EIB and by the EU and its member countries, has made €2 billion in loan
U.S. government has announced a $13.6 billion emergency funding package for
Ukraine, which includes both military and humanitarian aid. According to the
New York Times, $4.05 billion of that is humanitarian aid, $2.65 billion will
be directed to food assistance, health care, and other aid, while migration and
refugee assistance adds up to $1.4 billion.
billions of dollars in humanitarian and medical assistance continue to pour
into Ukraine, questions remain about what other strategies are needed to ensure
that the country has the resources it needs to build its future. Looking back
in history can provide wisdom gleaned from previous international refugee
2005, at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, Sedaka Ogata, the former United
Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1991-2000 argued, “There are no
humanitarian solutions to humanitarian
problems. The international community must stop using humanitarian action as a
fig leaf for political inaction,” stressing that strong political will is
crucial to prevent a repeat of crises like the Rwandan genocide.”
prescience was born out of her diplomatic experience leading the refugee agency
in providing hands-on protection of refugees and displaced people in Iraq, the
Balkans, Africa's Great Lakes region and Afghanistan. As such, her words add
weight to the burden of the history of international conflict, providing a
cautionary tale for future generations.
the wake of this war, many in the international aid and development communities
believe that in the nearly two decades since Ogata spoke those prophetic words,
that humanitarian problems have only become worse, while political actors and
institutions have mostly stood on the sidelines.
can Ogata' s words help the world find a way forward in addressing the political problems underlying Ukraine's
humanitarian crisis? One lesson honors the importance of grassroots organizing
efforts that empower ordinary citizens to assume a sense of agency through
involvement in projects and activities which seek to advance peacemaking and
other social justice efforts.
there has not been a systematic accounting of grassroots humanitarian aid
efforts, tales of caring and compassion abound. Below are a few of these
the face of such brutality and suffering
the world is watching. For many of us, our impulse is to want to find a
way to help, to make a difference somehow. That's just what Ari Shiffman, a
student at Harvard aimed to do when he and his classmate Marco Burstein
launched Ukraine Take Shelter. So they set to work creating a website
that matched Ukrainian refugees with hosts in neighboring countries. It took
little more than three days to unveil their website. Within 5 days of the
launch, business boomed; more than 4,000 hosts from around the world offered a
place to stay to Ukrainians.
Mission to Krakow
mission to Kraków, Poland drew rabbis from throughout the U.S. collecting funds
to donate to the Krakow Jewish Community Center, the largest JCC in Poland. It
provided humanitarian assistance and other funding to support its partners who
are working to provide other forms of relief to the Ukrainian people. I spoke
with a member of this delegation, Rabbi Betsheba Meiri, from her home in
Asheville, N.C. For Rabbi Meiri, the mission not only strengthened the JCC's ongoing
solidarity work with Ukraine. It also opened her eyes to the possibility of
Poland's reconciliation efforts blossoming, noting that, “Krakow is in Auschwitz's
back yard.” She added that during WWII, Poland didn't have the agency to decide
what role it would play in rescuing Jewish and other refugees. The country was now positioned to
reshape its history through its humanitarian efforts housing 2.8 Ukrainian
Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)
international medical aid organization, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans
Frontières (MSF) has been delivering urgent medical supplies, training health
workers on managing mass casualty incidents, running mobile clinics, and
organizing medical evacuations of hospitalized patients from the east to the
west of the country.
Hyde, a journalist and consultant for health and development NGOs based in
Kviv, has been covering the conflict since 2014. Her account reinforces Osata's
claims. She argues that despite all of the international aid and development
efforts mobilized to rebuild Ukraine following the invasion, those responses
fell short of what was needed to build the infrastructure that would protect
the Ukrainian people.
writes in The New Humanitarian,
“Perhaps it was a mistake we all made, of optimism, or of naive hope and belief
that humanitarian principles can prevail…For eight years, as the conflict
between proxy Russian forces and the Ukrainian army simmered in the Donbas
region, the international aid 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.
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.” 
Osata could have been a character in Hyde's story. It suggests that this absence of
political will kept stakeholders within the
international aid and development communities from seeing the big picture and
understanding what was needed to rebuild a more secure Ukraine.
continues. “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.
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 the international aid agencies were not there. 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.
a year, after all the assessments had been done, every aid organisation I'd
ever heard of was in eastern Ukraine. 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.
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
tale offers us an important lesson. Amidst the war's heavy collateral damage
and deplorable lack of funding needed to continue rebuilding her country, the
Ukrainian people have continued to demonstrate their resilience and strength to
resist Russia's domination.
Ukraine is showing miracles of resilience these days,” said Volodymyr Dubovyk,
professor of international relations at Mechnikov National University in
Odessa, Ukraine. “If everyone expected it to be unraveling or falling apart —
maybe in Moscow they thought that Ukraine would just fall apart within two or
three days of invasion — something contrary happened to it. I mean, Ukraine is
opposite of what you might call a failed nation. Everyone is doing their job.
You know, the government is showing up for work. The military is doing some
miracles, and other things…What we are seeing here, people are gathering
together, helping each other in times of need.”
continues. “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…The way to reunite the country was to rebuild a
prosperous, peaceful, and free Ukraine as an alternative to life under Russian
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.”
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.
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.
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
late February, 2022, 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, the volunteer who first took me to
Mariinka saw them all blown out by a cluster munition on 27 February, killing
four medical workers and wounding six others.
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.
recently managed to speak to Oleh. 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
is being wiped off the face of the Earth,” he told me. “Eighty percent of what
you know there has gone.”
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.” 
matter how long it takes to end this war, Osata's words ring clearly: if we are
to protect Ukraine's people, the international community must address the
political problems that propel the country's humanitarian crisis. To do this,
they will need to champion Ukraine's efforts to achieve a lasting peace with
Russia and help to catalyze more just refugee policies that closely align with
humanitarian assistance efforts and development work. Is the world ready to
mobilize this political will?
Gwynne Sigel is a research writer, essayist, and storyteller. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Welcome to the discussion.