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There are No Humanitarian Solutions to Humanitarian Problems

Gwynne SigelMay 6, 2022 (0)

Russia's 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 children.[1] Of 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 ) [2]


However, 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.”[3]


Since 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

The 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.


Meanwhile, 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 finance available.


United States

The 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.[4]


As 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 resettlement efforts.


In 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.”[5]


Ogata's 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. 


In 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.[6]


How 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.


While there has not been a systematic accounting of grassroots humanitarian aid efforts, tales of caring and compassion abound. Below are a few of these stories.


UkraineTake Shelter

In 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.[7]


Humanitarian Mission to Krakow

A humanitarian 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 refugees.[8]


Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

The 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.[9]


The Forgotten War

Lily 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.


She 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.


“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.”[10] [11]


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.


Hyde 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.


“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 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.


“Within 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.


“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.”


Hyde's 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.


“Actually, 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.”[12]


Hyde 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 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.


“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.



“Since 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.


“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.


“I 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 shelling.”


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


“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.” [13]


No 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

[11] Ibid








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