NGOs juggle emergency aid, development planning as Ukraine war rages

With Russia’s war in Ukraine now in its fourth month and showing no signs of abating, United Nations agencies and NGOs that recently scaled up their humanitarian operations are settling in for the long haul — while also devising longer-term recovery and reconstruction plans.

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Humanitarians are struggling to deliver essentials such as food and water to civilians in the Donbas region — large parts of which are already controlled by Russian-backed separatists — while simultaneously striving to support millions of citizens and displaced people across the country, where livelihoods, infrastructure, and services have been disrupted or devastated entirely.

Several U.N. agencies and international NGOs told Devex that they were facing challenges not only in delivering aid — due to factors including insecurity, a lack of access, and fuel shortages — but also in expanding and recalibrating their operations to meet growing humanitarian needs. In some cases, they’ve started their responses from scratch in Ukraine.

International Medical Corps, which has been working in the country continuously since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, said it was therefore well placed to respond to the Feb. 24 invasion. But in the rapid expansion of its response, it encountered obstacles around staffing.

“It’s been difficult to bring in enough people and process visas quickly enough to ensure that we have enough staff on the ground to be able to support the scale-up of activities,” said Dr. Jill John-Kall, who is leading IMC’s response inside Ukraine.

World Vision — which entered Ukraine following the invasion — said the situation was unique compared with other conflicts where it had responded, such as South Sudan and Syria.

“This is a European context with different sets of regulations and administrative challenges, which have resulted in a longer startup process,” said Hans Bederski, Ukraine crisis response director for World Vision.

While a handful of U.N. agencies were operating in Ukraine before the conflict, the World Food Programme said it had “had to start from the ground up” — it was last operational in the country in 2018 — and overcome hurdles including supply chain disruption and finding partners.

Nonetheless, spokeswoman Reem Nada said a network of transporters and suppliers are now helping it deliver food — with WFP also providing cash assistance — and the agency has more than 300 staffers in the country.

Similarly, IMC said it now has about 120 personnel on the ground — at least four times more than it did at the start of the conflict — and is continuing to increase its staff levels.

This was echoed by Médecins Sans Frontières, whose team has likewise seen growth — almost quadrupling since the invasion began, with more than 650 MSF staffers now in Ukraine — and Save the Children International, whose program in the country was previously one of its smallest worldwide but is now set to become one of its largest.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, said that at least 250 organizations — more than 60% of which are Ukrainian NGOs — were helping in the aid response, a number that has more than doubled from before the war.

However, IMC said coordination with partners in Ukraine had initially proved “quite difficult.”

“The coordination structures were all paused during the start of the conflict and then slow to set up afterwards, so engagement in different sectors has been varied,” John-Kall said.

Local vs. international organizations
The multitude of responders and systems in Ukraine’s humanitarian response has made it difficult for “local and international responders to effectively work together,” according to a recent report by Geneva-based nonprofit ACAPS.

Most aid organizations operating in Ukraine before Russia’s invasion were focused on longer-term development projects rather than humanitarian response, but they have been able to pivot, according to the International Organization for Migration.

“While many NGOs may have a primarily developmental model, they also have access to communities and people in need, and a desire to respond,” said Safa Msehli, a spokesperson for IOM, which characterizes itself as “one of the largest humanitarian actors in Ukraine.”

In addition to established organizations, important roles have also been played by shops, restaurants, and even bakeries. Local networks and responders have been vital for communicating with civilians, ascertaining their needs, and distributing aid, among other activities.

Prior to the invasion, about 2.9 million people in Ukraine had required humanitarian assistance — mostly in eastern Donetsk and Luhansk, where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian army since 2014. That number now stands at 15.7 million people countrywide, with cash assistance, food, medicine, health services, and hygiene supplies among the most pressing needs.

Of the 7.6 million people who were assisted by the end of May, more than 6.5 million were given food and livelihood assistance, at least 2.6 million received health care or supplies, and about 1.6 million were provided with cash aid.

Yet the hardest-hit civilians remain largely out of reach for humanitarians — whose operations have been hindered by heavy fighting and the risk of land mines, unexploded bombs, and artillery fire, as well as by the practical considerations of damaged transport infrastructure and a lack of fuel.

“On many occasions, our assistance has been prevented from reaching areas where people are in desperate need,” said OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke.

Such is the level of need not just in the fighting hot spots but nationwide that a U.N.-led humanitarian funding appeal to support nearly 9 million people is set to soon be revised upwards for a second time since the conflict started, according to OCHA. The current appeal is for $2.25 billion and has been about 72% funded to date.

The humanitarian picture is likely to become more complex as many uprooted civilians and refugees either return home or move again, and as Ukraine’s economy suffers.

“It is too soon … to start defining long-term plans, as we are in an acute emergency.”

— Franz Luef, head of mission in Ukraine, MSF
The road to reconstruction
OCHA’s call for funds is focused on the provision of immediate assistance and protection, yet the aid community is already thinking about longer-term planning and needs — from rebuilding health and water infrastructure to supporting the more than 7.1 million Ukrainians displaced within their country and 6.8 million who have fled as refugees.

IOM said it had “clear intentions” to evolve its partnerships in Ukraine beyond relief items to also support returnees and longer-term recovery, while IMC highlighted how its response had already focused on rebuilding some health and water infrastructure.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was aiming to provide humanitarian assistance that can enable sustainable change — for example, working with service providers or communities in a manner to make them more resilient going forward.

“The gradual degradation of conditions and human dignity cannot be addressed by simple relief activities but calls for a more sustained and structural response,” said ICRC spokesperson Erika Oman.

However, other organizations — including WFP and MSF — told Devex they did not believe it was the right time to look beyond the most urgent needs at this stage of the humanitarian response in Ukraine.

“It is too soon … to start defining long-term plans, as we are in an acute emergency,” said Franz Luef, MSF’s head of mission in Ukraine

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