Opinion: ‘We were ready’— learning from Ukraine’s locally led response
Press Clip Source: Devex
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Humanitarian centres in Ukraine tend to follow a similar pattern: A cinema, or a factory, or a school, hurriedly repurposed to provide a central location for aid storage and distribution. Lines of people, mostly women, waiting for assistance, often recently arrived from basements in the South and East. Kids asleep in strollers, or playing to the side in colourful, specially dedicated play areas, supervised by teachers. Carefully sorted piles of aid items – always too many clothes, never enough medicine.
And always led, run, mobilised by communities themselves. Ready and preparing for a potential Russian offensive since the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, those who live in the Donbas, and nearby places like Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia, and Poltava just beyond the current contact line – were not caught unaware by the more recent offensive. Local organisations have planned for this moment, their preparation evident in the rapid and effective response they have been able to assemble in the face of continuing Russian attacks. “We were ready,” affirm a number of organisations currently active in the response.
Many of those facilitating aid in these centres were displaced themselves in 2014, and intimately understand the experience of being dislocated from one’s home by war. One such person is Olena.i A single mother, raising a daughter with special needs, Olena fled Crimea in 2014. On February 10ذ, feeling the incoming storm, she reached out to local authorities in Zaporizhzhya to start organising a humanitarian response. On February 24ذ – the official start date of the current war – local authorities responded to her call, and so began the humanitarian centre. “My daughter keeps asking me, ‘Where are you taking my books? And my old clothes?’ That’s how she knows the war has started again”, shared Olena. Local government authorities cover the rent of the centre, and the volunteers procure necessary supplies. The rest of the work – connecting people with services, providing aid – is conducted by people like Olena: a predominantly local volunteer base, many of them displaced themselves, who are dedicating their own time and resources to supporting those fleeing the conflict.
This is a story echoed across Ukraine. In one major centre in Dnipro, for example, half of the volunteer staff are themselves internally displaced. Lawyers from Mariupol and Donetsk, who recently fled themselves, staff a legal assistance desk. At another shelter in Lviv, we meet with Natalya, who manages the arrivals and departures of those displaced from the South and East – an experience she knows all too well herself, having been displaced from Crimea in 2014. Far more than would be possible in the context of an international aid response, local communities intimately understand the fears, needs, and desires of those passing through these centres. What can be learned from this response? What role, if any, remains for international humanitarian actors in this context?
The local humanitarian response
The way that local communities in Ukraine have mobilised to protect one another and provide aid is a testament to the power of local humanitarian responses. This was the main takeaway of our recent assessment on protection risks, needs, and responses in Ukraine. Already on the ground, local communities were ready to spring into an urgent response well before international humanitarian organisations. Embedded in the local context, they have an intimate understanding of cultures, geographies, politics, languages, that shape the response. As people experiencing conflict themselves, local organisations, volunteers, and civil society are best placed to understand risks and needs, and to sensitively develop responses and interventions that actually help people.
Despite the rush of international aid in response to the conflict in Ukraine, international organisations have been comparatively slow to implement a response. Few international organisations had existing operations when the war broke out, and as a result services and programming roll-out has struggled to keep pace with need. This is particularly the case presently in occupied areas of Ukraine, which are extremely difficult to access. The high-risk work of aid delivery behind Russian frontlines is largely being shouldered by local communities themselves.
This is the localisation of aid in action, and the humanitarian response in Ukraine provides a unique opportunity for the international community to uphold the commitments made in the Grand Bargain to pursue localisation in aid efforts. Though sometimes enabled by an influx of support from international donors, much of this work has been locally mobilised and funded. As a middle-income country, Ukrainian capacity to leverage economic and social capital provides a strong foundation from which this response has been able to spring, particularly in comparison to many other conflict-affected states.
What role for the international community?
As the international community has sought to increase their support, this has resulted in some tensions with the local response already underway. Some of the examples raised by local volunteers have a familiar echo, an old story of aid being provided without anyone asking what might actually be useful: 10,000 pairs of women’s leggings, without anywhere to store them; endless boxes of pasta for regions currently without electricity or gas to cook it with; board games in Hebrew; near-empty shampoo bottles. In Dnipro, a volunteer leader rolls his eyes about a truck full of brie cheese, when what is actually needed right now are basic, long-lasting staples. “We ask for hygiene items, and instead get clothes. Or food items we cannot distribute and that quickly get out of date,” reported one local volunteer.
This lack of listening, and disconnect between local needs and requests and the international response, places further burden on local actors. Even among those agencies tasked with coordinating between different humanitarian actors, there seems to be an expectation that local organisations ‘catch up’ to international architectures and processes, rather than the onus being on international parties to take the time to understand pre-existing structures already present in Ukraine.
This is not to say the there is no role for the international community – far from it. Working to build the resources and enhance the technical capacities of volunteers and local organisations, particularly those who are operating in occupied territories, is one such area where international organisations can work to strengthen technical capacities to manage the influx of international aid and support. Flexible small-grant mechanisms and other resourcing focused on capacity-strengthening and mentoring support for volunteers and civil society groups have also been identified by Ukrainian responders as important measures to support their work.
In addition, while local organisations and volunteers are clear that there are significant local capacity international actors need not undermine or sideline, there is also an acknowledgement of the deep strain that is placed on civilian volunteers who are at the frontlines of this work. One local organisation reflected they had grown from 50 to 140 unpaid volunteer coordinators over the course of just a few months, working between 20 and 50 hours a week to manage the 100,000 volunteers they had mobilised since late February. Local groups made clear that support for training and technical capacity building would be critical as this rapid growth continues. The effective mobilisation of local civil society actors as humanitarian responders should be seen as a moment for the international community to step up in support, not to leave high-risk work to frontline communities alone. Trauma and burnout are prevalent, and finding ways to support those undertaking this work with mental health support and other kinds of personal protection is critical.
There are other areas where international organisations may be able to support and strengthen the local response. For example, part of the reason the localised humanitarian response in Ukraine has been so strong has been its links to the national military mobilisation – a connection that presents some challenges for humanitarian actors in relation to neutrality. Many of the volunteers, collective centres, and organisations active in the response are simultaneously providing support to armed Ukrainian actors, including the military and territorial defence units. The national military mobilisation means that the humanitarian response itself risks being militarised, and that lines between civilian and military needs are already blurred. This presents an obvious challenge for international humanitarian actors and their partners in maintaining neutrality – but it is also an opportunity for engagement and partnership on protection principles, and International Humanitarian Law.
Where to from here?
With a severe economic recession likely on the horizon, creative solutions must be sought by the international community to sustain the extraordinarily effective local response. Central to that is recognising the diffuse nature of this response, and working to fund volunteer and local networks already at the frontlines, already doing the work.
There is much to be learned from the local capacity to respond to this crisis. It is a clear demonstration of the speed, agility, and access made possible through a response that is grounded in, and led by, local actors. This is not to say the international community does not or should not play a role – there is much that international donors, governments, NGOs, and other partners can do to support these locally-led efforts. What needs to be clear is that Ukrainian communities and civil society need to be in the driver's seat.
As the conflict develops and new challenges inevitably arise, it is essential that this space for local response is protected and fostered. The best outcomes for civilians facing occupation, displacement, separation from family, and the continuing threat of violence will emerge through a commitment to coordination that prioritises leadership of local responders.
Felicity Gray, Tatiana Gaviuk, and Kristina Preiksaityte work for قوة السلام دون عنف, an international civilian protection NGO. They are currently working in Ukraine.