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Two ways the humanitarian system should harness global solidarity with Ukraine

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Written by Patrick Saez, John Bryant

Image credit:A march for Ukraine. Image license:Bruno/Unsplash

The outpouring of solidarity towards Ukraine has been quick, strong and truly global in nature. There has been widespread condemnation of Russia’s aggression and attacks against civilians (including from unexpected quarters). Ukraine’s neighbours have opened their borders and governments and citizens have rushed to provide emergency relief. Calls for countries further afield to offer asylum have been almost immediate.

This surge of support is a welcome departure from recent apathy and cynicism towards the plight of civilians in conflicts further away from Europe. It is in stark contrast with attitudes towards Syria, for instance, where war crimes have become almost acceptable, and whose refugees have faced pushbacks at European borders.

A sense of global responsibility towards our shared humanity has been rekindled. This presents the international community with a unique opportunity to reaffirm a global humanitarian consensus that had lost momentum, partly because it was discredited by Western military interventions. The outline of such consensus was adopted on paper six years ago at the World Humanitarian Summit. The resulting Agenda for Humanity included calls for key shifts, for instance to focus political leadership on conflict prevention and the protection of civilians as much as on humanitarian assistance; to leave no one behind in crisis response; and to reduce the need for direct foreign aid by reinforcing local systems. Progress has been slow. Geopolitics and vested interests have run counter to the overall change required. Here, we suggest two ways the response to the Ukraine crisis could help reverse this trend:

1. Focus political efforts on protecting civilians in conflict and refugees

People everywhere are appalled by the growing human toll of the Russian invasion. Military and civilian casualties have risen dramatically since the Russian army started shelling civilian buildings in densely populated areas in Kharkiv, with concerning reports of widely banned weapons being used indiscriminately. The UN currently estimates that over 670,000 people have already left Ukraine, mainly to neighbouring Poland, Romania and Moldova.

Humanitarians should take advantage of this global outrage to reassert the obligation of all states to ensure International Humanitarian Law is respected in every conflict. They should build a coalition of states – particularly non-Western states – willing to promote a renewed international standard in this regard. They should also resist the temptation by some states to promote politically expedient ‘solutions’ such as humanitarian corridors and safe zones that, when attempted in other conflicts, have been hard to enforce and of little benefit to the majority of the population. Free and unhindered access to essential goods and services, facilitated by ceasefires where necessary, should be favoured.

Protecting Ukrainians also means offering safe routes to asylum in other countries, and ensuring the protection and dignity of refugees. Neighbouring countries should be commended, not only for keeping their borders open, but also for their willingness to extend rights and benefits to Ukrainian refugees. An EU proposal for a Temporary Protection mechanism that would allow Ukrainian refugees to live and work in EU countries for three years should be urgently agreed by member states, while ensuring that it provides the full rights and protections that refugees are guaranteed under international and EU law. Non-EU countries should consider equivalent steps. The establishment of camps should be avoided at all costs.

Unfortunately, good initiatives are overshadowed by widespread reports of unlawful discrimination and harassment against refugees and migrants of other nationalities fleeing Ukraine. There are no refugees more deserving than others. Refugee advocates should seize the current shift in public opinion to ensure the standards set for Ukrainian refugees apply to all, regardless of where they come from or how they have reached another country.

2. Prioritise support to local responders and national systems

The contrast between the global diplomatic and humanitarian response to the invasion is becoming stark: while the former is rapidly upending long-held attitudes, the latter appears far more familiar in that it focuses mainly on funding international humanitarian responders. Significant humanitarian finance has been mobilised quickly: the European Commission has already announced €90 million and the US has pledged $54 million. Additional commitments will likely reverse a falling trend of humanitarian support for Ukraine over the past decade, and quickly eclipse the $171 million reported last year.

The two UN-coordinated response appeals launched on 1 March to respond to the conflict both inside Ukraine and to refugees in neighbouring countries totalled almost $2 billion. These plans use a predictable but inefficient model: the majority of this funding will be allocated to the largest international organisations. For example, 96.6% of the $550 million UNHCR Regional Refugee Response Plan has been allocated to UN agencies.

A reversion to the default by the international system risks being poor value for money and unsustainable for donors, and displacing the work of local responders and national systems in and around Ukraine. Within the country, humanitarian access for international organisations is far from assured, particularly if Russia becomes an occupying power. In 2017, an HPG study on humanitarian access in the Donbass region reported limited access and trust for international actors among the population. Instead, it found that many local and national volunteer groups used their comparative advantages as small networks to navigate shifting authorities and deliver aid. Supporting local responders is likely to become a key means of providing aid in areas of active conflict. It should become a priority for bilateral donors, and for the UN humanitarian pooled fund in Ukraine.

While they will inevitably be eroded by the conflict, Ukraine’s health and education systems, and its social protection system, should be protected as much as possible. Announcements by the EU that it is stepping-up its financial assistance and bilateral budget support to Ukraine, and signs from the World Bank and IMF that they are considering emergency financing mechanisms, are welcome in this regard. They should materialise quickly.

European countries receiving Ukrainian refugees are among the wealthiest in the world. Their national systems to respond to emergencies and integrate refugees are strong. The value of international humanitarian organisations providing direct assistance to refugees is therefore unclear. In keeping with international agreements such as the Global Compact on Refugees, host governments and civil society (e.g. civil defence and Red Cross Societies) should be in the lead. They should be advised and supported, not substituted, by the international community. External financial support should focus on enabling the integration of refugees into national social protection systems and labour markets. Humanitarian finance should support local responders. This is key to ensuring that the current groundswell of generosity does not wane.

Both in Ukraine and in refugee-hosting countries, one way to ensure that humanitarian assistance supports local systems and markets is to provide it in the form of unrestricted cash transfers, a prominent feature of the humanitarian response in Eastern Ukraine for years. It is therefore heartening to see multipurpose cash as the prominent response modality in the UN plan.

The crisis in Ukraine demands a renewed commitment to the global responsibility to protect all civilians, and to sustain the local systems that ensure their survival and dignity, even in conflict.