Vladimir Putin clearly did not expect the strong military resistance that Ukraine was able to put up when Russian forces invaded six months ago. Nor did the Russian leadership expect the Ukrainian state and society to remain united in the face of the sudden onslaught of violence. But hold together, they did. Ukrainian civil society, volunteer networks and local leaders sprang into action, launching one of the largest humanitarian responses under fire in modern history. Together, Ukrainians have housed, fed and brought safety to millions of their fellow citizens.
The initial relief operation was so successful because it was organized and led by Ukrainians. This may sound like common sense. But, during a war, humanitarian aid is often provided by international aid agencies. For years, the aid community has promised to put local entities in charge of these efforts.
The “Grand Bargain” that many donor countries and aid organizations agreed to in 2016, as well as a more recent international push, attempts to put decision-making and resources in the hands of communities in crisis. Ukraine offers the humanitarian community a golden opportunity to finally fulfill these commitments.
Unfortunately, six months after the start of the Russian invasion, that opportunity may be slipping away.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for largely voluntary efforts to sustain themselves. This may seem strange, since donor states have generously promised to support Ukraine. More than $12 billion, mostly from the United States and Europe, is earmarked to help Ukrainian citizens inside the country. However, almost all the money goes to international aid agencies first. Almost nothing goes directly to the Ukrainians who led the initial response.
As donations pour in, UN agencies and international non-governmental organizations are increasing their own budgets and staffing levels. Dozens of foreign NGOs have gone from tiny footprints in Ukraine to multi-million dollar operations. The result is an aid economy in which relatively expensive foreign aid organizations hold the purse strings and make the decisions. At the main humanitarian coordination forum in Ukraine, only two of the 19 representatives are from Ukrainian organisations.
As the new aid economy gathers pace, international aid agencies are scrambling to partner with Ukrainian groups. However, the partnership process is proving difficult. Ukrainian groups can clearly provide aid, but few have the experience of navigating the bureaucracy and demands of humanitarian aid. This leads international agencies to compete for a handful of well-positioned and competent Ukrainian groups to deal with foreign donors. The result is predictable overlap, missed opportunities and bottlenecks.
Some aid workers also worry about the growing diversion of talented Ukrainians who are in the midst of a headhunting scrum launched by numerous foreign aid agencies. The prospect of high salaries and careers in international organizations diverts talent from local groups as well as vital government functions. This trend could empty Ukrainian institutions.
As a result, several Ukrainian and international experts are calling for a quick change of course. In an open letter published in July, dozens of Ukrainian and foreign groups said donors should insist that international agencies work to build local leadership, including choosing Ukrainian NGOs as primary recipients of humanitarian grants.
Nothing new in this challenge. Donors and international aid agencies have long wondered how to avoid setting up parallel administrative systems while carrying out a major humanitarian response. These systems can undermine national institutions and citizen ownership of aid delivery. Ukraine has a strong state, a relatively strong social safety net and a rich civil society that includes the hundreds of NGOs that were the main reason the initial aid response worked. Collectively, these institutions offer an ideal chance to avoid the mistakes of the past.
Nevertheless, donors are falling back into their old habits. Take cash assistance, one of the best ways to reach those in need. Rather than funneling all the money through Ukraine’s existing social safety net, donors are also sending hundreds of millions of dollars to more than half a dozen international aid agencies which, in turn, implement several cash assistance programs.
Why is all this happening?
The concern about corruption in the public sector in Ukraine is one of the main reasons often given to justify the use of international aid agencies. Moreover, donors such as the United States and the European Union are still ill-equipped, politically unwilling – and often legally prevented – from directly funding local groups. As a result, international NGOs and UN agencies end up serving as intermediaries even in a country like Ukraine where the combined capacities of the public, private and civil society sectors are high.
To complicate matters further, there appears to be a high degree of aid mixing between civilian and military recipients by some local groups. This violation of the fundamental humanitarian principle of neutrality raises serious concerns among international aid agencies about how they can develop local partnerships while maintaining their own principled role.
Before the problematic aid practices of the past take hold, foreign donors should develop a plan to put Ukrainians in charge of humanitarian response in their own country. This would boost efforts to train Ukrainian organizations to deal directly with donors. It could also outline specific steps for donors to relax their own complex requirements to facilitate the delivery of aid directly to Ukrainian organizations.
Donor requirements are designed to ensure accountability and efficiency in aid delivery. But the Ukrainian groups have already proven their effectiveness. What’s more, Western governments have taken a “no regrets” approach to arming Ukraine, despite the very real risk of misappropriation of security aid. It should therefore be politically possible for Western governments to take similar risks with humanitarian aid and get it directly to Ukrainians.
Donors should also try to tackle corruption head-on rather than building foreign systems around the problem. They should increase their support for improving the transparency and accountability of the Ukrainian public sector even as they localize aid. It may sound daunting, but there are reasons for optimism: Ukrainians globally want to fight corruption, and the highly digitized country could quickly put in place anti-corruption systems. Finally, the current donor bill for humanitarian aid is high, but it will pale in comparison to future reconstruction budgets.
It is up to everyone to tackle corruption now so that Ukraine can be ready to rebuild in the future.
To be sure, there is no silver bullet to the complicated issue of mixing aid between military and civilian recipients. But donors can prioritize Ukrainian organizations willing to provide aid in accordance with international humanitarian standards. International aid agencies can help by providing local organizations with technical advice and guidance.
Six months into this war, the humanitarian community has reached a critical juncture. Budgets and practices are becoming more fixed and resistant to change. Putting aid in the hands of Ukrainians, with some outside know-how, will strengthen Ukrainians and strengthen their civil society and their state. It will also show that humanitarians have the ability to change course and do what everyone has long thought was best.
(Hardin Lang is vice-president of Refugees International and Nicholas Noe is a consultant for Refugees International.)