Effective assistance in global crises

In such humanitarian crises as the one in Ukraine, many actors are involved. How is work divided, where are relief items purchased, and how can private individuals help? Moreover, are available humanitarian resources sufficient to meet the needs of those affected by crises? Riikka Mikkola, Senior Adviser for Humanitarian Assistance at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, answers these questions.

Two people carrying a big package of UNCHR supplies to Ukraine. One of them is wearing a vest with a Red Cross emblem.
International humanitarian organisations have several central distribution centres around the world, from which goods can be mobilised even at short notice. Picture: OCHA/Ivane Bochorishvili

Which humanitarian assistance organisations are currently operating in Ukraine?

“The scale of the crisis is so enormous that it has brought a large number of humanitarian actors in Ukraine – at least 113 organisations are known to be there. In addition to them, local governments also play a key role in providing humanitarian assistance and in helping internally displaced people in Ukraine and especially in countries receiving refugees.

In addition to the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, assistance is provided by several UN organisations, such as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and UN Women also operate in the region.

In addition, at least 37 local CSOs and 28 international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) are present in Ukraine, especially in Lviv and Donetsk.”

How are the responsibilities divided between the organisations?

“OCHA takes the lead in coordinating humanitarian assistance in humanitarian crises if and when the state in question is unable to do so. In refugee crises, UNHCR has the main responsibility for the coordination of assistance.

OCHA has set up a Common Operations Centre close to the border in Poland in order to ensure effective delivery of assistance to Ukraine.  In addition, several coordination hubs have been established in Ukraine to support the provision of humanitarian assistance by various partners.

The responsibility is divided thematically so that different organisations have a lead role in their own field of expertise. For example, UNHCR is in lead position in matters related to protection and shelter as well as in the coordination and administration of camps, whereas WFP is responsible for coordinating food assistance.

The international Red Cross Movement is not part of the United Nations’ central coordination mechanism. Instead, it coordinates the assistance provided by different countries’ national Red Cross associations. UN organisations and their partners work in close cooperation with the Red Cross Movement and share information with each other.

Central governments and local governments may also be responsible for coordinating humanitarian assistance. For example, within the EU, individual Member States receiving Ukrainian refugees have the main responsibility for the coordination of assistance, but they can also request assistance from international organisations.”

Where do humanitarian organisations purchase necessary supplies?

“All humanitarian assistance is not material supplies, but organisations distribute cash assistance in areas where the local businesses are (still) operating. Cash assistance is also provided to people who have fled the country.

The procurement of supplies is centralised. The amount of goods needed to respond to a crisis is high and may include, for example, two million blankets. International humanitarian organisations have several central distribution centres around the world, from which goods can be mobilised even at short notice.

Where possible, procurement is done in Ukraine or its neighbouring areas, which makes transport cheaper, faster and less harmful to the environment. It is important that the products are of uniform quality and fulfil, for example, the safety criteria. All provided goods must also be suitable for the local conditions and local culture.

Items are not always available in sufficient quantities, in the right place and at the right time. In Ukraine, for example, there is a shortage of blankets. By way of exception, UN organisations have in fact requested material assistance from donor countries, such as China, which has so far been absent in the response.

Ukraine and Russia are major food producing countries, and WFP in particular is concerned about the long-term impacts of the war on global food security. Rising food prices, interruption of distribution chains as a result of the war, and rising transport costs may significantly weaken the availability of food in other humanitarian crises and in the poorest countries. WFP has acquired grain from Ukraine for food supplies to Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, for example, and as much as 50 per cent of the grain purchased by WFP for emergency relief comes from Ukraine and Russia.”

How can private individuals help?

“People have expressed unprecedented willingness to help, which is of course much appreciated.

The most efficient way to do so is to donate money to established organisations providing emergency assistance in Ukraine.

It is often difficult for people fleeing a war to carry large amounts of goods, which is why it is essential that assistance is provided in the most suitable form possible. Therefore, cash assistance is often the preferred option.

There is also a great risk that assistance provided without coordination will not reach those who need it the most, as those in the most vulnerable position are often the most invisible and unable to ensure that their rights be respected.

In rapidly changing situations, delivering assistance may be very difficult and sometimes also dangerous. Private individuals rarely have an insurance policy that would protect them, for example, in crisis areas. In the worst cases, uncoordinated assistance may do more harm than good.

The majority of people fleeing Ukraine are children, women, older persons and persons with disabilities. Those in the most vulnerable position are at heightened risk of human trafficking and exploitation. It is impossible for people in need of help to assess the intentions of individuals offering help. As the number of actors increases, identifying those with the right intentions becomes even more difficult and the risk of confusion increases. It is therefore of utmost importance that helping  unaccompanied minors, in particular, takes place in a controlled manner and in collaboration with public authorities.”

How well does humanitarian assistance provided by the Red Cross Movement, UN organisations and non-governmental organisation meet the needs of the Ukraine crisis and other crises?

“The global humanitarian needs were record high even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the beginning of the year, the UN estimated that 274 million people in 64 countries were in need of humanitarian assistance. Although global humanitarian funding has increased, the needs are growing much faster. In recent years, the UN has managed to collect only about half of the humanitarian funding it needs. In 2021, the funding dropped to as low as 49 per cent of what was needed.

It is important that we do not forget other humanitarian crises and people in need, because of the war in Ukraine.

For example, the situation in Yemen has been classified as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Due to the war, which has lasted more than eight years, it is estimated that 20.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. Of them, 16.2 million suffer from food insecurity, 17.9 million require health services and 15.4 million are in need of urgent water and sanitation services.

It is of utmost importance that donors and donor countries respect the principles of humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian assistance must be provided to those in the most vulnerable situation. Assistance must be needs-based and must not be provided, for example, on political or military grounds.

UNHCR has also emphasised the universal right to seek and enjoy asylum. Asylum must be granted equally to all those who need it, irrespective of their skin colour, age, sex, religion or home country.”

Milma Kettunen

Unit on Communications on Sustainable Development and Trade