Heba Aly

Heba Aly, CEO of “The New Humanitarian” and an observer of aid policy. “The New Humanitarian” is a nonprofit independent newsroom that reports from the heart of conflicts and disasters, and analyzes the world’s response to crises.

Eric Reidy

Eric Reidy, staff reporter and editor at “The New Humanitarian,” whose journalism focuses on migration and refugees.

Ukrainian women and men protest on the streets against the war and against the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Milan, Italy, March 2022.


Hard Lessons Learned from the Front Lines

Heba Aly and Eric Reidy of The New Humanitarian on the philanthropic response to the ongoing war in Ukraine and how social investors can respond effectively to complex emergencies.

The War That Sparked Worldwide Compassion 

Business leaders often refrain from overtly taking sides in political conflicts, but in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson took to the airwaves, appearing on Bloomberg TV to call for military and other support for Ukraine, as well as divestment from Russian oil, coal, and gas.

He wasn’t alone in his solidarity. 

According to the Candid database, drawn from public sources and self-reporting, as of late June 2022, the philanthropic sector had made nearly 1,000 donations and pledges in support of the Ukrainian people, totaling almost US$2 billion. 

The crisis in Ukraine has attracted unprecedented attention and funding from aid agencies, governments, corporations, and philanthropy alike: The United Nation’s response plan for Ukraine was more than 80% funded by July 2022. Meanwhile, response plans for acute crises in countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan hovered at around 30% and 38% funded, respectively.

The extraordinary level of support for Ukraine has raised pressing questions about how funds pledged for new crises can be spent most effectively while also highlighting the moral dilemma that arises when one crisis sucks up attention and resources at the expense of others.  

If there are two lessons for philanthropy from Ukraine, let them be this:  

First, philanthropic capital is often much more nimble than official development assistance or other forms of institutional aid because it can be mobilized quickly and with fewer due diligence requirements, which can often be a barrier for local groups. Philanthropy can leverage that flexibility and its stated desire to take more risks to support local civil society organizations, volunteers, and first responders on the frontlines of crises.  

Second, in moments when global attention is singularly focused on one crisis, social investors can have outsized influence by resisting the temptation to jump on the bandwagon and instead intentionally support crises that are being neglected, where needs are going unmet.

Bearing the Brunt

As in other crises, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine at the end of February 2022, local organizations and volunteers were the first to respond to immediate humanitarian needs. Ordinary Ukrainians like Yuri Popovych, a 39-year-old IT specialist in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, dropped everything they were doing to find ways to help.  

In the hours after the invasion began, Popovych drove around Lviv asking people how he could lend support. He ended up doing everything from buying chainsaws for soldiers to cut down trees to make roadblocks, to helping neighbors unload trucks full of donations. Popovych soon quit his job to become one of the lead volunteer coordinators in Lviv, helping displaced people taking shelter in the city. 

A great many were moved to act. According to the Ukrainian government, 20% of the population has been involved in the volunteer effort. Meanwhile, of the relatively small number of international humanitarian organizations with a presence in Ukraine, many evacuated their foreign and local staff for security reasons and temporarily suspended their operations when the invasion began. At the same time, international nongovernmental organizations that did not have operations in Ukraine were caught unprepared to respond, despite months of warnings that a Russian invasion was imminent. 

“The big, huge international organizations with huge budgets were very reluctant in the first months,” Ukrainian member of Parliament Yevheniya Kravchuk told The New Humanitarian. “They said: ‘We’ll come on the ground when the war is over.’”  

As a result, volunteers like Popovych and local nongovernmental organizations shouldered the bulk of the initial humanitarian response.  

For years, the aid sector has been talking about how to empower local actors, acknowledging that these groups know best what their communities need and that when local communities are at the forefront, responses to crises are more dignified, nimble, cost-effective, and sustainable.  

But despite all the attention it has received, little progress has been made toward actually “localizing” how international aid works. Signatories to a package of aid reforms known as the Grand Bargain, who pledged to provide at least 25% of funding directly to local and national responders by 2020, have fallen well short of the target, with just 4.7% going to these groups by the self-imposed deadline. Big aid organizations still argue that local communities don’t have capacity, or that they can’t work at scale. 

With its high levels of digitization, a functioning government, and strong civil society, Ukraine presented an opportunity for the aid sector to make good on its localization pledges. If ever there was a crisis where it was possible, this was it.  

Volunteers give food and water to refugees going to the Slovak border to escape the war, Uzhhorod, Ukraine, March 2022.

“Ukraine has to give us the inspiration to change, because [there is] such great local capacity,” Sara Pantuliano, the executive director of the development think tank ODI told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in May. “Each organization can do a hell of a lot more to start supporting local action.” 

But in the early stages of the conflict, the international humanitarian response seemed to follow the same old pattern. Some philanthropic efforts, for instance by the Open Society Foundations, sought to prioritize support for local civil society, but the bulk of donations went toward U.N. agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other big name organizations — despite the fact that many of them did not have operations set up on the ground.  

Soon, many international agencies had more funding than they knew what to do with and scrambled to get their operations up and running, while the local Ukrainian volunteers sustaining most of the response were on the verge of burnout, with insufficient resources. 

“We are starting from scratch in a time of heightened conflict,” Jakob Kern, deputy chief of staff for the World Food Programme, told The New Humanitarian.  

Ukraine presented unique challenges for the likes of the World Food Programme. Accustomed to setting up their own warehouses and flying in supplies by helicopter in empty fields, they had to learn to operate alongside existing government infrastructure and in a context where they were expected to be more deferential to local authorities. Another aid agency had its four-wheel-drive vehicles rejected because they didn’t meet environmental emissions standards in the country.  

To circumvent some of these pitfalls and support a more effective and local response, philanthropists can direct aid and funding toward local organizations and volunteers — in Ukraine and elsewhere — where they are best positioned to have impact on the ground.

All Crises Are Not Viewed as Equal 

The war in Ukraine has another stark lesson to teach us: All crises are not viewed as equal. It’s an uncomfortable truth that North Americans and Europeans are more likely to empathize with, and donate money to support, people who look like them — at the expense of people suffering in other parts of the world.  

As funding rolled into Ukraine, Yemen was entering its eighth year of war, with more than 4 million people displaced across the country due to fierce fighting. Many were staying in makeshift shelters, in dire need of aid. A ceasefire came into effect in April, but economic collapse made it almost impossible for most people to buy enough food, with the World Food Programme projecting at the time that a record 19 million Yemenis — more than half the population — would be food insecure by the end of 2022. 

In this handout photo issued by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Special Envoy Angelina Jolie meets displaced Yemeni people, who fled their homes during the war, at a makeshift camp, Aden, Lahej, Yemen, March 2022.

As early as March, in policy circles across Europe, aid leaders pleaded with politicians not to forget about all the other crises around the world. 

“Unless we ring-fence the resources that are dedicated to responding to crises ... in all parts of the world, we risk — once, hopefully, the crisis in Ukraine dies down — … a huge backfire of other crises that have become much worse and even more difficult to address,” Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, told the European Humanitarian Forum in March. 

Even actress and U.N. ambassador Angelina Jolie traveled to Yemen at the beginning of March to promote the same message. “This week a million people were forced to flee the horrific war in Ukraine,” Jolie wrote. “If we learn anything from this shocking situation, it is that we cannot be selective about who deserves support and whose rights we defend. Everyone deserves the same compassion.” 

And yet on March 16, the U.N. held a pledging conference to raise money for what has long been called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It raised 30% of what the U.N. said it needed, leaving many humanitarians deeply disappointed. 

A girl live outdoors with her family in a camp for displaced people, Taiz, Yemen, February 2017.

As of July 2022, the U.N. appeal for Ukraine was funded at more than 80%, as compared with the global humanitarian appeals, funded at just 19%.  

So much money was rolling into Ukraine, without much accountability. According to one aid worker who spoke anonymously to The New Humanitarian, some organizations were taking “safari” trips to visit field projects so communications teams would have something to show donors. 

“People are visiting shelters like they are zoos, taking photos and doing communications about activities that haven’t taken place yet or that weren’t funded by them,” said the aid worker. “They’re doing this to raise more money, which we’re already struggling to spend.” 

While philanthropists turned their sights on Ukraine, what and who was being left behind?  

“I have never experienced such immense attention from the international community, in its broadest sense, on one conflict,” the head of a prominent aid organization told a private convening. “We have an equity problem which I consider extremely serious.”  

“It’s very conflicting watching this,” Syrian refugee Mustafa Alio told an online event hosted by The New Humanitarian. “The same Russia that somehow was acceptable in Syria is now, all of a sudden, the criminal of the world. So absolutely it is good that now there is good attention to Ukrainian refugees and attention to the [crimes] that Russia is committing in that part of the world. But at the same time, it is sad that our voice and our stories were not as equal in the eyes of the international community.”

Heba Aly

Heba Aly, CEO of “The New Humanitarian” and an observer of aid policy. “The New Humanitarian” is a nonprofit independent newsroom that reports from the heart of conflicts and disasters, and analyzes the world’s response to crises.

Eric Reidy

Eric Reidy, staff reporter and editor at “The New Humanitarian,” whose journalism focuses on migration and refugees.

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