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Ukraine Humanitarian Response

I attended an online meeting with two Ukrainian MPs last week. They were both heavily critical of the decision of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to open an office in Rostov-on-don in Russia, near the Ukraine border.

I asked Inna Sovsun MP, the deputy leader of the Voice political party, whether it was possible for humanitarian organisations to maintain impartiality at this point in the war in Ukraine. She was scathing about the ICRC for not taking sides.

Earlier that same day, the head of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, was in Moscow meeting the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. The reaction online was extremely hostile and underlines a deficit in public discussion about how humanitarian organisations are supposed to conduct themselves in wars.

Following extensive discussions with aid agencies working in Ukraine, I will attempt to provide an outline the major moving parts in the humanitarian response and the difficult issues that arise.

Firstly, there is ‘institutional’ money coming from, for example, the US Government, the EU and the member-states of the EU. Ireland initially donated €10m and a further €10m was announced last week. There is also ‘public’ money coming from philanthropy and members of the public usually donated to aid agencies. The Irish Red Cross has been the most prominent recipient of such funds, raising €21m in last few weeks.

Secondly, there is the question of where that money goes. In the first week or two, institutional money was channelled to the UN agencies, like UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organisation as well as to the ICRC. As the conflict goes on, aid agencies like Concern and GOAL will pitch for this funding to complement the money they have already raised from the general public.

Throughout the Syria response, there was a lot of institutional money available but almost no public fundraising. Agencies therefore had little flexibility in deciding where and how to operate. This is not the case in Ukraine. This can lead to coordination problems.

Thirdly, the question arises about where to work. It is far too dangerous to operate in Russian held territory so most agencies are working in the areas west of Kyiv. From a practical point of view, agencies are on the lookout for three things. They need to find office premises as well as warehouses for supplies. It will also be necessary to obtain a registration from the Ukrainian authorities if the agency is new to Ukraine. Also they are on the hunt for local organisations that have some experience of working on the delivery of aid. At present there are lots of volunteers but that is not sustainable.

So what are the major issues that aid agencies are facing in delivering aid to Ukraine.

The first one is the question of adherence to the humanitarian principles as outlined in the response to Peter Maurer’s visit to Moscow.

The Geneva Convention mandates the ICRC to act in a completely impartial, independent and neutral way in any conflict. Taking sides endangers humanitarian aid workers and prevents the ICRC from being able to negotiate humanitarian corridors and prisoner exchanges. All other humanitarian agencies are supposed to follow these principles.

Many people have donated to humanitarian agencies on the understanding that they are supporting the Ukrainian side of the war. International NGOs (INGOs) have to be careful to be straight with people that they will provide support to anyone who is in need wherever they are and regardless of their political views.

Undoubtedly, this is a difficult position to maintain. Russia has systematically breached International Humanitarian Law by bombing hospitals and schools, blocking aid corridors and besieging civilian populations.

Then there is the question of coordination.

One experienced aid worker told me that the response reminded them of Haiti with hundreds of organisations showing up looking to help in some way but ending up getting in each other’s way.

The Ukrainian civil authorities will play a major role in coordinating the humanitarian response. They will not hand over control to the international community as has happened in other major humanitarian crises.

Another critical issue is one for the EU itself. The lead EU agency is called ECHO (European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations). ECHO is using its Civil Protection Mechanism which was designed for things like forest fires, floods and other mostly natural disasters. This mechanism was not designed for something as complex as the Ukraine response.

It will also struggle to adhere to humanitarian principles when other parts of the EU response (sanctions and military assistance) are so completely separate from the impartiality that is supposed to guide humanitarian action. Vacuum-sealing the humanitarian from the military and political is essential if humanitarian workers are to enjoy protection.

So much of what is happening reminds me of Syria. Just like in Syria, frustrated Ukrainians’ number one demand is for military assistance and a no-fly zone. As one Syrian once told me, the humanitarian aid is appreciated but without military support “we end up with well-fed corpses”.

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