Ukraine: one year after the beginning of the invasion, dealing with the many contradictions in the humanitarian system

Pierre Brunet
Pierre BrunetBorn in 1961 in Paris to a French father and Spanish mother, Pierre Brunet began his career as a freelance journalist. In 1994, he joined the humanitarian effort, volunteering in Rwanda, devastated by genocide. He set off early in 1995 for a humanitarian mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, then torn apart by civil war. There he was responsible for coordinating programmes in Sarajevo, and then worked as Head of Mission. On returning to France in late 1996, he joined the French NGO Solidarités International at its headquarters and started writing. In January 2006, his first novel Barnum was published, inspired by his humanitarian experience. In September 2008, his second published novel JABtold the story of a Spanish orphan girl who grows up in Morocco and as an adult, becomes a professional boxer. In 2011, still involved in humanitarian work, he commits fully to his writing and dedicates most of his time to his work as a novelist. In March 2014, his third novel Fenicia is published, inspired by the life of his mother, a Spanish orphan during the civil war who sought refuge in France and later became an anarchist activist, a seductress who died in a mental institute at the age of 31. In late August 2017, his fourth novel Le triangle d’incertitude, in which he “travels back” (as in Barnum) – to the Rwanda of 1994 to recount a French officer’s trauma after Operation Turquoise. His novels are published by Calmann-Lévy. Pierre Brunet is the Vice-President of Solidarités International.

Published on 19 April, 2023

One year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered the first major crisis in Europe since World War II, the humanitarian system has experienced its fair share of contradictions. The most obvious involves conflicting priorities between providing for basic needs and covering its own structural risks. The following article provides a synopsis of Pierre Brunet’s trip to Ukraine and Moldavia from 22-30 January 2023. He is vice president of the French NGO Solidarités International.

During my trip to meet with Solidarités International’s teams on the ground in Ukraine, I had the opportunity to take a closer look at the issues the humanitarian system has faced during this crisis, one year after the Russian invasion. This visit was certainly not long enough to gain a full and complete understanding of the situation. Nevertheless, this article is an opportunity for me to give my impressions.

The state of humanitarian needs

Before providing any impressions, a summary of the state of humanitarian needs in Ukraine is required, such as those cited in the latest OCHA report (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs)[1]UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Ukraine humanitarian response – Key achievements in 2022”, Situation Report, Last updated: 10 February 2023, … Continue reading. As I write these words (20 February 2023), 17.7 million people need humanitarian assistance, including 5.4 million internally displaced individuals, and 8 million refugees who fled to other countries. 9.3 million people need food assistance, 14.5 million people require some form of healthcare, and 11.2 million people need either shelter or help rebuilding/repairing their individual homes or collective housing facilities. 16 million people require assistance with hygiene, sanitation, and access to clean water, and as of December 2022, 1.7 million people had additional needs to meet due to Ukraine’s extremely cold winter (clothing, supplies, generators, etc.). The water, gas, and electricity distribution infrastructure has been bombed almost nonstop, impacting those populations living along or near the front lines. The risk of one or several epidemics remains ever-present in centres providing shelter to displaced people since most of these centres desperately need food, supplies, and even generators.

As of the end of 2022, according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the conflict has caused 18,000 civilian casualties[2]Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ukraine, The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one-fourth of the Ukrainian population is at risk of developing a severe mental illness due to the war. According to OCHA data, there are more than 700 humanitarian NGOs in Ukraine (60% are national), with 524 completed programs and 446 programs currently in progress. As an indication, the “Country-Based Pooled Funds” set up by the United Nations allocated 252 million dollars from February 24 to the end of December 2022: 192 million through the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund (UHF) and 60 million through the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).

A funding contradiction – the money is there

Innovative funding is the first unique aspect of this humanitarian crisis: for most situations where humanitarian organisations intervene, they have to “chase after funding”, whereas here, money is not in short supply. You can clearly see the political will from donors and funding organisations who want to show the general public their commitment to every aspect of the Ukrainian cause. In the meantime, the lenders have yet to evoke the concept of neutrality, choosing their side, Ukraine. In this particular context, the humanitarian financial system has decided to accept, in the name of a good cause, the contradiction with the universal principles it has always extolled. In doing so, it joins the many Ukrainians, humanitarian or not, for whom the concept of neutrality is unacceptable and incomprehensible. Thus, access to funding has become relatively easy for NGOs – mostly large international organisations present in the in-country and with budgets in the range of 100 to 150 million euros… The major, well-known funding organisations are all present: other than the Country-Based Pooled Funds, French organisations deal directly with the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), the Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance (BHA, which groups together, within USAID, the former Offices of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance – OFDA – and Food for Peace – FFP), UNICEF, the French Agency for Development (AFD), and even the Centre for Crisis and Support (CDCS) within France’s Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. While the inversion of the financial burden eliminates the viability problem for humanitarian organisations on the ground, it creates a new one: their capacity to “absorb”. This is what we refer to in the humanitarian world as “scaling up,” and this rapid implementation of a mission generates a wide range of organisational issues. It also calls into question the ability of the humanitarian system to “deliver” the necessary humanitarian relief within a designated timeframe.

Recruitment contradiction: “chasing” international aid workers, and a lack of leading roles for them in Ukraine

Another parameter to take into consideration for humanitarian organisations in Ukraine is the difficulty they have recruiting people, especially experienced international personnel. Contrary to the usual practice where international employees of NGOs willingly agree to work in crises that make the front page, several NGOs here are having a hard time with regard to human resources, experiencing high turnover rates for key positions. Why? First and foremost, of course, experienced individuals are “headhunted” by every organisation in a very competitive environment with regard to salaries. Next, safety and security in Ukraine are definitely a barrier: the constant air raid sirens (usually due to probable or real missile strikes in areas where NGOs operate) or even shelling (in cases where NGOs choose to operate within range of heavy artillery) often prove dissuasive. The constant threat, over time, can be difficult for certain people to manage, which is completely understandable. This does not include other real risks involved; air raid sirens mean spending long hours confined in “secure” locations where staying in one place is both time-consuming and stressful. The strikes on Ukranian power plants and utility infrastructure also caused extended power or water outages. Not a day went by during my trip without an outage or having to take shelter for long periods of time. Accepting this relative discomfort is not a choice that everyone can willingly make (especially when family members and close friends are concerned and pressure the person to say no), which again, is perfectly understandable, even though this weighs little relative to the future of the most vulnerable populations located near the front lines.

When it comes to Ukrainians working for NGOs, the turnover rate among international aid workers in key positions often creates, right or wrong, a sense of imbalance with regard to knowledge and understanding of the issues, risks, and constraints. This proves truer in Ukraine since the legitimacy of the international employees working for humanitarian organisations remains to be proven. In fact, given the high level of education, qualifications, and experience of Ukrainian nationals working for NGOs, we have yet to observe the leading role that expats often play in other situations. In addition, unlike international aid workers who have spent years in war zones and working crises, many Ukrainian employees are far from their “burnout” point; they are motivated, full of energy, and take initiative: this “challenges” those from elsewhere, and is, admittedly, good for everyone.

Furthermore, Ukraine is a country at the forefront of digital technology, and Ukrainians of all ages, especially the younger generations, are often much more connected than we are. Many of our accounting, financing, and logistics tools, as well as diagnostic tools, are somewhat obsolete and ill-suited for a situation like the one in Ukraine, where it is difficult to identify and define what it means to be a “vulnerable person”. This has a considerable impact on our credibility with nationals working for NGOs.

Everyone hopes for our presence, but no one is standing around waiting for us in Ukraine

The issue of credibility for humanitarian organisations in Ukraine can be seen even more so on the ground in their ability to “deliver” the aid promised and financed by benefactors. The issue proved even more substantial when over one hundred Ukrainian organisations, in an open letter written on 24 August 2022, condemned the lack of funding, since the majority of funds are directed to large international organisations. Keep in mind that given the circumstances, while the entire nation expected help from European countries and the international community, no one stood by waiting for them to arrive to provide the necessary aid and to deal with the aftermath of the violence and damage caused. Ukrainian civil society continues to be extremely dynamic, inventive, and daring. From the beginning, Ukraine has done much to take care of itself, and several active national initiatives and non-profits have effectively used well-established in-country networks to be effective. The Ukrainian Red Cross Society has, of course, also been very active. The same goes for regional administrative entities (Oblast: region, Raïon: district, Hromada: municipality, and Gromada: township), who have been extremely persistent and enterprising. I saw this firsthand in Uman when I met the director of social services for the city. She and her team manage the many displaced individuals arriving in Uman since the city is a hub for those from the Donbass region either on their way west or who decided to temporarily stay in the city. The director’s energy, availability, and drive to do as much as possible for as many people as possible for as long as possible – in partnership with international NGOs like Solidarités International – were even more impressive given the effortlessly natural way she employs her skills. This is not an isolated case, either. Several women in Ukraine move mountains every day, working in high-level positions in local governments or local NGOs.

Contradictions in the humanitarian system in Ukraine: providing relief versus covering the system’s structural risks?

The ability to deliver relief, a key issue for humanitarian aid in Ukraine today, is now being questioned. This comes not only due to the risk aversion stopping certain organisations from venturing into the most devastated areas but also due to a phenomenon that I would describe as, “bureaucratic prudence coming back with a vengeance”. What does that mean? It means that the funding organisations for the humanitarian system have returned to following standard operating procedures after the massively broadcast and politicised initial emergency period where every government and funding agency wanted to show that they were helping Ukraine. Procedures were shortened and simplified for “crisis” mode. The return to standard operating procedures by funding organisations means, in practical terms, longer sign-off processes, more rigorous verifications and other audits. Most NGOs cannot allocate large amounts of money for “ineligible” expenses (amounts allocated but not eligible due to the lack of supporting documentation or failure to adhere to standard procedures, and so need to be repaid). They have quickly returned to applying their usual standard operating procedures, often with zeal and excessively slow bureaucratic formalities – especially with regard to purchasing and approval – that can create significant delays in implementing the planned program. Once again, this translates to a greater risk of losing credibility with NGO national teams, local partners, and those expecting to receive assistance. In this regard, we get the feeling that in Ukraine, one year after the beginning of the crisis, the humanitarian system seems to be wavering between addressing the dire needs in the country and focusing on its structural risks. While NGOs seem to be enduring this phenomenon instead of willingly causing it, they still contribute to its occurrence through their “zealous level of prudence”.

What needs are being addressed and where?

I have to admit that one does not cross paths with many international “colleagues” on the ground, and to such an extent that you simply have to wonder where all of the organisations inventoried by OCHA are operating. In addition, in certain regions, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has experienced trouble coordinating those organisations whose missions overlap (two or more NGOs doing the same thing in the same place for the same people), which occurs more frequently than one might think. In a country at war with a 40% drop in GDP and a high rate of unemployment, it becomes harder to identify the nature of the needs most covered. Are they emergency or post-emergency needs? Categorizing needs proves especially difficult in rearward areas of the country where the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid are primarily displaced individuals who fled the fighting in the east. In other countries, they would normally be housed in refugee camps. Whereas in Ukraine, displaced individuals with the financial means often choose to rent a room, even though have trouble finding food. Other displaced individuals stay in group shelters that, fairly often, are not built or set up to serve as housing. These buildings must be refurbished to provide proper access to water, showers and bathrooms, heating, kitchens and cafeterias and sometimes require retrofitting the electrical system and insulation. This falls less under the category of lifesaving assistance and more in the category of early recovery, which includes planning for displaced individuals to be able to return to their homes at some point, as well as reconstruction and renewed economic activity. These changes are far from being a reality. In other words, although the emergency is relative, the needs are still massive. The situation is clearer when it comes to such actions as distributing drinking water by tanker, handled by Solidarités International. Having participated in such an operation in Mykolaiv, a city in the southern part of the country, I saw 600 to 700 people per day receive water from a tanker truck; some arrived on foot and waited their turn at the distribution point in the cold while others, sometimes tasked by their neighbours, arrived by car with the trunk and rear seats filled with water containers. The urgent need, created when bombs and missiles destroyed the water supply network, is obvious. In Kherson, a city bombed almost every day, Solidarités International, taking reasonable and managed risks, also coordinates water distribution from tanker trucks. And like in Mykolaiv, the trucks return to their depots almost completely empty. “Determined” NGOs make a concerted effort to cover the most urgent needs by “heading east” to the Dnipro and Kharkiv regions where Solidarités International handles the majority of the operational contracts. Our NGO decided not to “transfer the risks”, and provides, when possible, emergency relief. This is what we are doing in the mostly destroyed village of Protopovika, located in the region of Kharkiv, or in Kramatorsk, around thirty kilometres from the front lines and within artillery range. This type of determination and commitment appears to be the best way to address the needs of the most vulnerable, those with the most pressing needs in areas directly affected by the war. One should remain aware of the very real risks, as the recent deaths of two British volunteers, Andrew Bragshaw and Christopher Parry, remind us. Involved as individuals, without any connection to a humanitarian organisation, the two men were killed during a bombing while trying to help evacuate civilians from the city of Soledar. The refusal of humanitarian organisations to “take on risk” is sometimes a form of refusing too much risk. Decisions are made on a case-by-case and day-to-day basis, based on planning as well as reviewing all of the security information and indicators available.

To conclude

I returned from my trip to Ukraine with the feeling that we need to change the way the humanitarian system operates in this crisis. The latter has forced an operational necessity, one of getting back to doing what is “strictly necessary” in terms of procedures and verification, to strip away anything even considered slightly superfluous. The bureaucratic reflex to cover the structural risks should remain limited so as not to forget the goal of the system, which is to provide relief in a timely manner to those people who are in distress. And why not ask the funding organisations to set up a quick, simplified RRM (Rapid Response Mechanism) for areas close to the front lines?

One last impression, beyond strictly humanitarian issues: Ukraine is a big country in every sense of the word, and travelling from one region to another requires driving for hours. Often, along the side of the road, I have seen cemeteries. The older sections, where several generations have been buried, are easy to recognise, as the tombstones and vegetation are worn and weathered by time. The more recent sections are scattered with new graves that often have a Ukrainian flag planted on top. Another eye-catching detail: the new sections of these cemeteries are often much bigger than the older ones, yet another effect that war has on a country.

The text in French originally appeared on 22 February 2023, on the Défis humanitaires (“Humanitarian Challenges”) website, run by Alain Boinet:

Our sincere thanks to Pierre Brunet and Alain Boinet for letting us republish it with a few minor editorial modifications.

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1 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Ukraine humanitarian response – Key achievements in 2022”, Situation Report, Last updated: 10 February 2023,
2 Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ukraine,