Civil Society's Incredible Response in Ukraine

In many ways, the response of the Ukrainian government to the mass internal displacement has been unique and in stark contrast with what we witness in most countries confronting internal displacement. In order to respond to the needs of the more than 1.4 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), the Ukrainian government has activated its benefit system for the elderly and vulnerable, established a law addressing the specific needs of IDPs with the assistance of the UN, made state housing and collective centers available for IDPs, identified places for displaced children in schools, appointed an IDP human rights ombudsperson, and more recently, established a civil-military coordination mechanism (CIMIC) to facilitate the relationship between national and international humanitarian agencies and the armed forces. 

Regional authorities have also reacted proactively to the crisis, assessing needs and drawing plans for long-term solutions to displacement by tackling the critical issues of shelter, services, and employment. In other words, while not minimizing the importance of addressing immediate needs, regional authorities whom we met were intent on integrating IDPs in their communities as soon as possible. 

The incredible response of civil society has been most impressive. Teachers, IT specialists, businessmen, and other professionals teamed up in Kyiv, Kharkiiv, Dnepropetrovsk, Volnavokha, and nearly every city where displaced populations have moved. These civil society organizations are providing immediate support with basic food and shelter, information on registration, employment assistance, playgrounds and psychological support for children, and many other services. 

More subtly, by acting as a bridge between host communities and displaced people, these organizations contribute to a much needed process of reconciliation between two populations whom the conflict have made weary of each other.  As volunteer support and resources reach their limits, many of these spontaneous associations are progressively morphing into non-government organizations (NGOs) in order to seek a more established source of funding.

As the UN and other international organizations are progressively ramping up their presence and developing programs for IDPs, it is essential that they build upon the initiative, goodwill, knowledge and long-term view of regional and local authorities and civil society.

Another uncommon yet positive trait of the local response to the crisis is that these local groups are working in close cooperation with regional authorities. They seek international support to carry out their initiatives and guidance on how to apply international norms. As the UN and other international organizations are progressively ramping up their presence and developing programs for IDPs, it is essential that they build upon the initiative, goodwill, knowledge and long-term view of regional and local authorities and civil society. They must refrain from developing the standard international response, which however efficient it may be in some situations, tends to run roughshod over national actors. While local civil society responds to local needs in conjunction with local authorities, the international response focuses on a top-down approach that does not prioritize local interaction. As a Ukrainian NGO leader observed with some cynicism, "They should realize that we are in Europe." 

Most interestingly, the UN, the European Union, and the World Bank early in the crisis developed a Recovery and Peacebuilding Assessment (RPA), which provides a comprehensive and useful framework for development initiatives. It also addresses some of the structural requirements-including the rehabilitation of unused and derelict housing facilities- created by the concentration of IDPs in certain areas. In addition, the assessment addresses the need for reconstruction in government controlled areas.

The first priority of international aid should be to strengthen the humanitarian capacity of local civil society, both technically and financially, and assist them in developing international humanitarian standards. These organizations should become direct partners of the UN and donor governments, rather than being sub-contracted through unnecessary costly mechanisms with international non-governmental organizations. Second, resources identified under the RPA should go directly towards regional and local governments to enable them to implement their initiatives without undue loss of time related to the works of a centralized bureaucracy.

In addition to a legitimate humanitarian concern for a suffering population, a more determined humanitarian response will be a major factor in stabilizing a country facing the challenges of external aggression, political reform, and economic adjustment. 

Banner image: Patrick Breslin.