Why Providing Humanitarian Aid to Ukraine Is Challenging—and What to Do About It

Tufts experts explain how to help Ukrainians in need and others whose lives are destabilized by conflicts worldwide

The Russian war in Ukraine has created a humanitarian crisis bigger than any in recent history. Some 5 million Ukrainians are estimated to have fled the country, and another 7 million have been displaced within Ukraine—and even those remaining in their homes may not have basic necessities such as food and medicine.

Between the Russian attacks and the sheer number of refugees, helping those in need has been a challenge, said Tufts University experts Dan Maxwell and Karen Jacobsen, who both research humanitarian aid.

“There are domestic concerns in Ukraine itself, for surrounding countries where people are fleeing, and broader effects globally as well, and we need to take them all into consideration,” Maxwell said.

While there has been an unprecedented level of international support for Ukraine, Maxwell and Jacobsen urged people to extend their concern to those suffering from ongoing wars that are impacting many millions around the world.

Maxwell focuses his research at the Feinstein International Center on famine and acute humanitarian crises, while Jacobsen at The Fletcher School studies global migration and urban displacement. They shared lessons about how humanitarian aid works in war zones, what’s going on with aid to Ukraine, and the best ways for concerned people outside of Ukraine to help.

It’s risky and complicated getting aid to areas under siege. In recent years, for example, Red Cross convoys trying to get assistance into Syria were attacked despite a cease-fire agreement, Maxwell said. Food prices in the besieged areas also shot up to 14 times higher than the prices a mile outside those zones.

Dan Maxwell

Dan Maxwell

“It was really only the highly risk-taking and enterprising entrepreneurs who were willing to run that encirclement to sell food inside, which was the only way of food getting in,” he said. “The whole point of a siege is to seal a population from any source of support, and keep out commercial trade and aid, and basically starve them into submission.”

In the case of Ukraine, besides food and water, displaced persons need shelter and emergency medical care—and if the siege stretches on, a longer term nutritional strategy and plans for services such as education for children.

But in the short term, Maxwell said what Ukrainians need most isn’t simply aid, but what he called humanitarian action. “Civilians are trying to reach a safe haven, and protection and safety are their biggest need,” he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is trying to broker ceasefires and humanitarian corridors, but they keep being violated, he said. “We have pretty robust mechanisms of getting food to people, but very weak mechanisms of ensuring civilians are not harmed in warfare,” he said. “You can’t pack up a box of safety and ship it to Ukraine.”

Ukrainians need both informal and formal aid. “In many cases, family, extended family, friends, and neighbors are the first and most important source of aid. I think we see a lot of that going on now in terms of an extended European community,” Maxwell said. “We see an incredible voluntary effort on the part of ordinary people, which is not necessarily included in formal aid accounting mechanisms.”

We have pretty robust mechanisms of getting food to people, but very weak mechanisms of ensuring civilians are not harmed in warfare. You can’t pack up a box of safety and ship it to Ukraine.

Dan Maxwell, Henry J. Leir Professor in Food Security and Feinstein International Center Research Director

But while Ukrainians’ social networks might sustain them initially, eventually they will need more formal assistance from humanitarian agencies, Maxwell said. Luckily, a number of humanitarian agencies are already positioned in Poland, having been helping with earlier crises in eastern Ukraine, Maxwell said. The extent of their access to Ukraine will depend on how the war unfolds, but fundingnormally the other constraintwill not be a problem.

There has been an enormous amount of money freed up in very short order to respond to the Ukraine situation,” Maxwell said. The response to this crisis has been unlike any since maybe the tsunami in 2005.”

Donations to help and house those fleeing Ukraine have poured into aid agencies, Jacobsen added, and the United States has raised its cap on Ukrainian refugees coming into the country.

She predicted that refugees will be able to either return home or permanently resettle elsewhere within the next few months, before host countries begin feeling the strain of supporting them. “They will get plenty of help, assistance, and sympathy,” Jacobsen said.

The response to the Ukraine crisis reveals a harmful bias in the international aid system. The focus on Ukraine highlights the world’s comparative lack of interest in Middle Eastern and African crises, Maxwell and Jacobsen said.

Maxwell recalled his work around the 2011 Somalia famine, which garnered little attention in the media. “There are pretty massive inequities in the way different people caught in crisis are treated by the international community,” he said.

Karen Jacobsen

Karen Jacobsen

Jacobsen recently returned from a trip to Uganda, a country of some 45 million people, which has so far received more than 1.2 million refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan—but has received little international support or media attention. That lack of support could mean that future Ugandan governments will be more reluctant to accept refugees, Jacobsen said.

Americans and Europeans probably respond differently to the war in Ukraine because it feels closer and more geopolitically significant to them, Maxwell and Jacobsen said, and because long-running crises like those in Somalia, South Sudan, and Afghanistan exhaust people’s attention spans. And then there’s the fact of racism, both of them noted.

Jacobsen pointed out that Americans and Europeans are more connected to what happens in Africa and the Middle East than many of them may realize. For example, she said, violence has erupted in eastern Congo because rebel groups are fighting over control of precious metals being mined there, some of which are crucial to manufacturing cellphones.

She urged people to follow up on refugee crises that are no longer in the news, such as the recent one in Afghanistan, and to pay attention to conflicts even if they feel far away. “Instead of just skimming through the top stories and lurching from one emergency to the next, people need to understand the broader global context of why these conflicts occur,” Jacobsen said.

Other countries may experience food shortages as the war in Ukraine disrupts the global food supply chain. The international community needs to plan for the economic fallout of the war in Ukraine, which goes far beyond its borders, Jacobsen and Maxwell said.

For example, in a number of Middle Eastern and African countries, conflict and climate factors have already strained the available supply of wheat, a major dietary staple for many large populations. “We were already near an all-time high crisis in the world grain markets,” Maxwell said.

Instead of just skimming through the top stories and lurching from one emergency to the next, people need to understand the broader global context of why these conflicts occur.

Karen Jacobsen, Henry J. Leir Professor in Global Migration

That crisis will get worse now that siege and sanctions have disrupted shipments from Russia and Ukraine, which together normally grow 25-30% of the world’s supply of wheat, barley, and maize, Maxwell said. Prices in the Middle East and Africa have already shot up 25-30% as a result. The loss of cooking oil, fertilizer, and Russian energy exports could also be a problem in these regions down the road, he added.

“My big concern at the moment is the knock-on effects of this war on the rest of the world,” he said. “I’m very worried about countries such as Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen falling into a much deeper food security crisis.”

People should send money, not goods, to international aid agencies, and not earmark it. The war in Ukraine has inspired many ordinary citizens to organize aid efforts on their own, such as neighborhood charity drives to send food and clothes to Ukraine. Although their hearts are in the right places, Maxwell and Jacobsen said, this isn’t the best way to help.

“By far the most useful thing they can do is provide money to purchase food, rent a place to stay, or pay doctors’ bills,” Maxwell said.

And they shouldn’t try to send it themselves, he added, explaining that local organizations on the ground know best how to help people in Ukraine—and formal aid organizations can get donors’ money there.

Jacobsen advised giving to experienced and accountable organizations with a larger view of the situation, rather than smaller efforts that lack expertise, and might be focused mainly on the organizers’ own friends and families.  

And don’t earmark your gift for Ukraine, she requested. “Anyone being displaced or becoming a refugee is going through a horrible experience,” she said. “We have to spread the generosity and donations and make sure everyone is benefitting from generous donors, not just Ukrainians.”

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