As we approach the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, Helvetas spoke with two humanitarian response experts – both of whom specialize in volatile settings – to gain insights on the challenges that are particular to this conflict and the complexities of planning development projects in a country that remains a war zone for the foreseeable future.
Petr Base is Helvetas’ Country Coordinator for Ukraine and is currently based in Kyiv. He is from the Czech Republic and has more than two decades of experience working with international development organizations to deliver aid in settings such as Ukraine, Kosovo, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and Afghanistan. Petr previously lived in Ukraine for three years, and his family was living in Ukraine in 2014 when Crimea was invaded and annexed by Russia.
Thomas Mauget is Helvetas’ Humanitarian Response Coordinator and supports the organization’s programs in Ukraine and neighboring Moldova. He is from France and has worked for numerous international development organizations to deliver aid and plan for longer-term recovery in settings such as the Balkans, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Colombia and Haiti.
Daily life in Kyiv
As daily life goes on in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, one can get a false sense of normalcy. Rush hour traffic jams commutes. Store shelves are full. Friends gather in bars. Kids swing at playgrounds.
“The Ukrainians are extremely resilient people,” said Petr. “Everybody is affected – whether directly or indirectly. After one year, people in Kyiv are kind of used to it. Sometimes the air raid alerts ring through the city and you get a notification on your phone. Some people seek shelter, but some just continue on with their day.”
“What is not normal is how dark it is,” said Petr. Russian airstrikes continue to target critical civilian infrastructure, leading the local government to conserve energy through scheduled power outages. “You go into the pharmacy and small lamps or phone lights are in use. The credit card machines aren’t working, so you have to pay with cash.”
Cash – in particular, Ukraine’s hryvnia currency – doesn’t go nearly as far as it did one year ago. Most Ukrainians are struggling to afford basic necessities. “The groceries in Kyiv are fully stocked. You can find everything,” said Petr. “The problem is the prices.” Consumer price inflation has risen to 26.6% and is accompanied by a 25% devaluation of the hryvnia against the U.S. dollar. Petr said this means that only the rich and expatriates can afford to buy more than just basic goods.
These economic woes only add to the toll the war is taking on Ukrainians of all ages. “The psychological pressure is hard,” said Petr. “Children grow up faster. People have lost their jobs and depleted their savings. But the public opinion polls show that the majority of people still see the need to liberate the whole of Ukraine – so they are willing to continue to fight for their freedom.”
Why humanitarian response is different in Ukraine
Ukraine is a European state with strong public services and government support structures. This presents a different humanitarian response environment than the settings where seasoned humanitarian aid workers like Thomas and Petr have worked.
“The Ukraine crisis has been a game-changer in the humanitarian field,” said Thomas. “The intensity and scale of this modern war conflict is challenging the way we ensure humanitarian access. And working with a strong state like Ukraine has a deep impact on the localization of aid strategies.”
Thomas Mauget, Humanitarian Response Coordinator
“Most of the war zone conflicts I worked in in Africa and the Middle East were protracted crises,” said Thomas. “Generations of people have only known war. This has weakened states and they are unable to provide basic public services, which is not the case in Ukraine. Here local and national authorities and civil society play a central role in organizing the humanitarian action.”
So where can Helvetas play an impactful role? “We work in partnership with Ukrainian nonprofits and civil society organizations,” said Petr. “They don’t need much capacity building, but they do struggle to navigate the bureaucracy that accompanies a lot of INGO funding and partnerships. That’s why the flexible funding provided by Swiss Solidarity has been so helpful and effective – the support allowed us to work with the Swiss organization Skat Consulting and DESPRO, a Ukrainian organization, to repair water infrastructure and residential housing for thousands of people.”
“Helvetas also has a lot of technical know-how that is valuable for recovery efforts,” said Petr. “We have committed to working in Ukraine for the next five years. Many of the aid actors present focus on humanitarian response, not the long-term recovery.”
Expanding Helvetas’ operation in Ukraine
Since the beginning of the war, Helvetas, with the support of Swiss Solidarity and together with Alliance2015, has helped provide thousands of internally displaced people in Ukraine with hot meals, community shelters, hygiene items, and cash credits and vouchers that allow them to buy basic necessities. Our partnership with DESPRO to rehabilitate water infrastructure is ongoing. And we also work in neighboring Moldova to help meet refugees’ most urgent needs and to support host families who have taken in refugees.
In 2023, Helvetas will expand its operational presence and work in Ukraine. In addition to programs in Kyiv and Kharkiv, such as our “Cash for Repairs” project that helps individuals rehabilitate houses that have suffered war damage, we will also work in Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil to improve living conditions in shelters for people displaced from war-affected areas. We currently have five Ukrainian staff and are hiring an additional seven. We are also setting up office space – with the location carefully selected to ensure staff safety and avoid regular blackouts.
Meeting urgent needs while planning for the future
Helvetas uses the nexus approach in Ukraine, which Thomas described as “where we build a bridge between on-the-spot emergency response and longer-term development initiatives.” One of these initiatives – a regional economic development program – was already underway before the war started. Building on that experience, Helvetas is mapping needs in the livelihoods and economic development sectors so we can learn more about other actors’ activities and how we can coordinate with them. This will include helping to organize repair hubs that provide access to information, training and equipment to individuals as they try to rebuild their homes and ready them for winter.
Helvetas is also launching a reconstruction program that supports war-affected municipalities to recycle debris from destroyed buildings and homes to rehabilitate and reconstruct other buildings. “This is ambitious for now since we are in the middle of the conflict – but acting now is critical for future reconstruction efforts,” said Thomas. “The sooner we can work to strengthen value chains for recycling materials and construction, the better equipped and ready local authorities, the private sector and communities will be to rebuild.”
Helvetas is also collaborating with existing vocational training facilities to scale up their offerings. Petr explained the rationale for the program: “Perhaps you’re young and want a job but don’t know how to do plumbing. In normal times, you would go to vocational training for years. Now we don’t have this kind of time. We’ll support existing institutions with new equipment and tools to accelerate these trainings and to be able to reach more trainees.”
As Ukraine braces for a major Russian offensive, the challenges and uncertainty that accompany meeting urgent needs while planning for long-term recovery and development in a war-stricken country are clear. But both Petr and Thomas say that not laying the groundwork for recovery and rebuilding is not an option.
“Even if the war finished tomorrow, the economy would still be affected for years to come,” said Petr.
Thomas agreed. “You have to continue work supporting value chains, economic development, skills development and access to decent jobs. This is a necessity for the whole economy to not crash down because of the conflict. The goal is not to do one or the other – it’s to try to do both at the same time. Of course, if you are on the front lines this is not possible, but the field of opportunities is enormous in the rest of the country.”