The Russian and Ukraine governments could launch their spring military offensives any day now. Both sides are beefing up recruitment. One thing is certain: There will still be more humanitarian anguish in Ukraine. And this raises the question: Will humanitarian assistance on the ground be sufficient to meet the need? And will Western humanitarian aid be most efficiently disbursed to organizations on the front lines?
The UN estimated earlier this year that the number of people in need of humanitarian aid and protection was approximately 18 million. The needs are massive and include housing, healthcare, schooling, food, clothing, electricity, and so much more.
“There are thousands of organizations across Ukraine that are essentially run by volunteers that are providing humanitarian assistance,” says Alex Anderson, who is affiliated with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. Over many years, he has monitored elections in Eastern Europe and worked as a journalist in the region. He is a national of both the United Kingdom and Kosovo and has worked in many parts of Ukraine. He is now engaged in a project run by the Partnership for Transparency Fund-Europe in support of a non-profit organization called the Committee of Voters of Ukraine — widely known as CVU Odesa — to strengthen voluntary organizations that are on the front lines of Ukraine’s humanitarian challenge.
A few days ago, Anderson told me from his home in Pristina, Kosovo, “These organizations need to expand their work, but that requires funding, and many of them cannot prove that they have the auditing and financial monitoring systems in place that meet the very high standards required by the major international aid donors, such as the United Nations and some of the major national Western development assistance agencies.”
CVU Odesa has a long track record of monitoring elections and, in recent years, has moved into wider areas of civil society activism as it started to build a national network. Working to strengthen humanitarian assistance has become essential as the war continues, and so many voluntary groups struggle to secure funding. The overall scale of foreign aid for humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, from individual donations to major programs by such agencies as the US Agency for International Development, has been formidable, exceeding $400 million as of early April 2023. The massive amount of aid has allowed large international organizations, such as the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund, CARE, and Doctors Without Borders, to be highly active in providing essential humanitarian assistance in Ukraine today.
Nevertheless, at a conference in Washington, DC, in December 2022, I met a member of the Kyiv City Council who hit me with a flood of unprintable epithets when I asked about humanitarian relief efforts. While there have been news reports of instances like drinking water shortages in Kyiv, he said that some of the major global aid agencies have just been supplying things that are not needed, such as bottled water, to his city. In his opinion, global aid agencies are too deeply involved in supporting government-run relief agencies without serious monitoring. He is not wrong. For example, many international nongovernmental organizations miscalculated the number of blankets needed this past winter and, due to inflexible budgets, were unable to adjust and meet the needs of internally displaced Ukrainians.
The hard truth is that neither foreign donors nor aid workers in Ukraine want to discuss the risks of corruption in humanitarian assistance. Rumors, absent hard evidence, persist. There are fears that a focus on corruption in this area could not only diminish foreign assistance contributions but could seriously damage the credibility of Ukraine’s government.
LET’S NOT TALK ABOUT THAT
In the Odesa region, an estimate suggests that around one-half of all humanitarian assistance is run by nongovernmental organizations, who Anderson suggests are the ones “doing the hardest work.” He says there are several thousand small- and medium-sized groups in the country that depend almost entirely on funding from local citizens, businessmen, and Ukrainians located across the world.
There are fears that a focus on corruption in this area could not only diminish foreign assistance contributions but could seriously damage the credibility of Ukraine’s government.
Partnership for Transparency Fund-Europe is an affiliate of the Partnership for Transparency Fund that is headquartered in Washington DC. The Partnership for Transparency Fund was founded in 1998, has supported national civil society organizations in developing countries and in Eastern Europe to promote anti-corruption, with recent projects involving training programs on public procurement monitoring in Ukraine and Moldova. Against Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis background, Partnership for Transparency Fund-Europe and its CVU Odesa partner started to investigate a key issue: Are the vital voluntary humanitarian assistance organizations run efficiently and honestly?
This new project, titled “Promoting & Monitoring Integrity in Humanitarian Aid Management in Ukraine,” was conceived by Haleh Bridi, the president of Partnership for Transparency Fund-Europe, and Dr. Marie-Carin von Gumppenberg. They are eminently qualified for the task: Bridi, born in Iran and an Austrian national, spent a decade working for the OPEC Fund for International Development and then 30 years in development operations at the World Bank, while von Gumppenberg, a German national, is a veteran expert on working across Central and Eastern Europe with governments and civil society organizations on a wide range of governance issues.
They engaged Andersen and developed strong ties to CVU Odesa to mount a pilot project to assess the overall management and financial risks of a sample of 20 small- to medium-sized voluntary humanitarian assistance civil society organizations in the Odesa region. To get the project off the ground fast, the team used $35,000 of Partnership for Transparency Fund-Europe’s funds, largely supplied by individual donors supporting its core mission to assist civil society organizations in countering corruption in their countries.
When I asked Bridi about graft at these organizations, she replied: “In fact, in our pilot project, we did not find corruption in the CSOs [civil society organizations] to be a problem. However, we found that many CSOs could do far more with foreign official aid funding if they had the systems in place that sufficiently assured the donors that their cash would be used well.” Von Gumppenberg adds that it is crucial that the Ukrainian voluntary humanitarian civil society organizations attain “integrity and compliance” standards. Andersen totally agrees but cautions that many of the organizations have faced a dilemma: Do they spend all their time and energy providing urgent relief, or do they devote some of their precious time to bureaucratic yet necessary financial monitoring and compliance?
The dilemma and the broader recognition of the vital need to assist voluntary organizations to sustain and strengthen their relief efforts led to the current phase of the Partnership for Transparency Fund-Europe-CVU Odesa partnership, which involves guidance on standards-setting and training for humanitarian civil society organizations, mostly in the Odesa region, but also moving to other areas. Bridi explained: “This phase is supported by a 65,000 Euro (about $72,000) grant from the Czech Government through August 2023. CVU Odesa is taking the lead here and developing training courses on fund-raising and project management, standard-setting for humanitarian assistance while also pioneering forums for civil society to discuss integrity compliance in their operations.”
Bridi also discussed the plan for a long-term national program of monitoring aid. Bridi and her team are acutely aware of the need of such a program. If raising standards and training civil society organizations in the humanitarian area is vital to enable them to access Western aid, which they can use efficiently, then there is almost certainly going to be a similar need when it comes to reconstructing Ukraine’s war-destroyed infrastructure. Here too, civil society organizations will need to be at the forefront as partners with the Kyiv government and foreign official donors if public contracts for reconstruction are to be transparent and well-monitored — and to prevent corruption that may be unleashed as the unprecedented sums of cash for reconstruction begin to flow.
As President Volodymyr Zelenskyy noted on Apr. 12, 2023, when addressing a meeting of finance ministers from all of Ukraine’s current donor countries, the current assessment for reconstruction costs is around $411 billion. At the public part of that meeting, the heads of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen all pledged large-scale financial support to the government of Ukraine running into tens of billions of dollars. Yellen was full of praise for Zelenskyy and his team, and in noting the willingness of the United States to pledge further substantial funds, she added, as she looked at senior Ukraine officials: “Your commitment to making sure that international assistance is being used responsibly is essential.”
None of the speakers at the World Bank-IMF forum mentioned the essential role that Ukrainian civil society is playing as a watchdog against corruption. And the lessons being learned from the Partnership for Transparency Fund-Europe-CVU Odesa project and the civil society organizations’ training that is being developed could not be more timely.