WASH kits distribution in Mananjary. Photo © Medair (2022)

Ukraine crisis reveals the need for a more equitable humanitarian response

The geopolitical scope of the Ukraine crisis means it will most likely have far-reaching consequences beyond the country’s borders. Start Network's approach to the Ukraine crisis is based on learning from other larger-scale crises that the Start Fund…


Time to read: 6 minutes

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For over a decade, Start Network has been working to transform traditional aid systems through initiatives focused on early action, fast funding, innovation and locally led response to crises.

When our flagship initiative, the Start Fund, launched in 2014, it had a clear remit: that it would provide rapid and timely funding to non-governmental organisations tackling small to medium scale underfunded crises, or spikes in larger, chronic crises.

Over the years, the Start Fund has evolved and now also funds anticipatory action, but its core area of focus remains; financing responses to crises that go under the radar. These are crises that do not attract other donors and media attention, and that are not the subject of, or linked to, active emergency responses.  In this way, Start Network hopes to minimise loss of life, agency and dignity for the most vulnerable people affected by or at-risk of crises.

With this in mind, many may conclude that the Start Fund is not appropriate for larger crises that are more commonly reported in the media, such as the Venezuelan migration crisis, wars in Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan, and now most recently, the invasion in Ukraine.

However, due to the often-shifting factors at play within humanitarian response, there are very few absolutes, with most crises carrying unrevealed sides, unexplored depths and underserved cascading impacts.

Because the geopolitical scope of the Ukraine crisis will most likely have far-reaching consequences beyond the country’s borders, Start Network will continue to monitor the situation while exploring advocacy partnerships that centre solidarity with the Ukrainian people and the visibility of locally led responses. 

Our approach to the Ukraine crisis is based on learning from other larger-scale crises that the Start Fund has responded to in the past.

In December 2017 for instance, three years into the Yemeni civil war, which had already caused massive humanitarian need and had already resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, Start Network was alerted to an outbreak of diphtheria. This highly infectious respiratory disease, which reappeared in Yemen due to a pause in vaccination campaigns, significantly risked the lives of children already affected by the war, and although serious, did not attract the same donor attention as wider displacement and nutrition needs. Due to the likely spread of the disease amongst an increasingly vulnerable population, the Start Fund provided Relief International and Save the Children with funding, which ultimately reached over 500,000 people with medical referrals, support for vaccination campaigns, and capacity building for health workers.

In June 2019, Peru, which had already received some 800,000 migrants fleeing the economic crisis in Venezuela, a country with which it does not share a border, announced a change in internal migration policy which saw a rapid influx of new Venezuelan migrants, with up to 7,000 people crossing the border into Peru from Ecuador each day. These new migrants included huge numbers of vulnerable people, including those with disabilities and chronic illness, pregnant women, and unaccompanied minors.

Due to the spike in need for services, Start Network was alerted and through the Start Fund, subsequently financed World Vision, Plan International, and Save the Children to respond, who provided unconditional cash transfers, personal care kits, and information about services to over 18,000 of the most vulnerable people.

More recently in August 2021, with the Taliban advance and reconquest of Afghanistan, an estimated 500,000 people were expected to enter neighbouring Iran, and Start Network was alerted to anticipate needs in two under-resourced provinces. Relief International was subsequently funded to pre-position refugee camps with COVID-19 sensitive Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) kits, nutrition kits, food items and medical supplies, as well as financial support to rehabilitate and expand health facility structures and a water supply system.

Each of these examples shows that large scale crises often cascade, creating smaller, yet related pockets of need, which may very well go under the radar. The latter example, in particular, demonstrates the importance of anticipatory action and gap-filling support during crises, which further minimises loss of life. In this instance, donors’ financial support and media coverage focused on the situation in Afghanistan, as Iran remained unprepared and underfunded for the influx of refugees that would soon require their immediate needs met.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine unravels into an even larger humanitarian emergency, it has become crucial to demand more equitable distribution of humanitarian assistance, so that local organisations can access visibility and funding to address the exacerbated impacts of the crisis, despite where these impacts emerge in the world.

Some countries in the global south, for example, depend on wheat exports from Ukraine. One of these countries, Yemen, is already grappling with food insecurity, fuel shortages and escalating conflict. 20.7 million people have been impacted as a result and this number is only expected to rise as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In the meantime, Start Network is working with partners to identify local organisations supporting civilians in Ukraine and those working in neighbouring countries to accommodate the needs of Ukrainian refugees. One local organisation mentioned feelings of anger as a result of witnessing large convoys of international humanitarian organisations leaving conflict zones, while they are forced to remain with limited resources. As we are cognisant that local organisations, which are most often at the front line of any crisis, receive the least visibility and financial support from large donors and the public, we are keen to invest in amplifying their calls for support.

Further still, we continue to raise awareness and respond to underfunded crises. Cyclones Batsirai and Emnati for instance will have long-term implications on the economic recovery of Madagascar. In Mananjary, where around 90% of infrastructure was destroyed by Cyclone Batsirai, the livelihoods of many are dismal. Mialy Chrystelle, working in Mananjary with Medair says, “Currently we are doing some sensitisation on hygiene, disinfection of wells, distribution of water and rehabilitation of latrines and water points...in response to the two cyclones.” She also commends the Start Fund’s flexibility, which enabled Medair to reallocate funding to Mananjary from a different region, which wasn’t hit as hard by the cyclones. She says, “Thanks to those funds, we have been able to intervene in a region where we haven’t worked yet... With these funds we are able to strongly communicate and give [as much] visibility as we can.”

The Start Fund continues to support those affected in Madagascar by innovating around forecasting to facilitate increased crisis anticipatory action, but more support is needed. Start Network, through the Start Fund, has also already allocated financial support in response to the recent earthquake in West Sumatra, Indonesia as well as a flooding emergency in Honduras, both being crises that will most likely remain less visible in current humanitarian response coverage.

Read more about the Start Fund.