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Enabling the local response: Emerging humanitarian priorities in Ukraine March–May 2022

A brief by Humanitarian Outcomes describes the state of the humanitarian response in Ukraine three months after the Russian invasion began.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine began in late February 2022.

Three months later, an estimated 16 million Ukrainians had been displaced from their homes or were struggling to survive under extreme conflict conditions and in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

What amounted to a massive, sudden-onset emergency involving high risks for aid operations brought challenges both new and familiar to the international aid system.

This brief summarises the findings of a rapid review conducted by HO in May 2022.

The review included interviews with 60 informants from national and international humanitarian aid groups, as well as donor governments, and data on aid operations and funding.

The brief focuses specifically on aid activities inside Ukraine, as opposed to in refugee-hosting neighbouring countries. (Figures were current as of 20 May 2022.)


A bottom-up, demand-driven humanitarian response with limited international presence

Local actors provided almost all humanitarian aid inside Ukraine for the first six weeks post-invasion.

Local groups used personal resources to respond to aid requests, but risked exhaustion.

Alongside UN humanitarian agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, around two dozen international NGOs had staff and programmes starting up inside Ukraine.

However, lack of preparedness among international aid organisations meant time was lost in scaling up.

Financing bottlenecks and failures of localisation

International organisations were slow to provide money to support the local response in the early days of the crisis.

Most of the money raised remained unused three months later because smaller volunteer groups could not meet compliance requirements to receive funding.

Operational challenges: recruitment and cash programming complications

Recruitment of staff for international organisations in Ukraine was difficult because of military mobilisation, displacement and migration.

Given that markets, supply chains and basic services were functioning in much of the country, cash programming was the primary emphasis of the international response.

Multiple cash distribution platforms and registries were established, leading to competition among agencies' separate programmes – people were still waiting for disbursements two months after registering.

Supply-driven aid came at the expense of supporting existing capacities – for example, parallel health capabilities were set up outside Ukraine’s existing health network.

Unintended outcomes in risk management

Compliance standards for financial management were too high, hindering rapid response.

International organisations competed to partner with the few established national organisations.

Smaller aid groups took on more physical risks, but lacked resources, leading to ethical concerns.

Looming dilemmas in humanitarian principles and negotiated access

For some Ukrainians, helping the military was the same as helping civilians, causing ethical and operational problems for humanitarians.

It was anticipated that a protracted conflict would make it harder to reach people in areas outside of government control.


The review proposed three action steps for international organisations:

  1. Rapidly infuse resources and support to local aid efforts, eliminating barriers posed by inappropriate compliance frameworks.
  2. Scale up cash programming that complemented government systems, while reducing the number of parallel mechanisms.
  3. Find principled ways to reach people in need in areas under Russian- control

Project summary

The rapid review was commissioned and supported by the UK Humanitarian Innovation Hub (UKHIH) with UK aid from the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

It was part of a programme of rapid analytical reviews HO is leading to inform and steer humanitarian responses in new or newly exacerbated crises.

The analyses produced focus on one or two critical issue areas where research efforts have the potential to make the greatest policy or operational impact.


For each review, a team led by HO and including various international experts and institutional partners conducted key informant interviews.

The team reviewed relevant literature and data, and, as appropriate, implementing surveys of people affected by crises and/or aid providers.

HO data assets and tools provided quantitative data as relevant on operational presence and coverage (GDHO), perspectives of people affected (CORE) and operational security (AWSD). 

Enabling the local response: Emerging humanitarian priorities in Ukraine

A brief by Humanitarian Outcomes describes the state of the humanitarian response in Ukraine three months after the Russian invasion began

Read the review