27. September 2017

What I Have Learned from Travelling Through Post-2014 Ukraine

I left Berlin for Ukraine in autumn 2016 with the aim of analysing post-Euromaidan civil society organisations and their support for internally displaced people. I travelled through different parts of the country and interviewed several people in Kiev, Dnipro and Kharkiv. Here is what I have learned about the power of civil society.

A Travel Report by Sophie Falsini


“In a couple of months we will be home again”, Julia, mother of two, said. “It’s temporary”, her friends thought. She packed a small bag with summer clothes, a couple of sandwiches, some fresh cucumber and left Donetsk. Some of her friends lived in the west of the country and they offered her and her children a sofa to crash on and meals to share. “It is temporary”, she thought. But days became weeks, weeks became months, and autumn started to knock at her door. She took the sole jumper out of her bag when she suddenly realised that it was not temporary anymore.

On December 16, I arrived in Dnipro, a big industrial city southeast of Kiev. There I met Julia for the first time. I found out about her organisation The Power of the Future on Facebook and soon after I managed to arrange a meeting with her. While sitting in the headquarter of her recently founded NGO in a cold room surrounded by boxes she told me her entire story. She is originally from Donetsk, but left the city in summer 2014. She then moved to Dnipro where she and her teenage son would live in a shelter and started volunteering for Power of the Future (Громадська Організація „Сила Майбутнього). The NGO was organised by displaced people and locals, and aims at both integrating internally displaced people into the social and economic life of Dnipro as well as satisfying the needs of the most disadvantaged social strata of the population.

Julia and I spoke for a while about her journey, and suddenly I began to wonder: where do all internally displaced people go to? And how do people start to help them? One day later I found answers, when a volunteer named Irina who worked for the Adaptation-Cultural Centre in Kharkiv told me how it all started.


Stairway to Safety

When Irina arrived at the central station in Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine in the northeast of the country, in July 2014, entire families were already gathering on the platforms. “Where are you heading?”, she asked them. “We don’t know!”, they replied. Volunteers like Irina who came to Kharkiv to help were people of all ages and social backgrounds. They would bring hot tea, food and first emergency kits. Some would play with the children while others would talk to their parents. Irina was one of many volunteers who devoted their time, often entire days, to take care of internally displaced Ukrainians. I saw her often carrying her baby in a scarf and distribute information leaflets to the people. Before that, she has worked as a psychologist. But after the war broke out and an increasing number of displaced people arrived in Kharkiv, she started to provide free consultations to those in need.

From summer 2014 onwards, over a million Ukrainian people have been internally displaced. According to Caritas, this turned the emergency into “one of the biggest humanitarian crises in Europe since the Second World War”. When people realised that no concrete prospect for a conflict resolution was on sight, old and new Ukrainian civil society organisations were the first and often the only groups responding to the emergency. Some of them redirected their main activities to deliver immediate help, while many others did what they could to react to something no one was prepared for.


How Ukrainian Civil Society Organisations Became Successful

Soon after the first waves of displaced people arrived in Ukraine’s western cities, Ukrainian civil society organisations were on the forefront of the battle to protect human rights and the rule of law. Crimea and Vostok SOS, Power of the Future, Stanzia Kharkiv and Right to Protection were only a few of the organisations I got to know. There were of course hundreds of more volunteers who worked to help those in need. Despite their everyday struggle, these people were able to raise an awareness about the country’s present situation and its rotten structures. They also ended up taking over basic governmental functions the state was unable to fulfil. From day to day they became better organised and more efficient, and their success resided in being able to adapt to the quickly changing situation and adjust to daily needs.

Regardless of their efforts, however, civil society organisations (CSO) cannot and should not be a long-lasting substitute for well-functioning but (temporarily) absent governmental institutions. From what volunteers have told me, after two long years since the outbreak of the crisis foreign grants have slowly decreased. Many organisations managed to survive thanks to the will and efforts of volunteers. “It’s almost one year and a half since I received my last salary”, Marina, mother of two and volunteer at Station Kharkiv, told me. “Me and my husband are struggling, but what should we do? We can’t leave those poor people alone, can we?” No, you can’t! But the economic situation in this country is difficult and many activists were forced to give up and go back to their previous jobs.

Marina and I talked for about two hours in her crowded office in Kharkiv. Her story taught me a lot about the responsibility of volunteers and the relevance of their commitment. There is one issue that keeps resonating in my mind. No matter how much you want to help others, no network can be maintained unless both the civic sector and governmental institutions cooperate. This is especially true in Ukraine, where in recent years civil society helped to build a purposeful structure, which, however, threatens to collapse under the weight of bad political decision-making.


The “Dark” Side of Humanitarian Aid

International aid work is an amazing platform for providing help for those in need. The crisis in Ukraine definitely proved that. Soon after the first wave of displacement, international donors, philanthropists and organisations from all over the world gathered and high amount of money started flowing into the country. Most of the interviewees agreed that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Union, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Open Society Foundation, but also churches and other governmental institutions and organisations are some of the widest recognised donors. Shelters were built, people received first aid packages and regional organisations collected donations. But as time passed, volunteers noticed a change in the way how international partners and donors (reaching far behind the aforementioned list) reacted to the emergency.

In fact, according to the activists I have met, some organisations used to spend money for dubious projects, which besides not being Ukraine-tailored did not respond to the emergency on the ground. “They came here to teach displaced people how to wash their hands and brush their teeth”, a young volunteer from Kiev named Anna told me. “Then they used to finance choir lessons instead of using the money to accommodate all the homeless families”, her female colleague added. These two examples are of course not representative enough to portray the actual state of humanitarian aid in Ukraine. Still, they changed my understanding about how politics and international support might work.

What I describe here does not only apply to Ukraine. All extreme situations are of great concern when humanitarian help is fundamentally dependent on political interests and insufficient country-specific expertise. Each country has its own rules and specificities, which is why effective and long-lasting support should rather rely on the knowledge and expertise of local as well as international specialists who are aware of the problems and the needs in that one particular region. In other words, more attention should be paid to well-informed civil society. This can be incredibly useful especially when it comes to defining priorities, spotting obstacles and suggesting concrete solutions. Further to that, well thought out strategies do not only contribute to use project money more efficiently, but increase the impact of everyday activities.


Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Plenty has been written about the Euromaidan’s aftermath and the Ukrainian conflict. War, poverty, crisis and despair were on the headlines, and the victories and failures of politics were on everyone’s lips. Yet, not enough words have been spent analysing the power of civil society and the idea that alternatives are not only possible but achievable. I won’t ignore the fact that much more should be done. In Ukraine I have seen the apotheosis of a people-to-people approach, whose breathtaking achievements taught me about the exceptional power of human solidarity. And I am far from claiming that empathy is the final solution. But I do think that proactive behaviour can encourage people to leave their comfort zone and challenge themselves by helping others.

Just think, what if you were displaced and had to leave home and start a new life in a place you do not belong to?

This brings me to my last point, which goes back to the question of responsibility. It may be true that the world is stuck between political and economic interests. Although it is not true that we are too small to persevere or reverse this trend. Why? Because we are politics, we are economics, and we are the ones deciding whether we agree to play by the existing rules or not. If not, how can we be loud enough to cultivate the system we live in and achieve those goals which can actually make a difference? Some people have already started to ‘shout out loud’ and raised criticism. But I guess they need more help to convince some of the remaining 7.6 billion people on earth that we can achieve impossible things. Together.  


This article was inspired by extensive field research in Ukraine between September and December 2016. The results fed into a book which will be published in January 2018 by Ibidem press. Names of interviewees and organisations in the article have been deliberately hidden or changed to protect the sources of information.

The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.

Image source: „Montereal Diary“, Eduardo Garpe, http://bit.ly/2xuaS1Z, lizensiert unter Creative Commons license 2.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/


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