Eero Janson: People in Ukraine need money, not things

Eero Janson.
Eero Janson. Source: Private collection

Helping is noble, while it is important to go about it systematically, comprehensibly, based on set principles and in a coordinated fashion. People in Ukraine need money, rather than our old things, Eero Janson writes.

I first learned of humanitarian aid when I was still a child living in the newly independent and impoverished 1990s Estonia that was receiving loads of "humanitarian aid" in the form of second-hand clothes and bags of candy from Sweden, Canada and elsewhere.

Because my family was not wealthy by any standards at the time, I also got such a second-hand "humanitarian aid" jacket. I still remember its peculiar smell and worn-out gray color, as well as the pang of shame that came with wearing it.

The escalation of the war in Ukraine a month ago put the spotlight back on such "jackets." People wanted to do anything to help: donating money, clothes and toys, both new and used, offering Ukrainians a place to stay or free services, down to driving to pick people up on the border.

It has been uplifting to see such social unity and willingness to help, while even the best intentions can do more harm than good if left uncoordinated.

For example, the roads near the Medyka border crossing that has seen a lot of Ukrainians leave the country are lined with piles of waterlogged clothes, mixed with spoiled foodstuffs, child car seats, toys and everything else imaginable. In other words: aid become garbage.

Item-centric thinking

The international humanitarian aid system works based on different grounds. Its focus is on necessity, efficiency, coordination of aid and involvement of those who need it. These reasons have seen the entire system gradually move away from handing out aid packages and toward cash-based assistance.

The term does not stand for distributing envelopes of cash from a car window but the coordinated transfer of fixed sums of money (currently 2,220 hryvnas or €70 per person in Ukraine) using banks, postal offices or mobile applications to people whose need for aid has been determined.

The international humanitarian system is united in this: we will be handing out money, not things, for as long as local markets, supply chains and financial systems work.

Even though the international humanitarian aid sector has given up on "jackets" and food packages in regions where markets are up and running, the ordinary donor's understanding of aid is still item-centric.

Costs associated with this type of help tend to remain hidden. It is necessary to organize and man collection sites to check, sort and package donated goods; organize land transport that is expensive, time-consuming and has an environmental footprint. Once there, the goods need to be stored, sorted and eventually taken to people who need them.

Donors usually do not know whether their item arrived and where, whether it is stuck in a warehouse somewhere or whether someone actually got what they needed. In short: a lot of effort for relatively little gain.

The advantages of cash-based assistance

Cash-based assistance has several advantages. It allows people in need to decide what they need most, whether it's food or hygiene products, warm clothes or medicines, paying the power bill or rent, or whether money needs to be put aside for potential evacuation.

This kind of aid is necessity-based, dignified for the beneficiary, systemic, rapid and cost-effective. It also leaves the money in the destination economy instead of it being spent on warehousing, transport and sorting right here.

This means that everyone wins. The beneficiary through being able to buy what they need most, the local entrepreneurs who can keep their business going and the donor in Estonia who can be sure that their contribution has reached the person who needs it most without going through numerous and time-consuming intermediary stages.

Even though Ukraine is in a state of war and several regions are seeing battles, Ukrainian state agencies and humanitarian aid organizations find that the market and the banking system are still largely operational and that cash-based assistance is still preferred in those regions.

In other words, for as long as people can buy food at the market in Kyiv, Zaporizhzhia or Lviv, we should help them with money, not food packages. Not to mention clothes, of which there is usually no shortage in Ukraine.

In areas where the markets no longer work and money is useless, we need to be ready to hand out necessities in the form of aid packages (mostly in besieged cities like Chernihiv, Sumy, Mariupol and soon also Kharkiv). Therefore, there is acute need for major food aid shipments (measured in hundreds of tons and not in creates or kilos) concerning which we can ensure they will reach cities with sharp food shortages upon arrival [in Ukraine].

Not to mention specific aid for hospitals and other institutions and organizations that help a lot of people at once. But even then, we have to know in advance that what we are sending is what is needed, as well as the grounds on which further distribution will take place.

We must also make sure, when providing humaniatrian aid, that it does not reach the fighting sides as humanitarian aid is strictly for the civilian population and not for the military or armed parties to conflicts.

The Estonian Refugee Council has been involved in cash-based assistance in Eastern Ukraine for a number of years, while we have made serious headway with our local team to ramp up and expedite efforts since February 24.

We were among the first aid organizations in Ukraine to launch cash-based assistance, making the first verified-need transfers as early as March 2. We have supported more than 3,500 households or around 10,000 people this way since March 26 and have distributed over €650,000 donated to the Estonian Refugee Council to benefit individual households and the Ukrainian economy.

By phoning a sample of support recipients, we are monitoring whether financial assistance arrives, whether the recipient can make use of it in a purposeful way and whether the local shop or market has what they need. In most cases, the answer to all of these questions is yes.

When helping others, it is always necessary to imagine ourselves in the other person's shoes and ask what kind of assistance we would like in a similar situation. Whether we would like a second-hand jacket or to be able to walk into a store, pick what we need and pay for it ourselves?

Helping is noble, while it is important to go about it systematically, comprehensibly, based on set principles and in a coordinated fashion. People in Ukraine need money, rather than our old things.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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