Maryann Horne, Senior Humanitarian advisor for Crises and Emergencies for Asia Pacific looks at of the global impacts of the Ukraine crisis. She argues that principled humanitarian action and the respect of International Humanitarian Law is more needed than ever.
The reverberations of the Ukraine/Russia crisis are plain to feel. Even if the violence were to de-escalate rapidly, the impacts are creating breaking points in an already precarious post-pandemic global reality.
The sense of urgency is very real, as many of the contexts most impacted are already at a tipping point.
While so much attention is focused, with good reason, on the impacts of the Ukraine/Russia crisis, acting early on their global humanitarian implications is just as critical. A strategic look at how to do this will allow several things.
Firstly, this analysis allows the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to better understand, anticipate and future effects and redirect efforts on a needs basis for the millions of people affected globally.
Secondly, better understanding allows Nations Societies to adapt operationally in priority areas. Humanitarian impact must be redefined.
Finally, and most importantly of all, thinking ahead allows us collectively to take measures necessary to ensure the new groups of vulnerability are addressed and that our strategic positioning is in lock sync with the wider developments, whatever the scenario.
Given the pace of events in the Ukraine/Russia crisis, there’s been little time to draw breath or reflect. It’s precisely this ability to react in real-time that demonstrates our relevance, once again, in times of crisis.
It’s also a case of going back to base and our common roots. A movement long characterised by the response to the Solferino battle seems more relevant than ever as over nine National Societies respond at speed and a network of hundreds pivot with agility.
Indeed, if the crisis has demonstrated anything, it’s our ability as the largest humanitarian network to act at pace, where it matters the most through the cumulative strength of our volunteer and wider networks.
National Societies in the region are mobilising and leading by example. While they themselves are affected, so too are the dozens more partners across continents. Their roles are just as important, if not more in defending principled humanitarian action and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) with governments, partners and the public alike.
However, much remains to be done. Away from the news headlines but just as critical, are three main areas where movement partners need to be as present – if not more.
Resist headlines dictating our responses
Firstly, there is the need for humanitarian consistency. As the bandwidth of the media, governments and partners is rightly focused on the Ukraine and Russia, other crises need urgent attention. Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar and the crises unfurling in some parts of Africa must not be eclipsed.
At such a difficult time globally, ensuring resources and advocacy continues to serve contexts that have been a priority must be preserved and increased. The recent United Nations (UN) donors conference, particularly that of Yemen where less than a third of the money needed was pledged, are a dramatic reminder of how contexts will be de-funded. Funds are scarce and many governments are opting to redirect taxpayers’ money to the Ukraine/Russia response.
Anticipate to better operationalise
The impacts have already hit several operational contexts hard. May it be fuel, food prices or generally ability to operate and provide jobs in the same way, the price is being paid.
The disproportionate impact of the crisis on socio-economics is the most troubling development. Estimates suggest over 40 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty and living on less than USD2 dollars a day. There will also be a deep recession in the Russian Federation, with significant output declines and skyrocketing inflation that are hard to quantify in terms of effects.
High food prices will negatively impact populations with lower incomes. Its of major concern for those already economically vulnerable. Wheat imports in Afghanistan, North Africa and Western and Central Asia are at the receiving end. The rest of the world will be impacted by increased commodity prices and inflation.
To cope with high food prices, governments will face stark choices in what it prioritises with less money. Some may opt to cut essential expenses such as schooling, energy, heating or medicines, or turn a blind eye to the most marginalised and vulnerable. Curtailing such important expenditures could send communities into a vicious cycle of deepening and entrenching food insecurity and poverty.
A total of 27 countries currently face annual food inflation of 15 percent or more, including five countries – Lebanon, Venezuela, Sudan, Yemen, and Cuba – with three-digit rates. Forecasted increases in prices, inflation and energy costs could be catastrophic for these countries in the near and longer term.
The economics also leave IFRC and other humanitarian programming highly exposed. Many leading UN agencies have already announced cuts the number of people they are able to reach and this is a reality for many National Societies across the world.
Another major query is over the resilience of our global Red Cross Red Crescent network. As resources are sucked into the region, what is left to cater for rapid onset disasters or other major developments in the contexts of most concern? Is resilience being nurtured and not depleted and how can this be done most effectively with so many fires burning globally?
Principled humanitarian action needed more than ever
Less tangible, but even more important is also the effect of the crisis on principled humanitarian action and the Fundamental Principles that the Red Cross and Red Crescent leads on.
The principle of neutrality has been under severe and public attack, creating media storms. Perceptions of IHL are similarly impacted as progress is scarce and the Law of Armed Conflict is openly criticised, including by fierce defenders.
The extreme political polarisation triggered has also impacted on many governments’ willingness and ability to allocate humanitarian assistance on a needs basis.
In a world where camps “for” and “against” are the new frontiers, humanitarian diplomacy efforts to decipher and defend International Humanitarian Law and principled humanitarian action is more needed than ever. Complex geopolitical relationships also mean the main defenders of principled humanitarian action risk being sucked into the current and losing their principled footing.
The overriding lesson of this crisis to date? The impacts are so multi-layered that the most pain is not necessarily being felt where the headlines are concentrated.
This is a time for critical reflection, timely anticipation and constant questioning. A time when lessons from Solferino and the wars of the past and future resonate deeply to remind us of the urgency to adapt, innovate and understand trends of the future.
We owe it to those we serve to better understand, plan and act. Only then will be understand how to maximise the humanitarian impact for those most in need who risk more than ever to not be heard.