Saviano Abreu, Spokesperson of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Despite the competition, OCHA still has the largest funding globally to help Ukrainians
10.01.2024 11:29

How does the international organization in the world support Ukrainians in 2023 against the backdrop of the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza? What are OCHA's plans for 2024, and what about their attempts to deliver aid to our citizens in the occupation? Saviano Abreu, the spokesperson of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told this in an interview with Ukrinform and admitted that in the current conditions, his Office has to compete for funding for their activities in Ukraine.


— Mr. Abreu, Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Denise Brown has always emphasized that the humanitarian mission in Ukraine is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in UN history. Was this year an exception or not?

— Comparing it to Syria, for example, which is one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world then Ukraine comes as the second largest this year in 2023, in terms of funding received. But this is still something that is for us somehow shocking to have this level of support for a country that people could be providing for themselves if it was not for Russia's invasion.

         Unfortunately, this year was not an exception, and I do not think we should be celebrating that the Ukrainian people need this level of assistance. It is the result of Russia's invasion, and this year was no different. We still have the largest number of funding received globally. On one side, it is a good thing — we received the support. The support of the international community has been remarkable. But it also means that the war is still taking a heavy toll on the people of Ukraine, and that is why this funding is needed. 

— You heavily rely on donors. Please tell us whether their support is growing or plunging, especially given the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the necessity for the UN to react there.

— Unfortunately, in 2023, the amount of funding received for humanitarian assistance globally — not only in Ukraine —decreased for the first time in more than a decade, at time when needs are soaring in many parts of the world, and   despite the immense needs of the huge crisis in Gaza and the level of assistance necessary in Sudan, Syria or Afghanistan, for example

It went down in Ukraine, but we cannot say there was not enough support. We required 3.9 billion US dollars at the beginning of 2023. We are now at about 3 billion funded, where 2.5 billion were given within the humanitarian appeal we have with the organizations in Ukraine – the UN and NGOs, local organizations, and international organizations. The numbers are remarkable, considering the situation is hardly stable anywhere in the world. So, multiple crises are keeping millions of people from their rights in dozens of countries and the unfortunate competition for funding is real.

  — So, there is a competition?

— There are now more than 300 million people who need life-saving humanitarian assistance around the world. And not enough funding to support the growing needs everywhere. What has been happening in Gaza for years is not new, but the current level of suffering and need are not anywhere close to what it was a couple months ago.

         But still, the support to Ukraine is remarkable. We can say the amount of our funding to support people suffering the horrors of the war still meets our expectations. Even though we have not received the total request, we also have to take into consideration that part of the 3.9 billion was intended to support people in areas now occupied by Russia. We do know that the support we can provide there is extremely limited because of Russia’s impediment.

The problem is that we will need a similar level of funding in 2024. That is the challenge we have to overcome.

         You might remember that in 2022, before the full-scale invasion, we had requested 190 million US dollars at the beginning of the year. We planned to support around 2 million people in Ukraine before the invasion. But just a couple of months after launching the response plan for 2022, we had to revise everything because of the escalation of the war, and the number of people we were supposed to support increased to nearly18 million. So, the level of the funding request dramatically increased. In 2022, the total amount required was $4.3 billion. That was a lot of money and a huge increase in funding for Ukraine. In 2024, we will request just above $3 billion for the operation. 

         — What do you plan to allocate these billions of dollars for, and how many people do you want to cover?

— In 2023, our target was to support 11 million people in Ukraine, focusing mainly on the most vulnerable. Our support is not the only one that people receive. We are one of many actors, but we have governmental support, too. We have incredible groups of volunteers in this country doing a remarkable work to support their communities. From our side, we almost reached the total target, and we were able to provide vital assistance throughout the year. It means almost 7.5 million people were provided with health assistance and medicines; more or less the same number of people received water and sanitation services. 

We cannot forget the situation with access to water, especially after the destruction of the Kakhovka dam. Around 5 million people receive our food assistance, mainly in areas close to the front line, where the situation is direst, but also displaced people in other parts of Ukraine, including the West. Additionally, around 4 million people have received cash assistance this year.

For 2024, we will prioritize and focus people close to the front line and work with many other actors, especially our development colleagues that include UN agencies, to complement these efforts and ensure people receive also support to recover. It means we combine the development side, which will progressively taking over part of this work for people further from the front line, and the humanitarian side, strategically focusing on the most vulnerable people close to the front line and the most vulnerable groups of displaced persons. That is why the number of people we want to reach will be a bit lower than 2023. 8.5 million is our target. That does not mean the needs are decreasing, but it is a different level or severity of needs. Our focus is on the most vulnerable, those people who unless we support them today, their lives will be at risk. We have another appeal for the refugees outside of Ukraine led by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) with their partners in the countries neighboring Ukraine. 

On January 15, we will officially launch an appeal with the UNHCR in Geneva to ensure a fund for Ukrainian refugees abroad. It will be a double launch for two appeals – one for Ukraine and the other for outside Ukraine.

         — If I were to name events that affected civilians the most, I would name the explosion of the Kakhovka dam and numerous Russian attacks on Southern Ukraine. I talk about Odesa, a daily bombardment of Kherson, and port infrastructure. How does your Office respond to these challenges?

         — Unfortunately, too many such events this year come to my mind. I do not think we can forget the attack on Hroza. I went there with Denise Brown the day after the attack, and last week — the day before Christmas. I went to Kherson for the Kakhovka dam for the response. When the cathedral in Odesa was hit, we also visited it the day after. The ports of Ukraine have been hit many times after the termination of the Black Sea Initiative by the Russian Federation. We visited the Odesa port and Izmail port.

         Kherson makes me sad. I also went there just after Ukraine retook control of the city, the same day that President Zelensky entered the city, 72 hours after Russian troops were pushed out of Kherson. The image we saw that day gave me hope. People were applauding us when we passed, waving. They were happy. And what we saw after is just attack after attack, attack after attack. Not a day goes by when we don't receive reports of a school hit in Kherson, a hospital, or homes destroyed.

         A couple of days ago, there was an attack on the train station. Civilians were there, waiting to leave the city and come to Kyiv. The number of civilians killed wasn't high that day because they managed to take shelter in time, but unfortunately, a police officer and workers of the station that were helping them were killed or injured. It is something that happens every single day and is completely unacceptable. We try to support people after each of these incidents. In Kherson specifically, there is a well-established operation. We are in close contact with the authorities, and also work through our local partners. There is a response taking place and needs are covered in the Kherson oblast and the city. But people are facing a horrifying situation, and no amount of aid will sort out the relentless attacks and bombardments by the Russian Federation. It needs to stop.


         — I remember the news about a warehouse with your humanitarian aid destroyed. What losses do you have because of the bombardments in total?

         — I start by saying that as any civilians, any civilian infrastructure, humanitarian workers, aid workers, our warehouses, our convoys — we have protection under international humanitarian law. We have to be protected and cannot be attacked.

         Unfortunately, this year, in 2023, there were over 50 incidents directly impacting humanitarian assistance. Most of them were hitting our warehouses due to indiscriminate attacks by the Russian Federation. Convoys are being hit. There was a UN convoy going to the Zaporizhzhia oblast a couple of months ago that got hit. Our trucks and supplies were damaged. There have been many attacks impacting NGOs working with us.

In December alone, five warehouses of NGOs, four of them national NGOs and one international NGO, were not only hit there but completely destroyed in Kherson oblast and the city. The warehouses were burned to the ground destroying vital supplies intended for people in desperate need of support because they are being attacked every single day. They cannot go to the fields to plant because of mine contamination, their water systems are destroyed, and electricity and gas are not a reality for everyone. This is the kind of support we could provide to them. And we will provide because we will remount, but these supplies were destroyed.       


— We meet in the middle of winter. Denise Brown always emphasizes that preparing for the cold weather is your UN's biggest concern. How did your humanitarian workers contribute to the preparation for the winter this year?

         — In 2022, it was one challenging winter for the people of Ukraine because of the attacks on the energy infrastructure. We all remember the level of impact it had because of the energy crisis. It was disastrous, and from October 2022 until March 2023, we had an important humanitarian response to support people facing the energy crisis. We provided close to 5,000 generators directly to people and points of invincibility to hospitals and schools. There were also house repairs and provision of winter clothes and thermal blankets, heating appliances. We continue this winter and over the past two months we have already reached almost 1 million people with our support this season.

         We launched an appeal and planned to reach around 1.7 million people, specifically with winter support. It is a part of the overall response plan, but it is specific to ensure people will be safe this winter. We particularly focus house repairs, on heating systems or heating systems from the municipality to ensure that they can continue running, or provide people directly with solid fuel in some instances because there is no other option to heat their homes. If there is an option for electricity, heating appliances, or even cash assistance, they could pay the bill for these services for some people who are already on the brink because of the loss of income because of the war.

         Hopefully, we will reach our target. We do this in close cooperation with the government and local authorities to complement each other's efforts. The numbers I am talking about is a prioritization as a result of our coordination to ensure people are safe and protected against this harsh winter in Ukraine, which can be life-threatening.

         — This winter in Kyiv may seem easier than the previous one, fortunately, because of the absence of massive blackouts. Is it a wrong feeling from your perspective? 

— Might not be a wrong felling if we think only about the people in Kyiv, but it is not the reality of the whole country, like close to the front line. Particularly in the Donetsk oblast, hundreds of thousands have no electricity right now. And we have many, many people living in villages and towns with conditions not optimal for the winter. They have no insulation in their homes and windows are broken. Even if the temperatures do not go minus 30, anything below zero in this situation can be dangerous. We have not seen a harsh winter in Kyiv yet, but it does not mean the situation is safe, without harsh conditions for millions across the country. 

         — Demining. It may seem that the already terrible situation will only get worse because we see how hard it is for Ukrainian defenders to go through enormous minefields. How is it going for your office? 

  — We have different approaches in Ukraine. One of them is to support awareness, particularly for people living in more mine-contaminated areas. We have programs for children and adults on how to react if you find explosives and how to prevent accidents. We regularly receive horrifying reports of people being killed or maimed because of mines. We reach around 2 million people in 2023 with this kind of support.

We also support with demining efforts in some parts of the country. We support the training of the SESU personnel and support them with technology and equipment to ensure they can carry out their work. For example, more than 200 SESU pyrotechnic teams were equipped or received support from our colleagues this year, particularly from UNDP, but not only. We consider with the SESU and the government strategies on how to prioritize and ensure the acceleration of demining. It is an immense task because Ukraine is one of the world’s most mine-contaminated countries. It is not easy and can take decades, as many say, so it is our priority to ensure we can support the government.

We started one project in the Kharkiv oblast that specifically supports small-scale farmers. With this level of contamination left after the Russian occupation, we support small-scale farmers who depend on agriculture to survive to ensure they can return to their lands. It is surveying their lands for mines or removing them so they can resume their agricultural activities. It was quite successful and done with WFP and FAO. Now we will start it in the Kherson and Mykolaiv oblasts. Agriculture in these regions has to resume its activity at the previous scale. People depend on it.


         — Have you not abandoned the Black Sea Grain Initiative that includes Russia's participation?

         —Russia’s terminating of the Black Sea Initiative had terrible consequences for Ukraine and for the world. Ukrainian farmers cannot export at the same level. We also saw the global food prices decrease when the Black Sea Initiative was in place, and they started increasing again after its termination.

         It is important to find alternative solutions, at least to guarantee the safety of civilian navigation through the Black Sea. These are different ways of ensuring it would be a safe route to ensure that Ukraine can export the grains for the sake of its people and the world.

         — That is the case. In the beginning, the counterparts tried to revitalize the corridor. But eventually, it lies cold and dead not only because Russia buried it, but also because of the endeavor of the Ukrainian armed forces. They created a new corridor by liberating this area from Russia's Black Sea fleet. According to the UN's assessments, does this and the EU's solidarity routes cover people's needs for Ukrainian food?

         — The problem with these alternatives is that they are still not sustainable or even predictable. The Black Sea initiative was a system that would guarantee the safety of the vessels entering or leaving. Unfortunately, we saw an increase in the mine contamination in the Black Sea again after the termination of the initiative. And we saw the level of repeated attacks on Ukrainian ports, including on the Danube River, which would be the alternative, but Russia also attacked the ports there.

That is why the UN Secretary-General is working hard to find solutions and ensure civilian navigation through the Black Sea would be safe, predictable, and sustainable.


         — I bet Russia has not changed its rule in denying you access to the occupied area. You mentioned that you allocate some funds for people there. So, I want to ask you, do you have any ways to reach people there? Do you have access to some organizations to know what is happening in the occupied territories with Ukrainians and to reach them somehow?

         — Unfortunately, it is one of the biggest challenges we face in the humanitarian response in Ukraine. We could not cross the front line with a single truck with supplies needed for our operations to be at scale in the areas occupied by Russia. We crossed the front line once to evacuate the civilians from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. That was the only time we had an agreement from the Russian Federation.

         But we do have operations through very few local partners. We provide them with funding and support. It is not enough, and we have limited information on the situation, but we have done some assessments. The level of interference by the Russian Federation makes it almost impossible for us to have a good picture of what is happening. We know, however, that the situation is not any better than on this side of the front line, but on the other side the level of assistance is not at scale. We keep trying to find solutions and overcome these challenges, but it is not at the level it should be.

The denial of assistance to people in need is against international humanitarian law. It is a violation, and people have the right to receive assistance.

         — Our president said no one knows whether the war will end in 2024. You already talked about your appeal for this year. But still, is the UN ready to help Ukrainians for this year to come?

— We are determined to support Ukrainians impacted by this brutal war for as long as necessary, and for as long as the Ukrainian government requires our assistance. The war continues, and it is not only that, the situation of people living close to the front line is far more extreme than it was one year ago. Some of them have faced the horrors of the Russian invasion for ten years now. They cannot face any more challenges. The situation that is already bad is getting worse, and only deteriorating as the bombardments, the shelling, and the destruction of houses, hospitals, and schools continue. We must continue supporting people, providing them with assistance they desperately need.

I was close to the front line a couple of days ago, and people tell us how the aid is vital for them. We are determined to continue and hope the international support will also continue. We do our homework to ensure the support. One of our strategies is launching the appeal in Geneva with the UN member states and the largest donors. Countries that support the humanitarian response will be there and we will tell the story of Ukraine, that the war is still ravaging communities across the front line, and people are making every effort to survive, but they need help. We cannot turn our back on Ukraine now.

Ivan Kosiakin, Kyiv

Photo - Kyrylo Chubotin

While citing and using any materials on the Internet, links to the website not lower than the first paragraph are mandatory. In addition, citing the translated materials of foreign media outlets is possible only if there is a link to the website and the website of a foreign media outlet. Materials marked as "Advertisement" or with a disclaimer reading "The material has been posted in accordance with Part 3 of Article 9 of the Law of Ukraine "On Advertising" No. 270/96-VR of July 3, 1996 and the Law of Ukraine "On the Media" No. 2849-Х of March 31, 2023 and on the basis of an agreement/invoice.

© 2015-2024 Ukrinform. All rights reserved.

Website design Studio Laconica

Extended searchHide extended search
By period: