Fragments from a War Diary, Part #70
Last night in Dnipro, before I boarded one of Ukrainian Railways’ gargantuan trains, I met an international NGO worker working in the Dnipro region, undertaking superlative work transporting the injured from stabilisation points on the front line to hospitals in the city. He had a military background but this sort of work is inherently risky and he is one of the unsung civilian heroes of this debilitating war in Ukraine.
We met in a shack near the railway station, which called itself a bar. The way you could tell it was a bar was because there was a crude image of a frothy glass of beer hanging from the outside of the structure; but there was no sign giving this institution a name. When I call it a bar, the expression “beer shack” might be more appropriate because in fact it sold nothing but beer (not even coffee, vodka or orange juice) served straight from taps into plastic bottles that you are then free to drink from glasses while sitting on rough wooden stools at rough wooden tables in this rough wooden shack. Everyone in there apart from us was pretty drunk. Many of the customers appeared to be respectable ladies. There was a Five Gryvna fee to “use” the lavatory. Nevertheless this sort of simplistic arrangement is seemingly what passes for nightlife in the railway station area of the Ukrainian city of Dnipro.
My new friend and colleague conveyed to me some of the gruelling realities of contemporary NGO work in Ukraine. He had been working in and around Dnipro, close to the front line, for around 15 months now. He had been paid for his first month but not subsequently; the funding had dried up. Now this was very much a subsistence operation. There is a shortage of funding - after the first few months, donor drought set in and the much needed private funding required for NGO’s to operate effectively gradually, then dramatically, reduced to a trickle. Volunteers are now having to spend their own funds in order to volunteer, just to cover their living costs. Few NGO’s provide accommodation for volunteers anymore. Some feed volunteers some of their meals on the days they work; but that is not a cast iron rule either. It is increasingly taxing to be an international volunteer working in Ukraine.
Another issue that arises is that volunteers are not always a good fit for the culture, ethos or work of the organisation they may join. Or they simply may not get on with the people they are working with. This usually becomes apparent very quickly when a volunteer joins a team, within the first few days; but by then it is too late as the volunteer has spent his or her own money and resources in travelling to Ukraine and then finds themselves occupying a post that for whatever reason they are not happy with or the organisation is not happy with. This suggests to me that greater resources might be devoted to the process of matching volunteers with NGO’s; and also that it should be easier for NGO’s and volunteers to move around between organisations in the event they are unhappy and there should be a transparent mechanism for doing this.
Unfortunately, because of the donor drought and the absence of funds, many NGO’s are now struggling to fulfil the mandates they were founded to pursue. I have met countless enthusiastic NGO staff who have regaled me with their plans for a new centre here, or a new distribution warehouse there; they have identified a need, and their judgment is in more cases than not well founded, particularly if they have been working in the NGO community in Ukraine for some time. All they need are a few thousand Dollars, which are unavailable. Hence plenty of plans for effective NGO assistance in different parts of free Ukraine come to naught, because the funding simply cannot be found. This causes NGO’s to compete with one another, and in a number of cases NGO staff become jealous of one another because they are competing for a limited pool of funding.
New volunteers may find some of these obstacles frustrating and even dispiriting. Every volunteer in Ukraine is spending significant quantities of their own money just to arrive in military theatre, and they may bring a variety of skills that they feel are not being effectively used. Nevertheless in the absence of direct international civilian assistance on an intergovernmental level, NGO’s are the only tool the international community has at the current time to assist with civilian missions in Ukraine, whether that be supporting the Ukrainian military with so-called “non-lethal assistance” (as my friend from last night is doing in transporting the wounded to hospital) or helping rebuild homes that have suffered war damage, or feeding the indigent, in particular in rural areas of Ukraine.
If we are to avoid losing the volunteer community in Ukraine, which undoubtedly has significant experience within its midst of the challenges facing civilian assistance projects in the country as some of its members have been here for a significant part of the conflict, then we need to coordinate fundraising efforts so that international volunteers feel that they have more support. We should not really be in a position in which the NGO community is taking anybody willing to pay their own way irrespective of their particular skills for the job; that will inevitably attract people who may not be suitable. So increasing funding, and encouraging governments to pay more into the NGO sector in Ukraine, is a paramount priority. Funding NGO’s is far cheaper, for example, than running an embassy in Kyiv in which a limited number of staff are required to undergo strict security protocols and often have their movements restricted. Although governments often have a perception of NGO’s as unruly and undisciplined, they can nevertheless be highly effective in unorthodox environments.
The second priority is to encourage NGO’s to coordinate better with one another and to work effectively with the volunteers they have, in both selecting those volunteers wisely and managing problems when they arise or if the fit between volunteer and organisation is not right. It is a monumental waste of time if NGO’s or their staff members are engaged in stealth (or even overt) warfare with one another, suspicious of each other’s intentions, because there is not enough bread to go round from the donors’ tables and therefore the NGO’s are struggling to keep themselves occupied and struggling to achieve their goals with the limited funds that they have. These are the sorts of factor that inevitably generate political infighting within the NGO community.
A final comment I would make is that a number of the longer-term NGO workers I have met in Ukraine are manifestly exhausted. They have been here too long. Nobody would imagine requiring a western soldier to serve a 12-month or 18-month tour of duty; but that is how long a number of civilian NGO workers here in Ukraine have been present in theatre. It is well known that soldiers who serve over-extended tours of duty become demoralised, disillusioned, and may stray from their higher purposes. They may become exhausted and lose site of the bigger picture, becoming bogged down in petty rivalries and incoherent suspicions when there is a war going on and we all need to be focused upon the same thing.
I become particularly tired of hearing the “Russian spy” narrative coming out of the mouths of some members of the NGO community. This is nonsense. I have not met a single member of the international NGO community in my six weeks plus in Ukraine who I have the remotest suspicion of being a Russian spy. I have known Russian spies and they don’t look like this. This is the sort of petty rumour mill that emerges when NGO staff are tired, overstretched, underfunded and in need of a break.
My new friend and I shared our experiences of working in support roles on the front lines, and we both wondered for how long this ghastly war would carry on. We were both pessimistic. We finished our simple drinks, went to the lavatory for proper reasons, and then went upon our respective ways. We wished each other well. I could see the strain in his face, and yet this was a good man doing God’s work. I shall think of him over the coming days, fetching wounded soldiers from the front line and taking them to where their lives can be saved. What he does must be hell on earth.