Fragments from a War Diary, Part #92
I have something on my mind, and I want to share it with you. I am starting to have serious reservations about what the international NGO community can do in Ukraine, that local people cannot; and why it is necessary or important to have us here at all. I realise that this concern might not be very popular amongst the NGO community; but I think it is important to air it, if only to stimulate debate.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few weeks making bread. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve enjoyed it. It is fun to mix the flour and yeast and water, cut up the huge moist balls of paste, fashion them into individual rolls, and then bake them in the oven with a touch of oil to make them crisp and warm. I learned how to do all these things extremely well, and without doubt now if I were ever so inclined I could open a Ukrainian bakery. But why am I, or any of the other international volunteers, needed to undertake the task of making bread? Is it that Ukrainians themselves don’t know how to make bread? Ukraine has traditionally been known as the breadbasket of Europe. A substantially agricultural nation that produces the vast majority of its own food, many or most Ukrainians know how to make bread much better than I did when I arrived in the country. I had to learn. Granted, it did not take huge effort, and I really enjoyed making bread. But it is obviously not efficient that foreigners travel long distances at substantial expense either to themselves or to NGO’s, in order to perform elementary tasks that Ukrainians themselves can undertake.
In the early stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was a refugee and displaced persons crisis and crisis planning was needed to be able to provide food and shelter to people who were on the move as a result of the war. Crisis planning is a specialist skill and some people have skills and experience in these fields. There are a number of UN agencies that are supposed to employ experts in these things; there are also a number of larger NGO’s that have crisis planning experts. But Ukraine is no longer in the grip of crisis, as it was in the early days. Now her problems are chronic: she is facing an interminable war with no end in sight, and her people are downtrodden and understandably depressed and anxious as this conflict takes its daily grind. There is no longer a crisis in the sense of hundreds of thousands of people on the move without homes, food or medical care. Instead there are a series of chronic problems such as military healthcare; distribution of food to the front line; distribution of food to rural areas; the daily death toll on the front line and the replenishment of soldiers; movement of ammunition and equipment to and from the front line; care for the indigent and displaced; and so on and so forth.
It is not obvious to me that any of these chronic problems, most of which are essentially issues of logistics, benefit from the continued participation of foreigners who bring new skills to military theatre that the Ukrainians themselves have not already learned. Ukraine has developed into a war economy, as is natural, and now Ukrainians have learned how to undertake the daily tasks of maintaining the country on a war footing and providing such care for those suffering as may be possible given the limited financial resources available. Furthermore those financial resources are diminishing, because there is less donor interest in the war in Ukraine than there used to be given the international media’s onward movement to other parts of the world and other crises, manmade or otherwise.
Foreigners visiting Ukraine during wartime, with the risks, dangers and hardships that involves, remain very welcome as emissaries of the West and that continues to be a very important role: to help maintain morale amongst Ukrainians so that they know that the West continues to care about their plight and that they maintain support. That is why I spend as much time as I can talking to Ukrainian people of every hue about my views of the conflict, Ukraine’s relations with her aggressive and unruly neighbour to the east, and the future prospects for Ukraine as a member of the European community of nations. In particular I like to spend time explaining to Ukrainians the dramatic social, economic and cultural changes that will be necessary for EU accession. I also like to listen to Ukrainians’ opinions, the concerns they have about the way the war is being prosecuted, their feelings about the Russian people and their politicians, the Russian Armed Forces’ brutal and inhuman battlefield tactics, and how this war is affecting ordinary Ukrainians as individuals. I feel that I am here to learn and, I hope, to explain to others outside Ukraine what I understand to be going on here. Hence these diaries.
Possibly the most valuable thing that foreigners can be doing in Ukraine right now is to spend money, because the economy has collapsed and in visiting Ukraine you can help to stimulate supply and you can keep the money flowing. If you want to volunteer to do tasks that Ukrainians themselves can undertake, such as driving vehicles, cooking food or serving food to people, then you are welcome to do that. But the most important thing you can do here is to spend your money, so that Ukrainians can afford to do all these things themselves. It is their country, after all, and it is inevitable that Ukrainians are going to be more proficient in elementary logistics than foreigners who may not know the country at all before arriving here.
Given the dramatic diminution in funds available to the international NGO community in Ukraine, it seems to me inevitable that a substantial proportion of the international volunteers currently in the country are likely shortly to leave. I have already noticed a thinning out of numbers across the country as the weather gets colder; perhaps that is natural. Where we need to fill the gap, if it can be filled, is by encouraging foreigners with specific skills and expertise not available in wartime Ukraine to come to the country. The other day I met a nuclear physicist interested in designing evacuation and emergency plans in case the country’s various nuclear power plants (the largest of which is under Russian control and occupation) suffer a reactor fire or other catastrophic event. The country is miserably short of psychiatrists in a time when mental health is a major problem because in wartime people suffer anxiety and trauma and these things lead to a variety of mental health problems. Political and strategic experts may be necessary to help the Ukrainian government plan its public relations with the external world in a time of lessening international interest. Experts in public finance and accounting may be necessary to overcome the chronic problems of corruption in Ukrainian public administration. There is in fact a virtually indefinite list of areas in which expert international assistance is required.
The need for foreigners in Ukraine, I tentatively conclude, remains, but the nature and expertise of the foreigners required has changed. The Ukrainians are now perfectly capable of being their own crisis managers amidst the daily rigmarole of running a country at war. Because they have lost a substantial proportion of their educated, academic and professional classes, there may be specific areas of expertise we should actively solicit from abroad. If Ukraine is to have a European future, more of her people need to learn foreign languages and maybe we should be encouraging English teachers to move to Ukraine. We need rule of law expertise, to shore up Ukraine’s impoverished legal system. Rule of law remains important even amidst war, as without it civilisation descends into barbarism.
There remains much to do, but I am not going to spend any more of my time in Ukraine, I have decided, making bread. Ukrainians are better at that than I am. As economists say, they have the comparative advantage and hence it is a waste of my skills and of theirs if I make bread. Instead I should use my mind to help the Ukrainian economy and political society, and that is what those weeks tramping up and down the front line have taught me to do. Also, I should spend time here as a tourist, spending money, because that is what Ukraine needs more than anything else: people to spend money. Unfortunately it is difficult to attract tourists to a war zone; but I hope that my diaries might encourage you to come.