11:10 12.04.2024

As long as Ukraine needs humanitarian assistance as a consequence of this brutal war of aggression by Russia, we will be with you - EU Humanitarian Aid director

13 min read
As long as Ukraine needs humanitarian assistance as a consequence of this brutal war of aggression by Russia, we will be with you - EU Humanitarian Aid director

Exclusive interview with the Director for Neighborhood the Directorate General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO) at the European Commission ANDREAS PAPACONSTANTINOU to the Interfax-Ukraine agency

Text: Valerie Proshchenko

The EU official who is responsible for the Union’s humanitarian assistance to Ukraine told us about further support, implemented projects, and challenges in conducting operations


What is the aim of your latest visit to Ukraine? Where and what meetings were held? And could you, please, elaborate on the work of the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO)‘s in Ukraine?

This is my fourth visit to Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale aggression. My mission aimed to assess the humanitarian needs, the priorities, and the overall humanitarian response. I met with the authorities, including Deputy Prime Minister – Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories Iryna Vereshchuk. Also, I met the relevant parliamentary committee and the local authorities, such as Viacheslav Chaus, the head of the regional state administration. Of course, we met with the UN team and the key embassies. We met with local NGOs also because one of our priorities is to promote our cooperation with local actors in the context of what we call the “localization agenda”.

Together my team and I also had an opportunity to visit the area of Chernihiv, where we are present with some of our humanitarian projects, in the areas of shelters, education in emergencies, social support, etc.

We are from the humanitarian arm of the European Union, so our mandate is to implement humanitarian programs through our certified partners, who are either the UN agencies (like UNHCR, the World Food Program, UNICEF), or international NGOs. Ukraine is also a very good example of how you can work extensively with the local actors who know the area, who know the people, and their needs, and who can move into even hard-to-reach areas and deliver assistance.


You said about meetings with the Ukrainian officials. Have you got any specific requests about what people need the most at this stage of the war?

Well, we have several humanitarian priorities, such as shelter, cash assistance, water and sanitation, health protection, education in emergencies and demining.

While we are designing the program, we talk with Ukrainian authorities and consult them. Their views are taken into account. However, we do not deliver assistance through the government. We deliver directly through the humanitarian partners who are certified by the European Commission.

The EU also provides assistance from EU countries through the “civil protection mechanism”, bringing in-kind assistance upon Ukrainian government’s requests, like generators or medical supplies. This is the European Union mechanism that coordinates the in-kind assistance from the member states.

In this mission, I also had a very good meeting with the State Emergency Service of Ukraine. We're working very closely with them, as part of the European Union civil protection family. The coordination with them is excellent.


Demining is a really important part that concerns Ukraine a lot. Could you tell us a little bit more about your help there?

Demining is definitely a priority. The potentially contaminated area is huge. It leads to, first of all, problems regarding security, cultivation of land, creation of livelihoods and opportunities for people.

So, we address de-mining with three main instruments. One is humanitarian assistance funding, as part of our program. The second one is through another funding instrument of the European Union, which is called the Foreign Policy Instrument. The third instrument is the Civil protection mechanism, bringing in much-needed equipment from our member states in the European Union.

On top of this, we are working closely with our international partners beyond the European Union to coordinate efforts to meet these needs. We regularly discuss demining with our international partners and other donors also, I would like to mention that the EU is funding a program with the World Food Program (WFP), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Fondation Suisse de Déminage (FSD), designed to safely release land back to productive use, including by clearing it from mines and other explosive remnants of the war, to help restore agricultural livelihoods, contribute to Ukraine’s economic recovery, and phase out the need for humanitarian assistance for thousands of rural families.


I suppose that you have to cooperate also with organizations specialized in humanitarian demining?

Yes, absolutely. We work with the most qualified and established organizations, it is a very sensitive sector of intervention which requires a high level of expertise.  We focus on the provision of equipment and training, as well as mine risk education, to increase the awareness of the population. It's very complex and progress is not always quick. But the EU is fully committed to keep working on this as a priority.


As I understand, you support Ukrainian refugees who have fled to neighboring countries. Like Moldova, for instance. How does this process work?


The European Union has the responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance to people in need outside the European Union. There are millions of refugees from Ukraine who  currently live in the European Union under the Temporary Protection Directive. This directive covers access to social welfare, medical care, employment, and education for children.

But the refugees in countries outside the European Union, like Moldova, are not covered by the Temporary Protection Directive. That's where the humanitarian assistance comes in. As part of our humanitarian response, we have an assistance package for Moldova, which is hosting thousands of Ukrainian refugees and needs to be supported.

Also, I've recently sent a team to Georgia because there are Ukrainian refugees, and it’s necessary to assess their needs. And based on my team's report, we are going to look into the next steps.


There was information, that the European Commission has allocated in total €926 million for humanitarian aid programs to help civilians affected by the war in Ukraine since Russia's invasion in February 2022. What exactly does that include? In details.

Thanks to the latest allocation in 2024, the EU has provided close to €1billion in humanitarian aid. On top of that, we have close to two billion euros which is the assistance provided by the EU member states. This makes a total of almost three billion since the beginning of the war. And the monetized value of the in-kind assistance provided through the Civil protection mechanism has also reached EUR 802 million.

The EU and its member states will continue to provide humanitarian assistance in line with the European Council conclusions, where all leaders have agreed to continue funding the Ukraine program. We're in this for the long haul. In addition, in early February, European leaders approved the launch of the EUR 50 billion Ukraine Facility for 2024-2027, which will cover for recovery and reconstruction needs. The Facility will provide more medium to long-term support to the country for its reconstruction.

As stated by our President Ursula von der Leyen, the overall assistance of the European Union is meant to support the Ukraine accession to the EU. Humanitarian assistance is complementary to the recovery and reconstruction agenda.


What do you mean by that?

For instance, there are areas in our humanitarian program like housing, demining, and social protection that could be transferred to the reconstruction program.  We are now working in Brussels to see how we are going to make some projects more long-term through the Facility.

From my point of view, while we are talking about recovery reconstruction in terms of big infrastructure projects, which we fully support, we also need to develop programs for the human capital of this country. It is essential that nobody is left behind. And that's where there is room to coordinate with our Ukrainian friends and authorities to see how we're going to strike the right balance between humanitarian, recovery and reconstruction.


And what about territories that are close to the front line? How do you work there?

This is as well one of the priority areas of the EU humanitarian assistance. We want to focus on those who are most vulnerable, especially in areas and oblasts close to the front line. The EU, through its humanitarian partners, has a strong presence in these areas.

We also have humanitarian experts on the ground. And are essential not only to monitor the programs implemented by the partners, but also to co-shape the response and make the most effective use of the funding.

In order to further strengthen aid effectiveness and coordination with Ukrainian and international partners and donors, I'm going to chair on the 16th of April, a senior officials meeting in Brussels. We have invited also the government and local NGOs from Ukraine to be there in Brussels to discuss the next phase of the humanitarian program. We will discuss where we're going, we will listen, coordinate, and make the program even more effective.


As the stage of the war changes but people's need for help remains, how do you target who to support and how? I mean, we see russian drone and missile attacks continuing, but I realize that the approach to providing aid is changing. 

We try to see in each area what are the prevailing needs, and we don't have a blanket approach anymore. What does it mean? First of all, it means that we need to keep a close eye on the number of people in need because even that is shifting, but we need to keep an eye on the geography of the crisis. We have an active war that we take into account We have established sectors of humanitarian assistance such as shelter, cash, water, and education but we are ready to adjust the response as the situation on the ground develops. We work on the ground, coordinate with our humanitarian partners who liaise with local authorities.

When the first wave of funding, which is normally the most generous, is drying up, then you realize that you need to rethink, you need to reconstitute the coordination to make more effective use of the funding.

And that's where we are now. Because in year one the funding was extremely high. In year two, it started getting down, but again, that is normal. I'm not surprised by that, because again, the first year is the blanketed approach, you cover everyone, everywhere, in what we call a “no-regrets approach”. Year two is more focused on areas. That’s why coordination is crucial.


You said that now we are not at the stage where humanitarian aid could be stopped. So, humanitarian aid is going to stay, that’s great. But maybe you can forecast something about the humanitarian situation in Ukraine. Relying on your experience in other countries, how is it going to be further?

Well, as I see it, the humanitarian situation is really serious in areas close to the front line. Russia continues to act in a way, and I think the Humanitarian Coordinator Ms Denise Brown has been always very vocal on this, totally against international humanitarian law. They're targeting civilians, a lot of people have been killed, and civilian infrastructure, school, and health facilities were destroyed. That's unacceptable. War has rules, we keep saying that. And the Russians ignore the rules of war. Continuous endangering of civilian lives, severe damage to housing, water, and electricity supply, the energy attacks, all these things make of cause even further need for humanitarian assistance... That's why the Ukrainian humanitarian needs and response plan shows that there are still a lot of people estimated to need assistance in 2024.

Given the active war paradigm we want to see where we're going to shift our funding and also mobilize, that's a key role of the European Union, and other key humanitarian actors to continue funding. One of the big themes of this upcoming senior officials meeting in Brussels in mid-April is sustained funding, and how we are going to ensure that humanitarian funding will continue as long as needed.


One of the most important parts of your program is education. How your work is going in this area, and what has to be done for children for now?

From a general perspective, the European Union is the only top donor in the world that dedicates 10% of overall humanitarian funding to what we call Education-in-Emergencies.

Why do we do that? Because we want to ensure that no generation is lost. We want to ensure that the human capital in the countries we invest in through our programs is maintained because they are the future. The children are the future of Ukraine. What we want to do is to prevent any disruption in education.

We want children to go back to school, which require light and medium rehabilitation of schools. We also create quality bomb shelters in order to shift from online education to offline.  And we've done it across the country.

We want to establish digital learning spaces as well because we need to rely also on technology. We believe these programs are instrumental in providing relief to children, who are the most traumatized by the conflict. They need to go back to a safe space with other kids where they have psychosocial support. And we provide it through our programs.

We also provide support through catch-up learning projects for the kids who had a disruption in their education, as well as for teachers. So, we've done it already in many cases from the basic approach to education and emergencies to more sophisticated and good learning outcome-based approaches, meaning that what teachers and kids are going to achieve through this process is going to be a quality outcome.

And, interestingly, the Ukraine crisis theater provides us with a platform to propagate the idea that even when there is an active war with missiles and drones, kids can continue to get educated.


Does it also include students in the universities?

No, currently our programs focus on schools and kindergartens.


Do you have maybe some specific figures and numbers about shelters and schools that you helped?

DG ECHO has so far supported the light and medium repairs of around 140 schools and bomb shelters, while works from our partners are currently ongoing in another 100 schools and shelters. The repairing of schools and shelters remains a priority for us going forward, as this is paramount to facilitate safe access to face-to-face learning in Ukraine.


What about hospital support? What kind of help do you provide?

The health sector is another priority for the EU. We have projects aiming to deliver emergency responses in the health sector, such as equipment and supplies. We also play a very important role through our Civil protection mechanism in medical evacuations, and the WHO helped us identify who needs to be sent to specialized health facilities outside the country. So, we had projects in hospitals in various parts of the country.

So, we supported the medical evacuation to specialized clinics, either to Norway, to Germany, to France, and other European countries.

I want to assure to you and your readers that the European Union, at the highest level, is committed to assist Ukraine. Its people belong in Europe. You are fighting this war with a lot of bravery and resilience, and we want to assist Ukraine, first of all, through the humanitarian program.