Swiss solidarity: is aid reaching Ukraine fast enough?

Food and drink being provided at a Ukrainian Red Cross tent outside an apartment block that was hit by a Russian rocket on 14 January 2023 in Dnipro, central Ukraine. (Keystone/Avalon/Mykola Miakshykov)

As Ukraine approaches one year since the start of Russia’s invasion, what humanitarian aid has it received from Swiss people?

Since March of last year, the Swiss population has been reaching into their pockets to support the delivery of humanitarian aid for Ukraine. Swiss Solidarity, known in French as Chaîne du Bonheur, has raised over CHF 129 million in the last 11 months for the war-torn country – the second highest figure in the history of the Geneva-based charity foundation.

But with big sums of money comes huge scrutiny. In the past year around only one third of the funds have been allocated, prompting criticism from some organisations who would like to see aid arrive more quickly. For Swiss Solidarity, it is its responsibility that every penny is well spent and due diligence can take time.

What has happened with Ukraine aid

Russian forces have laid waste to vaste regions of Ukraine in the last year, prompting millions of people to flee in search of safety. By the end of October 2022, nearly eight million Ukrainians had seeked refuge in other parts of Europe while another 6.5 million had relocated within the country, finding themselves in need of shelter, food, clothes or money.

So far, Swiss Solidarity has handed out CHF 44.5m to fund 86 projects, with CHF 35.4m going to activities inside Ukraine and the remaining resources attributed to activities in other countries where Ukrainians have fled, including Switzerland.

The projects are mostly run by Swiss Solidarity’s official partners working on Ukraine, which are the Swiss Red Cross, Caritas Suisse, Helvetas, Terre des Hommes, Medair, Solidar, EPER, Fondation Suisse de Déminage, Save the Children, Hirondelle Foundation and Médecins du Monde. Their focus ranges from providing first aid, shelter, food and cash to psychological help and supporting local journalism.

Many of the projects were initially focused in Moldova, Poland and western Ukraine, where Ukrainians were fleeing the violence. Since the retreat of Moscow from Kyiv and Ukrainian forces pushing the frontline further out, organisations have gradually extended their operations to the central and eastern parts of the country. Activities in neighbouring countries have been slowed down along with the influx of refugees.

‘Slow bureaucracy’

With the arrival of freezing temperatures and power outages caused by Russian attacks on critical infrastructure affecting one third of the country, needs have risen over the last few months. Organisations have been racing against the clock to  replace broken windows and refurbish damaged buildings so that displaced people can have a warm place to shelter during the winter months

Patricia Shmorhun Hawrylyshyn, co-founder of the local charity foundation Move Ukraine, regretted that Swiss Solidarity aid has not been deployed faster. The Swiss-Ukrainian business woman, who had to temporarily leave her home in Kyiv at the start of the invasion and relocate to Lviv, said she was “moved” by the show of support from Swiss people.

“People gave because they wanted that money to go to Ukraine, not to sit in some bank or in some office in Switzerland, asking for criteria that no one can meet,” she said.

Set up in May 2022, Move Ukraine builds and repairs homes, schools and other infrastructure destroyed during the war to accommodate displaced people. According to the Kyiv School of Economics, almost 144,000 residential buildings have been destroyed since the beginning of the invasion.

Move Ukraine has been pairing up with small and large organisations, which are not among Swiss Solidarity’s partners, as well as local and international donors for construction projects, housing over 400 internally displaced people since August. Shmorhun Hawrylyshyn says that at times working with big organisations has been frustrating.

“I had shocking experiences with an incredibly slow bureaucracy. It’s like they don’t realise that this is war!” she said.

Ukraine’s ambassador in Bern, Artem Rybchenko, also openly criticised Swiss Solidarity back in July 2022 for not supporting his government’s reconstruction project United24, launched at a conference for Ukraine in Lugano earlier that month. Swiss Solidarity had argued that it only supported civil society-led humanitarian aid projects in the interest of independence.

Christine Hawrylyshyn Batruch, advisory board member of the Ukrainian Society of Switzerland’s Geneva branch and sister of Shmorhun Hawrylyshyn, helped Swiss Solidarity’s fundraising campaign back in March. She considers the charity group’s selection criteria to be too strict. Hawrylyshyn Batruch set up the social centre for Ukrainian refugees, Ge-Care Ukraine, in Geneva in April, and says it hasn’t been easy to keep it afloat.

“Despite our efforts to try to get support from Swiss Solidarity, we have no chance of success because the requirements are such that you need to have years of existence, own funds, etc,” she told Geneva Solutions.

Local organisations can benefit from Swiss Solidarity’s funds by working with its official partners. Otherwise, the foundation requires NGOs to apply for accreditation to be able to receive funds directly.

Since the start of Russia’s attack, initiatives like Ge-care Ukraine started springing up inside and outside the country with the aim to support Ukrainians to endure the war. The young initiatives have been supported through donations from the Ukrainian diaspora itself, but this means it can be sporadic and unpredictable, Batruch points out. As the fighting shows no signs of letting up, these new organisations are grappling with how to plan for one of their greatest fears – a long-term conflict.

Resisting public pressure

Tasha Rumley, head of humanitarian aid at Swiss Solidarity, argues that if the foundation is too bureaucratic, it is to avoid making hasty decisions. “We’re talking about large sums of money,” she told Geneva Solutions. “If it disappears or is misused, we can kill a Swiss tradition that has existed for 75 years.”

Rumley says that they have received many requests for non-professional initiatives looking to send money or items to Ukraine. “We had to refuse them and of course people were upset,” she said.

“There is public pressure to go fast but it’s our responsibility to resist that. Humanitarian aid is not only rushing to the place. There are livelihoods that need to be sustained. People need predictability.”

Ukraine also has a reputation for widespread corruption that keeps donors on high alert. For the past ten years before the war, it had consistently ranked among the top 60 most corrupt countries, according to Transparency International’s corruption perception index. The state has been enacting reforms in recent years to remedy the issue and reassure its partners, but the war and the huge amounts of money raised for Ukraine in the last year puts the issue back on the spotlight.

Read also: How do you hold a government accountable during wartime?

Rumley says that Swiss Solidarity has been exploring ways to directly support local organisations, piloting small grants (up to 20,000 CHF) for Moldovan and Romanian projects assisting refugees. The organisation has been looking to expand it to Ukraine, but without a field presence, selecting NGOs to support has been difficult.

Swiss Solidarity did accept to finance some specific projects by Ukrainian NGOs based in Switzerland, Rumley added, for example to send ambulances or essential drugs.

But even some of Swiss Solidarity’s longtime partners do not agree entirely with its decisions. An organisation, which asked not to be named, expressed disappointment that one of its projects had not been approved due to requirements on measuring impact being too strict. They said that there was room for more flexibility and trust. Another official partner, also wishing not to be named, said that there were sometimes differences of opinion in what they identified as a humanitarian priority.

Johan Ten Hoeve, Medair’s head of Ukraine response in Poland and Ukraine and member of Swiss Solidarity’s consultative commission in charge of reviewing proposals for international aid projects, called the criticism “unfair” and said he considered there was “enough flexibility to modify the projects according to newly identified or changing needs during the project implementation period in consultation with Swiss Solidarity project staff”.

Contacted by Geneva Solutions, Helvetas, which specialises in building and repairing water infrastructure, and Hirondelle Foundation, which supports local journalists reporting on the war, said that they were satisfied with the way their project proposals had been handled.

Rumley said that one out of five projects do not get approved simply because “they’re not good enough”. “Our responsibility is not to sustain the humanitarian sector, it is with our donors,” she said.

When the cameras leave

Ten Hoeve pointed out that fund allocation should not surpass capacity. “There has to be a balance between our capacity to operate and the funds provided by Swiss Solidarity,” he said. The Lausanne-based humanitarian NGO received CHF 800,000 Swiss francs last year for a project to provide relief, including hygiene items, clothes, food, cash and information for Ukrainians arriving in Poland as well as CHF 3.3m for cash, shelter and health programming in Ukraine.

Pascal Morf, deputy head of the Swiss Red Cross’s disaster management unit, echoed the remarks. “It’s not sustainable to dump trucks of items that will stay in containers,” he told Geneva Solutions. The Swiss Red Cross, which is operating in western and central Ukraine,  significantly depends on Swiss Solidarity funds for its activities in Ukraine, with the CHF 6m it received from the charity foundation making up a third of its budget for operations on the ground. But it is the Ukrainian Red Cross that calls the shots on the ground in terms of what help they need and want. “We have to be careful not to replace them and that can be limiting,” said Morf.

While stressing that donations are not intentionally saved for later, Rumley pointed out that any remaining funds can be crucial for the future, when the cameras leave. “We know that funding is going to decrease over the years as media attention goes down,” she said. Swiss Solidarity has said it wants to deploy some of the funds, if possible, for reconstruction of the country over the next few years.

For Shmorhun Hawrylyshyn, the needs are immediate and cannot wait. “People are dying every day,” she said.

While she recognises the need for measures to ensure transparency, she calls for more trust in Ukrainian civil society. “It’s like these huge organisations somehow don't trust locals, so they send their experts that hop from one disaster to another,” she said.

“There must be a more efficient way to deliver aid because we need the aid.”

This article has been corrected to indicate that Swiss Solidarity is based in Geneva and Ukraine represents its second highest fundraising campaign.