Learn, plan and adapt: some key lessons for the response to the conflict in Ukraine

Whilst evaluations of major emergencies have revealed many flaws in the way that humanitarian assistance is carried out, it is also the case that this knowledge has inspired its evolution and development. As agencies gear up to respond to the conflict in Ukraine, we would like to share some of the key lessons from the past that can help guide agencies in their current planning and response.  

Many of these lessons may seem ‘obvious’ but we know that when the obvious is overlooked there is often a high price to pay later.

Let’s start with perhaps the most important element: taking an adaptive approach to planning and implementation.   In a rapidly evolving context (as in Ukraine) this means changing approaches and interventions in response to evolving circumstances, rather than continuing with a plan that no longer fits the problem. 

In practice this may involve changing the location in which operations take place (e.g. World Vision in the European refugee crises in Greece and Hungary); changing activities and services provided (e.g. UNHCR’s experience in Ukraine in 2014); changes to the target population (e.g. WFP in Afghanistan, who changed their programming due to deteriorating security and went on to support a totally unexpected influx of refugees from Pakistan); and/or reframing services (e.g. WFP in the Ebola emergency when they changed from a food insecurity entry point to a health-driven response.).

There are usually several ‘triggers’ which lead humanitarians to adapt, and these include changes in the external environment (e.g. access conditions); changes in the understanding of how we’re doing (e.g. feedback from crises-affected populations); and changes in the paradigm for humanitarian action (e.g. improvisations during the COVID-19 Pandemic).

So far, we have learned that agencies have been good at responding to changes in the external environment – but not so good at responding to feedback from people in crisis or creating new paradigms for action.  

The headline message here is - start planning for adaptation rather than planning for scaling up.

"The headline message here is - start planning for adaptation rather than planning for scaling up."

Adaptive responses rely on getting good real-time information to inform scenario planning and contingency planning, both of which will be crucial for making the right programmatic adjustments, in the right places at the right time. We know this was not fully appreciated at the outset of the conflict in Syria, where there was a failure to anticipate that the situation would lead to a large-scale protracted displacement and a refugee crisis. We need to learn from this.

Having said this, lessons from previous conflict situations suggest that accessing timely information will be less than straightforward. Data from single assessments in urban settings exposed to violence and rapid population movements are likely to become quickly out of date, and experiences from Aleppo also warn us of the limitations of assessments in besieged cities. Teams on the ground reported that time, accessibility and security – compounded by limited geographic coverage, unclear population figures and limited coverage – all added up to severe constraints. In addition, some populations in need reportedly preferred not to be registered for fear of how the lists might be used in the future.

On the positive side, there has been something of a renaissance in the past couple of years regarding innovative real-time learning methods that have emerged in response to the COVID crisis, with many examples of new practices. Some of these include NRC’s learning reviews with a focus on ‘getting to grips with unknowns’ using new adaptive management frameworks; UNICEF’s experience in trialling remote adaptive management techniques in 41 countries which led to ‘live learning processes’; and World Vision’s experiences when including 2,600 staff in learning reviews without making the process extractive. These and many more may inspire agencies looking to do things differently.

Experience tells us that locally-led humanitarian action has often been an  essential ingredient of flexible and appropriate humanitarian responses.  In the Ukraine crisis, local groups are likely to be springing up to respond directly to urgent needs on the ground.  International agencies will need to find ways to support these efforts.  This may involve changing funding modalities and being mindful of the fact that local groups themselves are changing and evolving (and/or possibly emerging and disappearing) as the situation changes.  This crisis may present an opportunity for agencies to put local at the centre of their response and help set a new and more appropriate narrative for the future.

‘Learning from the two tsunamis’

We have also been reassured to find that the generosity of the public almost never wanes when it comes to giving.  And it will be the same for the Ukraine crisis. With this in mind, let’s not forget experiences from the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2005, where agencies accepted funds without adequate foresight, and this resulted in much wasteful duplication, survey fatigue, and unhelpful competition between agencies to secure  partners to deliver assistance. One official in Indonesia famously said that there were 2 tsunamis – the first caused by the earthquake and the second by the tsunami of agencies that descended on Ache.  

An important success from the Indian Ocean Tsunami was the successful use of cash-based programming. Thanks to an enormous amount of learning and improvement since then, we can say with a high degree of confidence that cash will be key, especially since it has been most effective in urban and middle-income environments such as in Syria.

Finally, we know from other high-profile emergencies that when gearing up for new challenges, there has been a strong impulse to move resources away from ongoing crises over to new high-profile emergencies, often to the detriment of other people equally in need.   As we raise funds and plan/implement the response, let’s try not to lose sight of the rest of humanitarian response portfolio.