Ukraine and RINGO: Can We Catalyse a More Solidaristic and Locally-Led Response in Ukraine?
By Deborah Doane, with contributions by Isabella Jean, Ignacio Saez and Dmitri Makarov
The war in Ukraine has been a shocking situation that has taken many International civil society actors aback: conflict within Europe, alongside mass migration from Europe, was thought to be something of the distant past (though short memories should be reminded of the war in the Balkans not too long ago), and not something that we would be putting so much of our attention to, especially for development and humanitarian actors.
Yet our well-intentioned desire to respond has been immediate, with International NGOs ready to mobilize using the usual armament: raising millions of dollars from Europe and North America; sending teams out to assess the situation; some setting up field offices, hiring or deploying staff, others identifying local organizations through which they could spend their millions, often having to divert attention away from other long-standing areas of need. It has meant that some areas in the region are now awash with resources; others are completely bereft of them.
What’s immediately apparent is that there remains an ongoing disconnect between local action and their own identified needs; and the resources and approaches of international organizations. This dynamic is not new: it reflects a long-standing condition of the relationships between international civil society and local actors.
The RINGO Project was partly borne out of this dynamic: it’s a response to decades of calls for change and transformation from civil society groups working locally on the front lines of development, humanitarian, peacebuilding, human rights and environmental efforts, seeking more power and resource in the wider system, alongside better, more interactive systems of solidarity that can better embed their local political context. The latter is particularly relevant for human rights actors in Russia who have found themselves cut off from potential allies, following a decade of restrictions imposed on them from their government, including international funding restrictions to shutting down all forms of protest.
This paper is not intended to be an in-depth analysis of what is happening on the ground: it is intended to stimulate discussion and response, as others have already done in this space. Specifically, we focus on lessons drawn from the RINGO project and ask: what would a better response look like and where are opportunities aligned with our RINGO direction of travel? Is there a more locally-led, solidaristic response to Ukraine and allies in surrounding countries, one that supports self-determination and local priorities that can be mainstreamed? And can we do something in the immediate present without waiting until the aftermath and its commensurate evaluation, saying ‘we should have done xx;’ or ‘we failed at y’?
There are some wonderful innovative responses emerging, and examples of locally-led responses, however there are also some barriers that remain. We summarize the RINGO analysis of what we have identified as to why the system is ‘stuck’, through our highly collaborative, global process over the past year. We then look to identify some immediate starting points that could be considered that would effect change in our current response, as well as setting the stage for shifting the system post-conflict: not just for the benefit of Ukraine, but for other future conflicts and emergencies as well.
I. What are we already seeing in the Ukraine context?
“I cannot stress enough the total lack of major NGOs on the ground on the border – and I know that the situation is the same in Kharkiv and across much of Ukraine.” — Ada Wordsworth – founder, KHARPP
“We are almost two months into the war. Five million Ukrainians are out of their country. The major NGOs are still doing needs assessments.” — Dr. Elizabeth Cullen Dunn. Professor, University of Indiana. Visiting Fellow, University of Regensburg.
“It’s people-to-people communication and trusted transport chains such as ours that successfully deliver targeted , no-waste aid. Painful that budget is our only restraint.” – For Peace, local CSO
This paper is not intended to be an in-depth analysis of what is happening on the ground. Below is a summary of what we are hearing about through reports from colleagues both inside and outside Ukraine.
i. Significant resources going to the International sector, because of the existing systems in place for mobilizing funds, including by the media who point to INGO fundraising endeavors. At the same time, many in the INGO sector lack existing links to local organizations. Many local organizations who are fronting the response have limited access to resources.
ii. Lack of coordination between international and local CSOs about local needs, especially at the beginning of the conflict, with multiple international offices going out to ‘assess’ the situation. There is insufficient investment in infrastructure to enable local organizations to articulate their ‘demand’ for what they want and need. Language barriers can compound the situation.
iii. Lack of infrastructure to enable local organisations to appeal directly for support from a generous western public.
iv. Human rights issues are side-lined in favour of humanitarian efforts, as siloed responses continue to be the norm. Furthermore, human rights organisations in Russia have been isolated, following long-standing
v. Lack of transparency about how funds are going to support local organisations, with few stories directly from those on the ground about how these funds are helping, emerging.
vi. Bilateral donors preferring to give to large agencies – either UN or larger INGOs, either for simplicity purposes or because of perceptions of risk.
II. Areas of stuckness
The RINGO inquiry phase, which took place between May and September 2021 identified systemic areas of ‘stuckness’ – why the system largely still continues to struggle with shifting resources and power to the grassroots. Some of these are relevant for the response in Ukraine and the region.
1) Stakeholders hold conflicting objectives and cultures. INGOs (generally) derived their culture from ‘professionalism’ achieving legitimacy through formal structures of management, command and control and with government; other actors in the system derived legitimacy directly from their constituents and networks…. English as a language of communication still predominates.
Do we have sufficient flexibility to support more informal structures (including volunteer-led support) and local groups for whom English is not available to them?
2) Donors were felt to be driving much of the existing models: large sums of money and the need for efficiency; risk management, etc.
Can donors be encouraged or compelled to set up systems to give directly with more proportionate accountability requirements? Can INGOs hold the burden of accountability and not pass these onto local organizations? What risk models are we using in Ukraine? Can we alleviate the need to ‘spend down’ within a particular time frame, to avoid a rush of spending that can lead to poor outcomes?
3) Decision making structures and models were noted as undemocratic and upward, failing to involve staff, beneficiaries or communities.
To what extent do local actors have a say over the international response and setting priorities? Is consultation genuinely democratic? If not, how can it be?
4) Vested interest, geopolitics and outdated perceptions of ‘capacity.’
To what extent are INGOs’ positions and actions reinforcing the geopolitical status quo? This could be, for example, by reinforcing narratives around the conflict that perpetuate racist, neo-colonial tropes about deserving v. undeserving refugees and resistors to occupation. Are these positions knowingly or inadvertently serving the political and military interests of EU and NATO governments?
To what extent are we making assumptions about capacity in Ukraine? Even the most devastated communities retain capacities. Research shows that even if the physical/material infrastructure is destroyed, communities will continue to have strong relationships, personal skills, organizational abilities, important norms and values, effective leaders and the ability to make decisions.
5) Technocracy prioritized over participation & process: Technocracy deemed more important than participation and process.
To what extent are we rushing to demonstrate ‘measurable’ outcomes? (eg. how many people ‘helped’; number of care packages distributed). Is process equally important here?
III. Areas of Opportunity?
The RINGO lab followed an examination of the areas of ‘stuckness’ with an exploration into the areas of opportunity for change. We think there are many areas of opportunity to change in the immediate context of Ukraine. Some of these are highlighted, below.
RINGO opportunity: Redesign funding models: many examples, eg. more funds to smaller and local CSOs; endowments, participatory grant-making, funding collaboration rather than competition and brand. RINGO is taking these up in a number of our prototypes, and some could have immediate application in Ukraine. This could include:
- INGOs could collectively set up a platform to enable a ‘reverse call for proposals/appeal’ from local organizations, rather than doing ‘needs assessments’.
- Participatory Grant-making and community philanthropy. These let go of power and control and gives decision-making directly to those who are best placed to make decisions about needs.
These alternative funding models respond to the area of opportunity identified by RINGO participants which included to “Redesign the roles of INGOs to be supportive and demand focused to its partners.”
RINGO opportunity: Embrace technology to enable diversity and amplify voices in decision making.
- RINGO, is trialling out online AI-based translation functions that can help people tell their stories and amplify their needs without the need for intermediaries;
- There are multiple MEAL technologies, such as the Loop online feedback platform. Even Zoom can help bring local constituents into the Board room where decisions about the response are being made, speaking to another of RINGO’s area of opportunity that says “Stakeholder governance models can be adopted (learning from other sectors), including diaspora.”
RINGO opportunity: Redefine risk and proportionality.
- RINGO has started a prototype to map who holds the risk and the incentives in a humanitarian supply chain, where risk is constantly pushed downwards to those on the ground. It aims to refine how we can hold risk differently between donors and INGOs.
RINGO opportunity: Intersectional and solidaristic responses.
- RINGO opportunities frequently talked about solidarity and intersectionalism between humanitarian, development, human rights, peacebuilding and environment. How can the humanitarian response reinforce human rights in the long-term? Can short-term efforts set in place longer-term environmental mitigation around climate change? Are there other intersectional responses that should be designed in the short-term?
RINGO opportunity: Construct new KPIs for INGOs and the wider system; hold the INGO to account by southern CSOs. Downwards accountability rather than upwards. Can process be as important as outcomes?
RINGO Opportunity: Decolonizing and addressing structural racism as a leverage point for change.
- Some INGOs have been more attentive than others to the widespread perception in the global South that there are “double standards” at play in the international response to Ukraine, and to the need to maintain a critical distance from US/EU governmental interests and positions. Disrupting racist and neocolonial narratives around the conflict is key to decolonizing INGO dynamics.How can INGOs recognize these complex dynamics and model behavior that reflects this opportunity?
RINGO opportunity: Redefine growth – for example 100 stronger local independent CSOs with sustainable resources, vs. one INGO; decouple growth from impact.
- The Ukraine context is an ideal opportunity to shift away from patronizing concepts around development, to using a more solidaritisic International/National/Local framing in the INGO sector. But more than the framing, it provides a chance for us to reverse how we work. There is a risk that some INGOS will set up a local country office in order to handle the massive influx of resources. This would be folly: enabling a stronger and coordinated local network of CSOs would be the stronger option, building on the existing CSO infrastructure that already provides a foundation. Those who are already present should be devising exit strategies from the start.
RINGO opportunity: Remove Regulatory and legal barriers to change: Eliminate ‘tied’ aid – requirements to fund large national INGOs; anti-terrorism legislation that assumes mistrust of southern CSOs placing undue burdens; accounting regulations that impose undue burdens on smaller CSOs. RINGO Opportunity: Reduce or eliminate reporting requirements and ensure these are proportionate.
Whilst we have given some ideas above, of how the response could differ, we don’t propose to know all of the answers. At the heart of RINGO is an approach to co-design solutions between all key actors in civil society who bring something to the table: local organizations, international, funders.
Nonetheless, what we have heard from allies on the ground is that the biggest needs are more flexibility; stronger cooperation and platforms and transformation to designing bottom-up systems, driven by local people. Furthermore that we need to think about our response and what it means for the long-term vis-à-vis everything from rebuilding, to human rights.
None of us would have wanted to be responding to the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. However, it can be a catalyst for re-imagining the role and purpose of the INGO, and to shift the balance of power in global civil society to local people, by responding differently, and collaboratively, to this crisis. This could have immediate short-term benefits, but also have lasting long-term advantages to lay the foundations for a powerful civil society response everywhere, a pre-requisite to a healthier society overall.
 See for example, “Navigating humanitarian dilemmas in the Ukraine crisis” by Patrick Saez; and the discussion hosted by the New Humanitarian, “Ukraine and Beyond”.
 Mary B. Anderson and Peter Woodrow. “Rising from the Ashes: Development Strategies in Times of Disaster” Lynne Reiner Publishers, Boulder Colorado, 1998.
 See, for example, Mary B. Anderson, Dayna Brown, Isabella Jean “Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid” Cambridge, MA, 2012.
Translation to Ukrainian and Russian to follow.
Photo by Aleksandr Eremin on Unsplash