The West’s Humanitarian Response to Ukraine Should Inspire Repetition, Not Envy

What a brief comparison between today’s aid work in Ukraine and efforts during Iraq’s Battle of Mosul against ISIS can teach us

(Russian/Русский перевод coming soon) By Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter @bfry1981LinkedInFacebook), August 9, 2022

Germany Ukraine Refugees welcome
People offer rooms for Ukrainian refugees as people arrive on a train from Ukraine’s border at Berlin’s main train station on March 2, 2022. (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

SILVER SPRING—Not just from experts, but from many members of the general public are drawing some sharp comparisons between humanitarian efforts for Ukraine on one hand and for other parts of the world outside of the European world on the other.  For many of those pointing out major differences, the Middle East has been a region rife with examples.

With few exceptions, the only discussions comparing aid efforts (mostly centering on admitting refugees) that I have seen or been able to find with moderate effort in article or report form are emotional appeals often based on racial/ethnic/religious/cultural differences and/or that adopt a moralistic tone but are not terribly analytical.  And, to be fair, this is fair ground for discussion and exploration.

But to assume bigotry and racism is the primary foundation for the different approaches without exploring these other dimensions may score some points with certain aggrieved crowds, but it is not a serious exploration of the determining factors behind the different responses.  In the end, it is hard to get into the mindsets of different leaders of NGOs and governments, to be a proverbial fly-on-the wall for their internal deliberations (as opposed to public statements, which are often a mix of public relations efforts and genuine efforts to offer explanations).  But just as it would be reductionist to assume “the reason” for the different response levels is racism, it would also be naïve to assume cultural or worse biases play a minimal or no role: this dimension, too, deserves serious consideration, not just feel-good virtue signaling written from a perspective of (sometimes understandable) moral outrage.

The following exploration will look at some of the broader (and some specific) (geo)political considerations driving some of these differences between humanitarian efforts for the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian war and those for the Iraq in general and, specifically, the battle for Mosul, in 2016-2017 to narrow down a point of reference for that long series of crises in that nation. 

While the most intense fighting and the Mosul campaign are long over, with more finality to those operations, the Russia-Ukraine war is still very much ongoing, so the level of analysis and the finality of that analysis will be very different for the two conflicts.

Still, while in some senses, the two are apples and oranges, their comparison still offers a chance at valuable insights.  In this sense, the small introductory exploration here intends to be a gateway for further exploration.


The “Politics” of Considering Humanitarian Responses in Ukraine 2022 and Mosul 2016-2017

Politics is both messy and complicated, geopolitics even more so since it is broader and transcends national boundaries.  And in this sense, security, logistics, and economic/financial concerns cannot be separated, nor should they.

In an ideal world, every region and culture would have an equally strong, equally experienced professional humanitarian crisis industry (and never have a need to use those skills).  Obviously, that is not the case, and the West, especially European- and North American-based centers of its gravity, have a disproportionate history of creating, organizing, and leading the world’s major international humanitarian organizations and responses.  Indeed, international humanitarianism as practiced today is a Western-originated, Western-developed concept, with even many of the more senior non-Western staff in the sector having some combination of education, work experience, or residency in the West.  Today, it is still largely Western or Western-led organizations backed largely by Western governmental donors that lead and dominate international humanitarian responses (governments by far provide most of the funding compared to private donors and most of the largest government donors are by far Western; of the ten largest donors by governmental organization in 2021, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were the only non-Western countries in the top ten by one accounting for 2021; Japan is not European but is Western in its government, and Turkey’s funding mainly went to refugee camps on its own so it is literally asterisked in a relevant report for 2020).

Of course, this comes with certain inherent problems, not least among them the that there is this very real racial hierarchy that comes from the fact that particular parts of the world dominated by one particular race (Caucasians) are dominating an entire international industry, with all the history that such past and, though in evolving ways, present domination entails.  Certain imbalances, inequalities, and problems “naturally” result from such unequal histories and structures, not least from racism but also not least from the lack of required specialized capacities in many host nations of both host country authorities and available staff hires within the local populationparticularly in remote areas—in spite of a very real, robust-though-hardly-perfect effort within the industry towards localization.  Overall, solutions to these issues are generally more easily theorized than specifically developed and implemented and the very safety of aid workers themselves can be an issue.

It is of note, even in Ukraine (a developed, so-called “first world” European country), that the relevant conflict creates zones that are far more accessible to humanitarian workers and those that are far less so; even before the relatively recent February 24, 2022, escalation by Putin, major United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports noted that “non-Government controlled areas” (NGCAs) were really hurting in terms of needing aid and were not getting it, namely the parts of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts under control of Russia and/or its separatist proxies, a situation made even worse by COVID-era restrictions.  Thus, even in Ukraine, some places where people needed the most help were less safe for aid workers, and this was the case in 2016-2017 while the Mosul campaign was well underway in Iraq.  During this battle in Iraq, which began in mid-October 2016, it took a month for the first major international-organization-aid convoy to get to the city of Mosul.  Yet even in this current Ukraine war, Russia is routinely blocking and obstructing humanitarian corridors for civilians during some of the worst violence of the conflict.  Thus, access is a problem in both locations.

But not equally so.  As a continent, Europe is the most advanced human development location by far and also has the most advanced logistics network of any continent.  So moving supplies, staff, and volunteers quickly and safely is easier in Europe than anywhere else in the world as far as dealing with a larger regional response, and these problems are usually regional, with people fleeing from one country to others, with humanitarian staging areas and headquarters often needing to be out of harm’s way.  And, as mentioned, many of the most capable, well-funded organizations are Eurocentic in their history and organization, so having a major operation on the European continent has some natural advantages that translate into a much easier-to-run operation just from those cultural leanings and familiarity that come with the territory.

While some of the nations surrounding Ukraine are also problematic (especially autocracies Russia and Belarus), others have been robust democracies for years, with the lowest-scoring democracy by Freedom House’s 2021 methodology (Moldova, 62) still far, far higher than the highest-scoring (by far) of Iraq’s neighbors (Kuwait, at 37).

Along those lines, even though Ukraine has only been a democracy since the end of the Cold War and has been at war since 2014, outside of the Donbas front lines from then until the late-February 2022 escalation by Russia, it was similar to other European countries in terms of freedom of movement and press freedom; the 2021 Reporters Without Borders ranking for Ukraine was 97th most free for the press (106th after the war’s 2022 escalation), compared to 163rd for Iraq in the same year and 172nd in 2022; in Freedom House’s 2017 rankings (the report has had no new editions since), Ukraine was 111th compared to 155th for Iraq; while issues with Ukraine were mostly related to restrictions on Russian media and oligarchic ownership, Iraq was considered one of “the world’s deadliest places for journalists.”  Yes, aid workers and journalists play different roles in conflict zones, but the nature of their work has enough similarities—especially in ways they have to access dangerous areas and multiple parties—that the rankings are at least somewhat indicative of aid workers’ ability to operate.

So the parts of Ukraine not under Russian occupation have, for most of three decades, been a place that operated in a European context where relatively free movement, modern governmental institutions, and safety for international operators all existed; even now, as the recent escalation by Russia has unfolded since the end of February 2022, the heaviest fighting is centered on a few specific fronts now that this escalation seems to have narrowed somewhat geographically, meaning most of the country is now and has for months been relatively safe (save for somewhat random missile strikes) and under the control of the Ukrainian government, which fostered the aforementioned conditions favorable to international actors, including humanitarian workers, for years.

The same cannot be said for Iraq.

For years after the U.S. invasion of 2003, Iraq was and still is a fractured and weak country, without a tradition of Western democracy and in a neighborhood of other Middle Eastern countries that are highly problematic when it comes to freedom, with safety for international actors often an issue in countries that are severely repressive and not places where international actors can operate freely or without considerable challenges (Saudi Arabia is deeply repressive and closed in many ways; Iran is also repressive, restrictive, and very anti-Western; Syria is like both of those but with a civil war raging on top of that).

Within Iraq, a nascent Iraqi government struggling to become a democracy respecting of human rights vied for control with Iraqi sectarian and ethnic militias representing Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, as well as Iranian militias and coalition military forces led by the U.S in addition to various terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and ISIS and Saddam Hussein regime loyalists.  It was not always clear who could be trusted or even approached when it came to negotiating terms for humanitarian operations, and violence could derail anything at any time (full disclosure:  I was proud to be an extra in director Greg Barker’s Netflix film Sergio, about Sergio Vieira de Mello, the brief leader of UN humanitarian operations in post-Saddam Iraq until he was killed by a terrorist attack in August, 2003, and I highly recommend the film for a window into the perils of humanitarian work).  This was the operating environment for would-be humanitarian service providers, and there is no question that the challenges involving safety, logistics, navigating cultural differences, even Iraq’s extreme climate together mean that the present Ukrainian environment is one in which most large, well-funded aid organizations would find it easier to perform their missions, even allowing for Ukraine’s challenges.

So all those challenges mentioned concerning the Iraqi context still present major real-world, practical reasons that would inhibit not just international Western-dominate aid groups from more robust participation in aid work, but also local aid groups and staff: if anything, there are situation where more internationally recognized organizations employing people with European Union (EU) and other Western passports can afford those workers more protections than local staff, whose families will often be in the conflict zones and, along with the local workers themselves, will be more vulnerable to threats, intimidation, kidnapping, and actual violence than on average anyone coming from a European capital or New York.  The desperation with which so many local aid workers tried to leave Afghanistan during and after the recent U.S. withdrawal is only the most obvious recent case in point.

Local staff can also easily be caught in a dangerous conundrum: one formal report on the situation during the Mosul battle noted that it was so bad inside the city that it was almost impossible for international staff to operate in the city; and while local staff were far more able to operate, it was extremely risky for them to do so.  Going further, the report noted that in situations where it might seem like local aid workers would have an advantage, “perverse consequences” could be the result.  Another Mosul after-action humanitarian report noted that battle demonstrated that there is a lot of work to do to improve performance and safety across a number of major humanitarian dimensions, as did a study from the RAND Corporation.  Even in Ukraine, though, one British aid worker died just a few weeks ago after being illegally taken captive by Russia’s proxy separatist allies in Donetsk and detained for over two-and-a-half months.  Even in what is considered a relatively “better” operating environment, then, the risks are considerable.  Unfortunately, the harder the environment in which to operate and the more different the environment from what is familiar to the major organizations, the less effective and more problematic humanitarian efforts will be.

One controversial WHO-organized program ended up providing front-line medical services during the battle for Mosul since Iraqi and Kurdish forces did not possess certain medical capabilities needed to save lives, but two of the most prominent humanitarian medical organizations—the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)—declined to participate, citing ethical concerns with being seen to be taking sides during the conflict.  The idea that came out of deliberation after the battle was that such efforts could not be considered “humanitarian” and would have to be labeled differently.  Now, ICRC in particular faces criticism for being “too” neutral in Ukraine.  From Mosul to Ukraine, there are often no easy answers for humanitarian efforts to these deeply complex problems and neutrality itself can become an issue, especially when the likes of terrorist ISIS or the barbaric Russian military are involved as combatants.

On Tribalism

We cannot conclude before admitting the obvious, that there is a natural tribalism to humans that has only been exacerbated in our current era, even before Brexit and Trumpism reared their ugly heads in the West.  Even in the twenty-first century, humans are a very tribal species: e.g., though it is increasing, interracial marriage is not the default norm around the world.  Today, as I have noted, we live in an era of increasing tribalism around the world.  Just in recent decades, in less developed parts of the world, from the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s to the ethnic and sectarian violence that erupted in Iraq after the U.S. invasion of 2003, from, more recently, Bangladesh, India, Syria, and Israel-Palestine to Ethiopia, and Iraq (again), to name a few, tribalism has gone in far more violent and deadly directions than in the admittedly deteriorating politics of West, which so far has begun hinting at, but is not yet devolving into, the type of violence seen in other parts of the world (the Balkans in the 1990s were a big exception but that was at a moment when the nations of the only-just-former Yugoslavia were not yet truly Western even while they were European).

It should be noted in this context that European racism does not only extend to non-white peoples: bigotry towards Eastern European migrant-workers in Britain was one of the drivers fueling the 2016 UK Brexit vote.  And there is no doubt there has been for years and currently is a significant and growing anti-immigrant, anti-non-European racist sentiment among the populations and politics of Europe (and for those keeping score, it should be noted that Putin’s Kremlin has been a big booster within Europe of both the far-right and anti-immigrant/anti-Muslim sentiment).

In this tribal world, it is natural for Kenyans to generally care more about those in their own historic tribe or region within Kenya, to care about Kenyans more than those from other nearby countries, to care about East Africans more than West Africans, to care about fellow black Sub-Saharan Africans more than Arab or Berber North Africans, and so forth.  This is a natural general rule and can be applied to just about any peoples anywhere and this is confirmed by what we can read in the news and see with our own eyes every day.  Is it really surprising, then, that Europeans care more about Ukrainians, as fellow Europeans with some degree of shared history and culture, than for people trying to come to Europe from continents away?  That is not to suggest that this is “good” or desirable, it is simply acknowledging how humans are built and that different responses are not the default anywhere in the world in majority-proportions, not in Europe nor the Middle East nor anywhere else.

In this vein, attitudes within the Middle East should be examined just as robustly as attitudes within Europe.  I lived over five years in Jordan, and I can tell you that the idea of some wonderful lovefest of pan-Arabism in the Arab world is a fantasy.  I would not call it simmering, but there was an undercurrent of hostility in Jordan towards the many Syrian refugees than ended up in Jordan.  There is also discrimination and decades-long tensions directed from the truly local Jordanian population (originating from the East Bank of the Jordan River) towards the many Palestinian refugees who fled conflict with Israel over the decades and many of whom came from the West Bank of the Jordan River (yes, that West Bank) who now are actually the majority of Jordan’s population.  Also, Jordanians (and most other Arabs) also do not like Gulf Arabs (but mainly because they are incredibly snobby and condescending to Jordanians and non-Gulf Arabs).  There are also levels of serious sectarianism in places like Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, where there is tremendous distrust among these various Arab groups, between not only Sunni and Shiite but between Muslim and Christian and Muslim and Druze within specific countries even leaving aside the issue of refugees, and Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East face discrimination.  I could keep going, but you get the point and the problem: even in the Arab Middle East, Arab refugees are not exactly welcome and, indeed, apart from countries right on Iraq’s or Syria’s borders, other Arab countries have done less to take in Syrian refugees than some European countries, like Germany (Saudi Arabia and and other Gulf Arab nations have literally taken in zero Syrian refugees).  Thus, it strikes me as odd that prosperous European countries could so easily be decried as racist when prosperous Arab countries far closer and more culturally compatible are doing far less than a number of those European countries to take care of fellow Arabs.  In any case, these divisions themselves produce significant challenges to any humanitarian aid operations.

A Response to Inspire More Progress, Less Envy

In conclusion, while it is easy to see racism in the differences between various humanitarian responses, at least in the case of Ukraine compared to other examples (in this case—at least a little, in my small effort—Iraq), I will take a controversial position: in a world where crises within certain regions keep coming (albeit for a complex variety of reasons, some of which can certainly at least be partly blamed on the West), instead of decrying Europe’s response to a European crisis as “racist” for being too good, perhaps a more productive mentality for people from people in other regions would be to ask why their own regions have not responded as enthusiastically to helping people from their own regions.  In some cases, obviously a lack of resources is part of the answer, and yet in the Middle East, we have Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s richest nations, not taking in any refugees.  If other parts of the world learn form Europe’s current example in Ukraine, perhaps fewer people would want to flee from far away to Europe and would find helping hands, open homes, and warm hearts closer to home.

Again, that is not to deny that racism may very well be a serious factor—it certainly is a factor—but note that such bigotry is common everywhere and even within the various distinct regions of the world.  There may be far more applicable lessons in the immediate future from looking at Europe with Ukraine as a positive example, and while Europe, the U.S., and the West certainly have more work—far more work—to do in fighting racism within their societies, it cannot be said that all these other regions in the world do not have a tremendous amount of work to do on that front as well.

In the end, while achieving and awaiting further long-term progress on fighting racism in the West and all around the world along with helping to reform humanitarianism to have less Western-bias and less Eurocentric leadership must be priorities, Europe’s response to the Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine can at least provide a hopeful model for how people in other regions of the world can come together to take care of their own to address current refugee crises and sadly, the crises inevitably coming in the future.

See all Brian’s Ukraine coverage here

© 2022 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

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