Written by Lynn Yoshikawa (Head of Network Development), CALP Network


One year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, millions of people remain in need and many more – including some of the most vulnerable populations – remain in frontline conflict zones. With immense public and political attention, plus large scale and rapid funding, the humanitarian response was quickly scaled up.

The Humanitarian Country Team prioritized cash transfers as the most appropriate response modality, a decision that helped achieve one of the fastest-ever scale-ups of humanitarian cash assistance. One million people received cash transfers within 3 months of the invasion and by the end of 2022, nearly 6 million people had been reached with $1.2 billion in cash transfers.

As we head into the second year of the response, it's critical to reflect on what could have been done more effectively and how to look humanitarian actors enabled (or not) locally-led response and social protection linkages. What can we learn about the delivery of cash in the Ukraine response to apply to ongoing and future crises – including the devastating earthquakes in Syria and Turkey? 

The Ukraine Learning Group on cash was established in April 2022 and sought to find answers to these questions through key informant interviews, workshops, reports and a recent webinar organised in partnership with Humanitarian Outcomes and Ground Truth Solutions (GTS). Here are some of my key takeaways from all this work.

A Digitalised Response: A Double-Edged Sword?

Ukraine’s highly digitalised ecosystem and extensive network of financial service providers facilitated the rapid scale-up of the cash response. In the first weeks and months, many agencies struggled with staffing – many had staff who were displaced by the crisis and others had to rely on surge teams who had limited relationships with Ukrainian communities. The use of online self-registration tools allowed people to apply for assistance directly. This approach enabled aid agencies to reach millions of people in a relatively short amount of time – a scale they would never have achieved if they had relied on traditional community and face-to-face outreach.

While hugely positive in terms of speed and scale, the digital response also created barriers for some of the most vulnerable populations – particularly older people, people with disabilities, and those with limited digital literacy. A recent nationwide survey by Ground Truth Solutions found that 27% of older people received cash and voucher assistance, compared to 38% of those surveyed population considered in need. Equally, a study by the Cash Working Group found that only about 7% of recipients in 2022 were people with disabilities, whereas data from 2021 shows that about 13% of the population in need of humanitarian assistance in Ukraine were people with disabilities.

With the huge needs, the rush and the political pressure to respond, humanitarian actors did not prioritise the targeting of these harder-to-reach groups who were very likely among the most vulnerable. As with any response, things could have been different. In this case, older people and those with disabilities reported to GTS that they would have preferred to receive information through trusted sources, like newspapers and face-to-face interactions, rather than digital channels. Members of the Ukraine Learning Group also identified local associations with existing services and relationships with people with disabilities, which would have been ideal partners to conduct outreach and inform targeting. Such involvement of local actors would have informed the response and helped ensure the most vulnerable people were not left behind.

Where can humanitarian actors best add value?

Following years of reform and increasing investments in digitalisation and shock responsiveness, Ukraine’s social protection system was relatively well-equipped to deliver cash transfers at scale. But rather than working through the existing system, many humanitarian donors and actors invested in direct delivery, setting up parallel registration and payment systems to reach people in need. This decision was fuelled, in part, by assumptions that the government and therefore the social protection system could collapse.

In fact, social assistance payments largely continued in areas under government control, including for recipients who were able to access those areas. At the same time, some humanitarian actors chose and were able to work with the government system early on, negotiating agreements with ministries, securing data-sharing agreements and using government recipient lists to target cash assistance.

As the social protection system proved to be more resilient than some expected and with more areas coming back under government control in the fall of 2022, more humanitarian actors started using government recipient lists and some are providing direct technical support to strengthen government capacities.

The maturity of the social protection system in Ukraine and other middle-income countries begs the question: what is the added value of humanitarian actors in a context where social protection systems have the potential to respond to the needs of a significant proportion of the population in need?

No social protection system is perfect, particularly in responding to complex emergencies with dynamic frontlines. Inevitably there are gaps and this is where humanitarian actors are most needed. In Ukraine this means working to reach those who are not covered by the existing social safety nets and providing:

  • Direct assistance for people in non-government-controlled areas
  • Direct assistance for people with protection concerns in accessing government assistance;
  • Support to connect or re-connect people with available services and assistance.

Towards a new coordination model?

While the humanitarian Cash Working Group was on-point in rapidly forming a task team on social protection linkages within the first weeks of the crisis, a much stronger convening power was needed to bring together relevant government representatives, development actors and donors. As the situation evolved, the need for these actors to come together to build a shared vision for optimising the linkages between humanitarian and social protection actors became more pressing. In late 2022, a new initiative, Perekhid, was announced to coordinate action among these diverse actors. While the group is nascent, both the needs and opportunities are massive and efforts will be closely watched. This development will be an important example of how humanitarians and development actors with strong government leadership can work better together to respond to the needs of people in crisis – and hopefully inform future collaboration.

As the devastating earthquakes in Syria and Turkey now rightfully take the attention of humanitarian actors, there is an opportunity to take the lessons from Ukraine into the response, and recognise that it is not only critical to deliver the type of assistance that people need and prefer, but to ensure that aid is channelled via the actors best placed to understand and meet these needs.

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
    • Social transfers
      • Cash transfers
Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Policy
    • Governance and coordination
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Digital social protection
  • Shock-responsive social protection
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Humanitarian assistance
  • Humanitarian–social protection nexus
  • Ukraine
The views presented here are the author's and not socialprotection.org's