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Saturday, July 13, 2024

Maksym Dotsenko: Red Cross is reflection of country’s image

Exclusive interview with Director General of the Ukrainian Red Cross Society (URCS) Maksym Dotsenko to Interfax-Ukraine

– Let’s start with a simple question. A lot of people still lack a clear understanding about who the Ukrainian Red Cross (Ukrainian Red Cross Society) is? Could you please tell us what your organization is?

 First of all, the Ukrainian Red Cross Society, as it is called by people: The Ukrainian Red Cross is the largest Ukrainian humanitarian organization with a 106-year history, which currently includes approximately 5,000 employees and about 8,000 volunteers. This places a particular responsibility on us.

Unfortunately, it happens that the Ukrainian Red Cross is needed when something happens in the country. Through our mandate, we work when our assistance is needed by the population. It is clear that at such times the number of employees increases dramatically. In fact, it would be better if we were small and nothing happened. But it is what it is. We grew up during the COVID pandemic, and after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, two years ago, URCS has increased significantly.

There are 24 regional organizations and about 200 district and local centres. That is, we are now present in all regions of Ukraine within the administrative-territorial division, except for occupied territories. It is in the possibility of swift access to any point in Ukraine and rapid response that our strength lies. In other words, we do not need to decide anything in Kyiv and then another week wait until we get, i.e. to Kryvy Rih to help someone. The executive body of the Ukrainian Red Cross Society is the National Committee.

The number of URSC staff very often depends on the implementation of certain programmes. Particularly, we now include 126 mobile health units, but we plan that there will be 150 of them. And the team is at least two or three people.

When a new program appears, the number of staff immediately increases. But it all depends on the scale of our activities are and how intensively our program direction is developing.

This is the Ukrainian Red Cross, which has already helped over 12.5 million citizens of Ukraine during over 700 days of war.

 But since February 24, 2022, not only the number of staff of the Ukrainian Red Cross has increased, probably the direction of work has increased and changed. How quickly have you adapted to the new challenges?

– Here, it was not easy, but it was in accordance with the plan that we had worked out in case of a possible invasion. That is, we have been preparing since the beginning of November 2021, although, of course, we did not believe that this could happen. I personally did not believe such a scenario until February 24. However, we did not ignore information about a possible invasion in the media. URSC has a fairy large advantage over other humanitarian organizations, as we are part of the International Movement (International Committee of the Red Cross, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, 191 national societies) and have the ability to engage specialists from all over the world to the expert examination. Thanks to our partners, a response plan has been developed. As early as November 2021, an operational headquarters was established, three scenarios were developed, one of which, unfortunately proved to be true. Our actions since February 24 responded 95% to the planning, which included everything: how we react, what we do, how to strengthen areas and which ones in which directions.

If the offensive come from the East and South, it is necessary to strengthen the border regions, namely Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, Odesa, Mykolaiv, Kherson regions.

We were aware that if a flow of displaced people goes to the West, then we need to prepare for their reception there – send more basic food products there, organize temporary shelters, etc. The border regions in the East had to be provided with supplies of fuel, water, food. According to the plan, we started to prepare.

It is crucial to coordinate all work. Therefore, groups of decision makers playing a supporting role have been identified. We clearly knew what our coordination headquarters would do when it was impossible to work in Kyiv. For instance, on February 24, all of staff knew that if they came to the office, they were not going home, because if they leave, we simply would not gather more people. So, the employees were allowed to come to the office with their families, because we know that the first thing a person would care about the family. We also enabled our staff to evacuate their families, but with the need for mandatory return.

There were clear plans to move into Kyiv. There were answers to the question: what do we do if the capital is not threatened, is the office safe here or is it provided with all the necessary communications?

There was also a plan for a slightly different scenario: what do we do if it is dangerous in Kyiv, if there is no connection in the capital, where do we move the office?

In early March, our major administrative unit moved to Vinnytsia. There we already had leased space for logistics warehouses. Large logistics hubs were immediately opened in Vinnytsia, Chernivtsi, Zakarpattia and Lviv, which for all this time received tens of thousands of tonnes of humanitarian aid.

How have we changed? We have grown institutionally over the last six years. We have changed approaches, mobilizing resources, and project implementation. We are developing our financial institution, making reports more transparent from the point of view of financial management. This is critical for further fund raising. Finally, our organization is somehow financed by partners and international assistance, so we have to meet their requirements. We were ready to work under these conditions and were ready for rapid growth.

We understood that if something happened, we had to be ready that the budget of UAH 10 million would grow tenfold. And it worked. But new programmes and directions have not interfered with long-standing statutory objectives. Therefore, the strategy we developed in 2021 is absolutely relevant now. So, we just added new directions to the five-year roadmap. 

– Which directions exactly?

– Earlier there was no such activity as evacuation. But today more than 310,000 people were evacuated.

We were not involved in the construction of shelters for internally displaced persons. Now a shelter has already been built in Chernihiv for 112 apartments, fully equipped with appliances and furniture. Similar projects have been launched in Zakarpattia, and are planned in Zhytomyr and Kyiv regions.

We see a huge need in such a direction as the rehabilitation of veterans. After all, a lot of soldiers returning from the battlefield and suffered from Russian missile and bomb attacks on civilians need rehabilitation. This problem will still remain with us for the 10th anniversary. That’s why we are trying to find our place here.

During the war, we even did things that the Ukrainian Red Cross never did. We have restored almost 2,000 meters of high-voltage grids in Horenka [Kyiv region] and thus provided the opportunity to connect 500 residential buildings to electricity. In Kherson region, URCS purchased equipment to restore power supply for over UHA 40 million.

Certainly, such things are not typical of the Red Cross, but when we see that a community, locality or specific person needs help, we get involved.

In particular, in Lviv we constructed the Mother and Child Centre “Unbreakable Mothers” for more than 100 pregnant IDP women and opened a new seven-story building of the UNBROKEN rehabilitation centre, where annually over 10,000 people will be able to undergo quality rehabilitation. Last year, in Liutizh, Kyiv region, the state rehabilitation institution “All-Ukrainian Complex Rehabilitation Centre for Persons with Disabilities” damaged at the beginning of the full-scale invasion, was reopened.

If we talk about assistance to the communities of Dnipropetrovsk, Mykolaiv and Kherson regions, we are now implementing a project to provide the population with access to water. We transfer water purification equipment and components for the reconstruction of damaged or shattered infrastructure.

But we are also continuing projects that were implementing before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, such as home care. By the way, this direction is now rapidly developing in our country: more than 1,000 social workers are already employed in Ukraine. There are mobile health units that go to remote locations where access to health services is limited. There are various projects in the healthcare sector, including first aid training. Moreover, we are the largest provider of first aid training. Approximately 185,000 people have completed first aid training since February 2022.

Our scope of activity also includes mine risk. Previously, we only had it in Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Now this trend has reached the national level, unfortunately. Our volunteers hold information sessions on mine risk.

– Does this concern solely the educational sphere?

– Yes, it does. We do not do humanitarian demining; our part is solely information support. We distribute materials on this subject and deliver lectures.

– As far as we know, you help citizens preserve mental health, provide them with psychosocial support…

– Very often we do not even mention this direction, because it has to be. But this is a huge work of hundreds of volunteers, since so far, one way or another, every fourth citizen of Ukraine needs this help. Even if a person does not understand that this help is needed. These are such basic things: reducing stress, working with children, working with families. However, then there is also Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) – mental health support. This involves identifying some deeper psychological problems when the patient needs to be referred to the relevant specialist. We have trained volunteers who during wartime trainings and measures, find out whether a person needs to continue to contact a doctor. This is also a very delicate thing, as it is necessary to refer and explain in the proper way.

– Do you mean cash programs?

– I do. There are several vectors here too. First, we have moved away from multifunctional cash programs, when each internally displaced person receives UAH 1,200, UAH 2,500, UAH 3,700, UAH 6,800. We took a more centralized path.

The question is that many organizations started this activity, but as a result, the distribution of funds turned out to be unfair to some extent: some received financial assistance from five organizations, and an elderly woman over 75 years old did not receive anything. Therefore, we decided to avoid duplication and act more transparently – to go through national programs.

I’m sure you have heard of the Prykhystok Programme. This is a governmental programme, but until the end of 2023 it was fully financed by the Ukrainian Red Cross (2022-2023 budget – more than UAH 2.7 billion). The programme stipulates the payment of UAH 900 per month to each household for one displaced person whom it sheltered. This is money to cover utility costs. This amount is provided for the winter period, in the spring and summer – about UAH 450.

Thus, organized assistance gives the opportunity for displaced people to integrate more comfortably into society, as a person does not live in a shelter for a year, but in a family, and this is a little different thing. This also encourages the family itself to invite displaced persons, because we are compensating some of their expenses.

– Does the Prykhystok Programme operate solely within Ukraine?

– Solely.

Another direction of our work is assistance to veterans; one of the projects we implemented with the Ministry of Veterans last year was payments of UAH 16,000 to 25,000 people who received a certain degree of disability.

The third direction of cash assistance is direct cash payments to citizens in the de-occupied territories of Kharkiv region, parts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhia regions.

When Kharkiv region was deoccupied and we went there second after the military, it became clear that the approach to cash payments to citizens through bank cards did not work, as there were no banks or ATMs, and people needed funds. Therefore, we quickly, along with our partners through Ukrposhta, in coordination with the Ministry for the Reintegration of Deoccupied Territories, launched a mechanism within a week where all persons under occupation (regardless of age, gender, social status) could submit an application to their united territorial community and receive payments via Ukrposhta mobile pick-up points. But if mobile pick-up points operated in Kharkiv, in Kherson there were offices of Ukrposhta. And it was still the issuance of cash directly to people. We financed this direction. Currently, the total budget for these payments is over UAH 320 million.

As you can see, this is a quite large and expensive direction.

– What about medium- and long-term plans?

– Rehabilitation: mental, physical, social. Reconstruction of the country.

We focus more on health facilities. Now we have already reconstructed six hospitals in Kyiv region and now we are raising funds for the following projects. We pay attention to more socio-economic development of farms. People now do not need any more food or hygiene products. They must develop, move on, plan their future. These are skills upgrading and career change courses, as well as grants for starting a business. Everything that allows people to develop and move forward.

– Is it only about de-occupied territories?

– No, this is all over Ukraine. We have about 5 million internally displaced persons (IDP). And this is aimed more at them, and partly at people who have lost their property.

– Do you manage the reconciliation of payout lists in any way? After all, it involves millions of euros…

– We receive data, including payment lists of people on installment plans, from local authorities. They also do verification locally, because they know better who was under occupation.

– You mentioned that your budget has nearly increased tenfold. Do you disclose the budget amount?

– Since February 2022, we have managed to raise over UAH 15 billion. All these funds are directed to support Ukrainians. We are open in this regard – all data is available on our official website.

– What are your plans for this year?

– It is very difficult to say here. We are planning approximately the same budget for the next three years. Certainly, interest will fall, and perhaps the budget will decrease. But again, the fundraising process is very alive. We do not plan like the government: we plan a billion, and then we have expenditures, we have incomes. We have no funds today, but tomorrow we found a donor and we work.

We also engage the European Commission – now we have received some funding.

We work with the UN, with most of our partners in the International Red Cross Movement, namely with the British, Luxembourg, German, Austrian, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish Red Cross… In addition, we have a resource mobilization department working on fundraising campaigns that give us the opportunity to receive funds in the form of donations.

We also involve the corporate sector, with which we work productively and receive significant funds from them. These are such large brands as Coca-Cola, Samsung, Bayer, but, in fact, there are hundreds of them, more, less… 

– Are these Ukrainian corporations or global ones?

– I would say most of them are still global. Of course, these are their Ukrainian representative offices, but still domestic business is not experiencing the best time. And therefore we raise funds from abroad, and our procurement policy is aimed mainly at the Ukrainian market. That is, what we can purchase here, we do not import from abroad. Only if we see that the need is greater than we can provide, then we ask our partners to add some things.

And if potbelly stoves can be made in Ukraine, then domestic manufacturers make them, and we purchase them. Over two years, some 29,000 potbelly stoves were transferred to the affected regions of Kyiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv regions. For us, this is participation in the economic development of the country as a whole and support for business. People work, business operates, everyone is satisfied.

 Tell us please about the work of Emergency Response Teams.

– Emergency Response Teams – this is a separate topic for us. Such “adrenaline people” work there because it is the most dangerous job. So far we have about 500 permanent and about 1,000 spontaneous volunteers who are involved in this activity. By the way, the topic of spontaneous volunteering and its management came to the fore.

– What does it mean ‘spontaneous volunteer?’ 

– For instance: you have never been related to the Ukrainian Red Cross, but there was russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and you started looking for what to do, how to help and, let’s say, joined the Red Cross. And there are thousands of people who want to do something at the call of their hearts. They are proactive, but very often they are not ready to act in accordance with the rules: use of the emblem, clothing, behaviour, ethical code of the Ukrainian Red Cross. So, the management of spontaneous volunteers is a separate training that we have.

Right now we have over 20 Emergency Response Teams. Since the first days of the Russian invasion, in most cases they led evacuation columns from Kyiv region (Irpin-Bucha-Borodianka…) to the capital, from Sumy to Poltava, from Mariupol… By that time we were sure that the Red Cross emblem was protected us. As it turns out, that’s not entirely true… 

 Could you provide more details about precisely what is not entirely true?

– The Red Cross and its emblem are protected by the Geneva Conventions. The emblem has two functions – protective and identification. It is on our uniforms, our vehicles, at our facilities, our offices. It informs that these are representatives of the Red Cross, that they in no way pose any threat and their task is to help people in a difficult situation.

That is why there is a Ukrainian law on the symbols of the Red Cross, Red Crescent, and Red Crystal. Unfortunately, however Russia did not comply with those rules.

And our Emergency Response Teams have been hit by them many times. A lot of our offices have been destroyed.

But back to the topic of evacuation… We constantly coordinated our actions with the government of Ukraine, local regional organizations, the State Emergency Service locally, and the police.

We continue to evacuate already in the East and South. We transported people from Kherson and Bakhmut who could not leave on their own. We cooperate with “Doctors Without Borders” [an independent international medical humanitarian organization] and their medical evacuation trains. Our task is to get people into evacuation trains.

Of course, the military does not always allow entry into some regions. We pick up people at a certain point and transport them to safer places in the government-controlled territories. Relocation of patients from hospitals is also our field of activity. There were cases when 10-15 people were taken out of hospitals.

Sometimes a person just calls on the phone and says: “My grandmother is somewhere in a village in Kherson. There is still shelling there, we really need to take her to Lviv, because her daughter or son is there.” And we do this as well. 

– Is a person calling the regional office?

– It does not really make a difference. Either this is a regional office or a hotline of the Ukrainian Red Cross, which can be addressed on any issue, and then the appeal is redirected to the relevant departments, specialists, organizations: regional, district.

There is a national unit – it is the largest, and there are units in Mykolaiv, Kherson, Odesa. We coordinate their activities. Volunteers from Odesa are involved to Kherson and Mykolaiv.

– Do you have statistics on number of your offices rendered inoperable during the war?

– We have more than 20 offices and warehouses damaged or completely destroyed. In particular, one of the cases is the office of Kherson regional organization, which was hit three times after the de-occupation; it is located in the centre. Unfortunately, our volunteer died there while performing her duties.

And in the east, in Luhansk and Donetsk regions, almost all offices there were destroyed. In Mariupol, at the initial stage of evacuation, when we left there, not even the foundation of the office remained. Warehouses burned in Odesa and Kherson regions.

Kherson region, July 2023, mobile shelters from Ukrainian Red Cross were established.

– How to become a volunteer of the Ukrainian Red Cross?

– In fact, everything is very simple. The easiest way is through our website. There is a special form. Fill it out, and our employees of the volunteer management team keeps working. Certainly, people can contact any office of the Ukrainian Red Cross, regional or district one. And all the information will be also available there.

However, people need to understand that everything is not so simple – I want to become a volunteer – I came and now I am already a volunteer. This is a certain process, particularly, signing a volunteer agreement and entering data into the volunteer register. Depending on the profile of volunteering (home care, psychosocial support, emergency response teams), there is a certain set of trainings that must be passed.

Of course, at the beginning of the war, after February 24, we had an influx of people. They worked at train stations, borders, distributed food, and tried to help in other ways. It was more spontaneous volunteering. But still, it returns to its standard cycle: we apply, fill out the contract and continue learning.

It is mandatory for everyone – first aid course. The only thing for emergency response teams is more in-depth.

Training on psychosocial support is crucial, since the work of a volunteer is quite sensitive – with children, people, personal data… There are many nuances.

But in fact, due to the fact that we are a large organization and have a lot of influence, we are quite vulnerable to public criticism and some image issues. So, our main profit is our image. And it does not work like business. The better the image, the more transparent and efficient we are, the more we can attract funds from partners. Therefore, adherence to a code of ethics and conduct is essential. This even applies to the appearance – a volunteer should always be neat, evoke respect and positive emotions, not negative ones. Since our access to our beneficiaries, our coordination with other sponsors, the government at the local level depends on this. That is, this is quite a large complex that should work without failures. As soon as something goes wrong, we immediately try to react, provide information, explanations, and figure it out. There were cases when volunteers were expelled from our ranks. In fact, with such a large number of people, the personal factor is always present.

June 2023, evacuation of population due to destruction of Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant

– How long does it take on average to train and educate a volunteer?

– It all depends on how involved the person is in the process, how much opportunity the person has. There are volunteers who were initially involved fully, from morning to night. There are those who are attracted once a week.

First, there is a volunteer induction course that includes history and information about the Ukrainian Red Cross, the Red Cross principles, our components of the movement, how we interact with each other.

Much depends on the volunteer’s desire… A not always a person can pass the first aid training quickly – just came and has already passed everything. The Ukrainian Red Cross has more than 500 first aid instructors training volunteers. Each area has specific training schedules and training intervals. So, the training can last from a week to a month or two, and then you work as a full member of the team.

– Are any additional checks conducted on candidates during the hiring process?

– We have not conducted. This is very difficult, but in connection with what happened in Kyiv region [in February 2023, the SBU detained a collaborator who was undergoing a probation period at URCS] our HR service further checked our employees, made an analysis of where they worked before, where they lived. As for volunteers, we do not require a CV, except for passport data.

We employ many immigrants and we contribute to this because it gives them a chance to get a decent job.

It is clear that additional HR procedures complicate the hiring process, which already lasts a long time, but now we have begun to pay more attention to feedback from previous employers and conduct more analysis of the candidate’s biography. However, again, this is extremely difficult, we do not have any access to national registers, we are not special services. Well, if we check everything through the special services, we will never find anyone at all.

But we are doing everything we can to prevent random people, especially collaborators, from joining the organization. Well, thank God, this was only one case. We, of course fired that person immediately.

 What is your relationship with the International Committee of the Red Cross?

– The Ukrainian Red Cross is one of three components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, including national societies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. We have different mandates and therefore avoid duplication.

The International Committee works where there is a military conflict. It is a neutral mediator between the two sides. In accordance with the Geneva Conventions, ICRC representatives should engage in a dialogue with the two parties to the conflict to ensure access to the victims and provide assistance to people, including in the occupied territories. It has capacity and expertise for this, and it always works in this context worldwide. If not an international committee, I doubt anyone else can do this.

The International Committee is present along the contact line, in Sumy, Poltava, Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk regions, in the south of the country.

Now there are a lot of controversial issues, a lot of criticism, but one way or another we have to find a balance, as the presence of the ICRC in uncontrolled territory is such, I would even say, an uncompromising option. It is the only one that has access to the occupied parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

You know, over the last two years, the direction of international humanitarian law has greatly strengthened, as after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we realized that neither the population, by and large, nor government agencies are fully aware of these issues. In the beginning, many criticisms arose from the public on the principle of neutrality of the organization. This is a very important and sensitive topic… And we see how society’s understanding of this principle is changing. If previously the word “neutrality” was not generally understood, after a year of explaining the need for neutrality in humanitarian response (we are not talking about feelings towards our enemy), we have become more aware of this issue. The issue of humanitarian assistance must be based on generally accepted principles of neutrality and impartiality.

The Ukrainian Red Cross operates solely on our government-controlled territory and does not go beyond its borders.

– So you are not present in any uncontrolled territories?

– Yes. The only place we were during the occupation was Kherson. We worked there for almost the whole period of occupation. We were not given, let’s say, any obstacles. Yes, there was no possibility of either leaving the city or entering Kherson, but we were present inside. We bought food and hygiene products from markets, stores and gave them to those who needed it. There was a huge shortage of medicines, and we had the opportunity to bring in small quantities of medicines.

The population helped us a lot then. People brought a lot, and we already distributed it. We worked as much as possible. Then, after the so-called referendum, we suspended the activities of the organization. But literally the next day after the de-occupation, we restored it. 

– I can’t help but ask this unpleasant question: lately there have been many allegations that the Red Cross is a pro-Russian structure. Can you comment on this?

– The Ukrainian Red Cross has no communications or ties with the Russian Red Cross since 2014. The story is the same with the Belarusian Red Cross. Although we are part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, consisting of three independent organizations (the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and national societies operating in different countries of the world) each of us has own mission, structure and management. We are not a branch we are an independent Ukrainian humanitarian organization that performs its activities in line with Ukrainian legislation. Our staff and volunteers are Ukrainians, they, like other citizens, live daily under shelling, their houses are also destroyed, and they also lose relatives and loved ones. Therefore, there is no point in talking about a pro-Russian structure in our organization.

 Quite often your foreign colleagues pay visits to Ukraine. Are these such courtesy visits?

 No, these are not just courtesy visits. We, if joke like that, forbid courtesy visits, we are not a travel agency.

Currently, a major delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross is represented in Ukraine, there is an office of The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and 15 national partner societies with their representatives who along with us help to implement certain projects. Among them, as previously mentioned, are the British, Canadian, Norwegian, Luxembourg, Swedish, Danish, Japanese Red Crosses.

Each has its own funding pool. Areas of responsibility are distributed among the partners by region. Thus, the Swedish Red Cross supports Sumy regional organization. In addition, there are major national programs.

There are partners who are not physically located in Ukraine, but help us. These are Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Poland and other national societies.

Our partners in the movement supported us before the war, they support us now and will continue to stand with us. We do not receive funding from the government. We are funded either by international partners in the Red Cross, or other international donor institutions, or individual and corporate donors.

We pay a lot of attention to the development of the national society, we call it National Society Development. We do everything to meet donor criteria. For example, we use compliance [compliance with the rules of professional ethics, risk assessment and monitoring] and whistleblowing [reporting violations] mechanisms. We use mechanisms for early detection of problems, whether corruption or financial issues… This also applies to internal and external audits.

During the war, Deloitte completed a four-year audit of URCS activities from 2017 to 2020; last year there was an audit for 2021 and 2022. All this in order to show donors and society that we are open, transparent, ready to work further.

This is a huge job that also requires substantial funding. It is not raised from donor funds, not from individual or corporate funds, but always from earmarked funds.

Movement’s partners support all our systems, particularly the digitalization of society. We are now completely changing our financial system, software is changing, ERP [Enterprise Resource Planning – corporate business process planning system]. These are large-scale and long-term processes, but they allow us to be sustainable in the future.

We are now advocating both in Ukraine and in the world that international donors should pay more attention to the development of national organizations. After all, Ukrainian public organizations know how to help, are well aware of the needs of communities, since they themselves come from these communities, know the mentality and can do much.

The question is that it is necessary not only to use them as labour, but also to lay the foundation for them to continue working.

The war will end with our victory, but neither the flooding in Zakarpattia and Ivano-Frankivsk, nor any other man-made disasters will go away. This is life and we must always be ready to help people in difficult situations. Our volunteers are everywhere – in regions, cities, districts.

We have a Bravo program – this is branch and volunteer development, the development of volunteering and local organizations. There is a certain package that we have developed, and we clearly understand that if the Swedish Red Cross is responsible for Sumy region, then it develops local organizations, plus implements some national programs.

And the Norwegian Red Cross works in another region. But at the central level, there is a policy, all the standard operating procedures, according to which some service should be provided. And then we simply fill the budgets, mix partners, who is where, how.

Therefore, each such visit is not a courtesy visit, it is monitoring plus the search for new opportunities for cooperation. Besides, it is always a discussion of existing projects: something needs to be adjusted, where we can still join, how we can improve, what we can stop, what we need to start. Thus, there is an ongoing operational process.

– You mentioned that you are actively digitalizing… 

– Well, it is a separate conversation. Let me just say that we are now in the process of installing GPS on all our vehicles, which will then be concentrated in one monitoring and movement control system. Once we had 44 vehicles, and now there are over 400 ones. All this for the safety of people, more operational control, compliance with the planned work schedule of the same mobile teams.

 At the beginning of our conversation, you said that prior to the full-scale war you made decisions based on findings of international expertise. Your experience during the war is just unbelievable. Is it in demand by your partners? And, probably you already provide them with expert assessment?

– As early as 2021, our strategy was based on a centre of expertise for other humanitarian partners. We have accomplished so much. We do not make any secret out of this, we are ready to share our best practices and are happy to share.

The Ukrainian Red Cross is one of the most popular in the movement in terms of experience in responding to war situations. We are already teaching other national societies, passing on experience in evacuation, the experience of our emergency response teams, going out with the State Emergency Service on all arrivals of enemy missiles, to all fires as a result of Russian shells hitting infrastructure and housing.

We often attend international conferences where we share this invaluable experience. We attended the European Humanitarian Forum organized by the European Commission, and spoke on two panels.

The fact that the staff of our international department has grown threefold also testifies to the demand for our experience. Our ties with international partners are getting closer. And the request in our expertise, of course, is. We used to ask for advice from international partners, and now we advise them on how to make response plans, like we did before the war. And this is just the beginning. There will be more.

 Which major donor or volunteer structures do you still cooperate with?

– First, we cooperate with many Ukrainian charitable foundations. Of course, we still have established cooperation with UN agencies. Why? We overlap in many ways. And now there is definitely enough work for everyone. But the key thing is that we do not duplicate our actions.

At the global level, these are the EU [European Union], Doctors Without Borders, People in Need, Save the Children. That is, these are the largest humanitarian partners with which we try to cooperate as much as possible. We also collaborate with Caritas.

If, perhaps, before there was some taste of competition, since this is all a humanitarian market, now, the needs have increased so much that there are not enough of us all.

Moreover, the Ukrainian Red Cross was one of the initiators of the creation of the Alliance of Ukrainian Civil Society Organizations. This is an initiative group that includes 16 organizations, among which the ICF “Caritas of Ukraine,” the Charitable Foundation “Right to Protection” and others with the goal of uniting efforts for relevant assistance to people.

– It seems that, indeed URCS is the largest humanitarian structure currently operating in Ukraine. And according to your assessment?

 Right. Perhaps, not only in my estimation. In terms of budgets, in terms of the number of people and the effect of our activities, we are the largest one.

 The Ukrainian Law on the Red Cross Society has been in place for over 10 years now. How applicable is it currently?

 By the way, not every country out of 191 members of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has a national organization law, unlike us.

I cannot say that the current law is 100% relevant. It is very general. Although it certainly helps us, it definitely needs to be amended. We have already drafted a new version of the law, which we intend to submit to parliament for consideration. Now we are preparing certain developments with a number of MPs, after which we will introduce a bill “under the dome” [the session room under the glass dome of the Verkhovna Rada building].

It is essential for us to fill out the law and increase the supporting role of our organization. We need to integrate and be more involved in government processes as much as possible, with a clearer definition of our place and role.

I cannot develop something if I do not know if it is needed. The more we understand our place, our obligations, rights and responsibilities, the more specifically we will prepare for certain things.

We have huge examples in our Movement. The Japanese Red Cross has nine hospitals in Japan. The German Red Cross completely manages the ambulance service at the local level. The Italian Red Cross is clearly responsible for certain tasks in civil protection – provision, resources, recruitment of volunteers during emergencies. And God forbid, the employer will not let go of the volunteer when there is a need for him in Movement. This could almost lead to criminal liability. There are many examples that can be drawn.

Among our core directions is participation in civil protection: this is cooperation with the State Emergency Service, in the liquidation of emergency situations, and risk prevention. The Ministry of Health and Ministry of Social and Social Policy are our two main partners in social and medical work. What is needed is clear integration with public structures – again, a clear understanding of the role and place…

Evacuation of victims from destroyed house in Solomiansky district of Kyiv due to missile attack. Kyiv, January 2024. Photo by: Pavlo Petrov 

– How comfortable are you working with the government? 

– In fact, now we have the best relationship that we have had for the entire period, starting in 2018, my presence in the Ukrainian Red Cross Society. So, it would be wrong to complain in this situation. This is a quite constructive, open, friendly and business relationship.

And for the first two to three months after February 24, 2022, we were all like a family. Again, it was constant coordination, calls, there were no positions and differences, who was the Ukrainian Red Cross, who was the Deputy Prime Minister or the Prime Minister. Now, of course, everything is stabilizing a little bit, everyone is doing their part of the work, but we still have a fairly constructive and good relations. With almost all.

– Well, who is the closest friend from the government? 

– It is hard to say who is our closest friend. There are institutions with which we have the most contact, namely the Ministry of Reintegration, the Ministry of Social Policy, the Ministry of Health, the State Emergency Service. We are in constant touch with them. Our permanent partner is the Public Health Centre; we often meet with them on issues of combating tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS (these are also programs that we implement). Now it is crucial that all institutions are open. I would like for it to always be like this, and not just when we have a resource, and for everyone to understand that when everyone leaves, we will remain here. And our task is to build all these relations in such a way that the Ukrainian Red Cross is important for the government. Not only the government – for the Red Cross.

That is why we are pregressing in this direction, when we are building our systems, when we are choosing the path of debugging and providing social services. We do not want to be a supplicant. We want to help the population and the government.

However, in general I consistently note that the Red Cross is a reflection of the country’s image. The Red Cross is as the country is. Or vice versa, the country’s level of development reflects the Red Cross. If we look at the United States, it is immediately clear that the Red Cross of the United States, Canada, Germany, Austria reflects this with 100% relevance.

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