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Ukraine war: WFP poised to support next phase of relief effort

Assessment on border with Slovakia shows how the World Food Programme and other agencies can provide support inside the country, says Jean-Martin Bauer
, Jean-Martin Bauer
A volunteer serving food in distribution organize by city of Uzhorod
A restaurant turned soup kitchen in the city of Uzhhorod, supported by the Government, serves thousands of meals every day to displaced Ukrainians. Photo: Courtesy of of Serhii Hudak

The day I visit Uzhhorod with a World Food Programme (WFP) assessment team, we are told that 11 trains, each carrying 2,000 passengers, are due from Kharkiv and Kyiv. We are on the border with Slovakia in the west of Ukraine.   

One month into the conflict, there are an estimated 500,000 displaced people in the Zakarpatska region – around three hours from the main conflict zones.

Across the country, almost 6.5 million people have been internally displaced and 3.5 million have left the country. Assessing the needs of a vast, moving population amid a volatile security situation is challenging. 

The food supply chain is broken. WFP believes 45 percent of Ukrainians are currently worried about finding enough to eat – we have mobilized food supplies to assist 3 million people inside the country for one month. So far WFP has reached 716,000 – over the next four weeks that should increase to 2.4 million people. 

Urgent funds are needed to enable WFP to extend its support to places such as Uzhhorod, and to continue serving countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Ethiopia which are being squeezed as the war shoots up the prices rises for food and fuel – Ukraine and Russia are major wheat exporter.

Volunteers preparing sandwiches in Uzhorod in a n
Volunteers are at hand but supplies will soon run out. Photo: Courtesy of of Serhii Hudak

At the start of the year, global inflation had already pushed the price WFP paid for food up by US$42 million a month. The conflict has since driven up food and fuel prices, compounding global supply chain challenges, and adding another US$29 million to WFP’s monthly costs. Today, we are being forced to pay an estimated US$71 million more a month for our operations than in 2019 – a 44 per cent rise. 
To scale up in Ukraine, WFP is calling for  US$590 million – so far we've received only US$112 million. 

Displaced people arriving in Uzhhorod receive a bright purple box with freshly made sandwiches, as well as flyers explaining how to apply for Government assistance. The city has set up a soup kitchen, which makes 10,000 sandwiches every day. A sense of determination and camaraderie here is palpable. 

Volunteers of all ages, wearing blue plastic gloves, slather generous helpings of butter on white bread, topped off with slices of cheese and ham. 

People – mostly women and children – who stay longer in Uzhhorod and who require help, receive vouchers for two hot meals at the soup kitchen. The effort is run seamlessly by hundreds of volunteers and the local government. However, food is running out.

WFP ready to support

“We had a budget for 1 million people, not 1.5 million,” said Petro Dobromilskyy, Director of Social Services for Zakarpatska region. “We’re doing what we can but can’t keep this up much longer.” 

Groups of vans bringing food and other essential items are also expected to peter out.  UN agencies, including WFP, are working with partners, including Government and local and international NGOs, to start providing cash transfers, so people who need help can buy the foods they want, boosting the town’s beleaguered economy.

Soup kitchen volunteers in Uzhorod
The World Food Programme needs US$590 million to assist such projects around Ukraine. Photo:  Courtesy of Serhii Hudak

Getting an emergency food programme going involves dealing with many uncertainties: these include supermarkets shifting to new suppliers because of the war and fuel shortages. It’s possible WFP might need to shift from cash assistance to food, and back again. But there is one important factor: assisting an ongoing, well-structured local effort is so much easier than setting up a programme from scratch. It’s also a path to scale assistance to other areas. 

Encouragingly, Government capacity is intact. This means the best solution to deliver food assistance is to plug right into the robust systems that are in place, so we don’t duplicate, and so the Government can resume when it’s ready. We also plan to work closely with grassroots organizations so that no one is left behind, and has access.  

This approach is similar to what WFP country offices from Haiti to Bangladesh have been doing for years – delivering food assistance through national systems. With the obvious difference that Ukraine is an active, rapid-response setting. This means that unlike other cases, where we’ve delivered through national safety nets, WFP in Ukraine will likely need to be highly flexible because of the many uncertainties involved. And this is where our global experience as a provider of all types of food assistance – including cash transfers, supermarket vouchers, in-kind food and supporting bakeries – makes us ready to get the job done in Ukraine. 

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