Three ways INGOs can shift power in humanitarian response: lessons from Ukraine

Isabelle Tallec Humanitarian, Power Shifts, Refugees and IDPs

In the run-up to World Humanitarian Day this week, Isabelle Tallec looks at Oxfam’s locally led response to the Ukraine crisis, working with dozens of local and community organisations to support the most marginalised groups of refugees and displaced people.

Jenya fled bombing in Kharkiv to seek refuge in Poland and started volunteering at a reception centre in Rzeszow. Last year she also started working for Oxfam as a translator and as a reporter sharing her and other refugees’ experiences (Picture: Tineke D’haese/Oxfam)

When the humanitarian crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine began in February 2022, the immediate question Oxfam and other agencies had to answer was: how could we best move, at speed, to provide the most appropriate support to those people who needed it most urgently? As millions of Ukrainians crossed the border to Poland, Romania, and Moldova, and millions more fled fighting within the country, we had to work out how to set up a response in a region where we did not have established teams or offices.

Why our response was built around local humanitarian leadership

We decided that the most principled and sustainable approach was to build a humanitarian response that was led by local civil society organisations in Ukraine, Poland, Romania and Moldova. They had the best understanding of the political, cultural, and geographical context and the closest connection to the affected people, and so could respond in a quicker, more cost-effective and appropriate manner.

Such an approach aligned with Oxfam’s commitments to local leadership made under the Charter for Change, Grand Bargain and Pledge for Change. We believe that it has allowed for the most effective way to get our resources to those who most needed help. In less than a year (March 2022-February 2023), we set up four country programmes and established formal partnerships with 29 different local organisations, including long-standing civil society organisations, community-based organisations and foundations and local and national government bodies. By June 2023, we were working with 35 organisations. So far, the response has reached more than 1.7 million people.

Examples of the partnerships built include:

  •  Working with Ukrainian NGO the Rural Women Business Network to support farmers to sustain their businesses and rebuild their livelihoods when they have been displaced.
  • Collaborating with grassroots organisations the Anika Foundation, Because We Can and Rebuild Makariv to help communities repair and rebuild homes.
  • Working with The Tenth of April refugee organisation to help displaced people find safe routes away from danger and provide people with cash.
  • Providing tailored support for Roma refugees, who face particular discrimination, through the Warsaw-based Towards Dialogue Foundation.
  • Through the Fundacja Feminoteka organisation in Warsaw, providing safe shelter, psychological, therapeutic and medical support to refugee women and girls who have experienced violence.

(Find details of more of the work in our report: “Learning by listening: the Ukraine crisis as a case study in shifting power to local humanitarian actors”)

Working with such a variety of actors, in a wide range of areas and in a diverse set of relationships didn’t come without challenges. What have we learned about how best to establish these locally led partnerships and how we can support partners? In this blog, I identify three key themes.

1. Build mutual respect and welcome dialogue

While we were able to set up a swift humanitarian response with partners to the Ukraine war, building equitable partnerships took time. We had to accept delays inherent in establishing truly equal partnerships.  We focused on partnership conversations and invested in quality relationships – scoping mutual interests, understanding the strengths we each bring, identifying gaps, co-creating standards for joint response, and enabling mutual assessment.

Throughout, we strove for mutual respect, trying not to impose our views on partners and instead being open to being challenged. We welcomed dialogue and debate around our collective goals, results and impact. We tried to recognise and respect differences, and believe that this has made our collective response stronger.

2. Lighten processes and adapt ways of working

Working with a wide range of partners brings a depth and richness to the humanitarian response to the Ukraine crisis, but it is also demanding, as we need to tailor our support to partners based on their needs. This can mean a variety of bespoke ways of working, which requires a lot of flexibility from Oxfam. 

We had to adapt our ways of working as we go, transforming our systems and working on simplifying and lightening our processes as much as we could, to reduce the burden on partners. We offered support in our core sectors of expertise, but we also needed to increase our resources, capacities and skill sets in our teams to support partners in ways that suited them. We listened to feedback from our partners and continue to do so, to ensure that we complement each other in an agile way and can make the changes that facilitate their work.

3. Invest in making partners stronger and more sustainable

Local and national organisations in Ukraine, Poland, Romania and Moldova were the first to respond when the conflict escalated in Ukraine. They remain the main providers of humanitarian aid today. Their future as agencies is a constant area of concern for our partners because they have had to restructure and grow quickly, and operate at a scale they have never reached before.

As the response around Ukraine develops, and Oxfam phases out parts of its involvement as humanitarian needs shift, we need to ensure local organisations can continue their work and have secure funding to plan for the future. We need a long-term, structured approach and to invest in making our partners stronger and more sustainable.

This means advocating for more direct access to funding for national and local organisations, increasing the amount of our own humanitarian funding that is channelled directly to these organisations and facilitating relationships with donors for direct financial support. Strengthening their participation and representation in international coordination mechanisms is also essential so they can shape the humanitarian debate and priorities.

The future must be local

The Ukraine crisis has demonstrated just how effective and agile a response led and driven by local organisations who are embedded in and know their communities can be. At Oxfam, we hope it will encourage the wider humanitarian system to do things differently. We believe that a locally led humanitarian response model must be replicated everywhere to champion a resilient, independent, and diverse civil society who are able to support sustainable recovery and preparedness for future crises.


Isabelle Tallec

Isabelle Tallec is former Communication Coordinator for Oxfam’s Ukraine crisis response

Read the full report, authored by Isabelle: “Learning by listening: the Ukraine crisis as a case study in shifting power to local humanitarian actors” (June 2023). This blog is published to mark World Humanitarian Day later this week, on August 19th.