Speaking to an Elliott School audience, Corus International Chief Humanitarian Officer Tamara Demuria says the ripple effect of Russia’s invasion is profound.
By Nick Erickson
The Russian invasion of Ukraine came in like a tidal wave in late February, with months—years, for that matter—worth of tension boiling over into a continuous bombardment decimating populated cities and displacing families. These horrific images of smoldering ruins and Ukrainian civilians crowding subway platforms for both refuge out of the country and shelter from the explosions above have been seared into minds throughout the world.
But Corus International Chief Humanitarian Officer Tamara Demuria says the ripple effect of that tidal wave is proving to be just as profound. Demuria, who returned last week from a humanitarian assistance trip to Ukraine, spoke to a virtual George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs audience Tuesday about the situation in Ukraine going forward.
As moderator Sean Roberts, Elliott School professor and director of the international development studies master’s program, pointed out, much had been done in Ukraine since 2014 in terms of development within the country and trying to bring it into the fold of the European Union.
The setbacks caused by the Russian invasion have significantly hindered that economic and social progress and potential, and one of the aspects less covered is how debilitating this conflict is going to be to Ukraine’s recovery. It’s as though the development ladder the country had been using to climb toward EU membership has been taken out from under them, and that must be considered when thinking about how to best help the Ukrainian population.
“What we have been seeing and hearing of stories in Ukraine are really emotional, but it also requires longer-term thinking and a little bit of a different approach because of the sophisticated needs of the population that have been advanced significantly when it comes to technology, as well as economic development indicators,” Demuria said.
While immersed in the heart of the conflict on her trip with Corus International, Demuria talked to citizens and both heard and saw some of the nuances that will require delicate handling in building the country back up.
That’s why it was particularly advantageous for someone who has been there to speak to GW and the international affairs researchers, teachers and students it houses.
“It’s difficult to know from afar,” Roberts said. “We only see the most egregious acts in the media.”
Demuria laid out a laundry list of falling dominoes impacting the country with over one-third of its population displaced:
- Chronic illness and underlying health problems are both on the rise as people seek refuge and find themselves away from primary health care providers, which makes it nearly impossible to receive proper and timely treatment. Negative coping mechanisms such as alcohol and substance abuse have also been on the rise.
- It hasn’t been safe in many parts of the country for in-person learning at schools—buildings that have also been subjected to bombings. That means children, who already have had COVID-19 disrupt their educational trajectories, are falling behind. There is a growing concern for the mental and psychological harm this will cause in children, and there’s no telling when they will be able to return to the classroom with the fluidity of the war.
- The bombings have also disrupted technology and stable internet connections in the area, making it harder to hold a virtual classroom or office. Demuria said much of the population has not been able to maintain their jobs in a virtual space. Technological difficulties also make it more difficult to apply for humanitarian aid.
- Regarding the economy, about 30% of Ukraine’s agricultural land is currently occupied or unsafe. That’s also significant for the global economy as the sunflower support Ukraine provides for oil supplies will be impacted. The war has also hindered Ukraine’s business and entrepreneurial capabilities.
- There is a spike in sexual and gender-based violence. “Rape has become a weapon of war,” Demuria said. These assault victims are also being treated clinically instead of comprehensively, said Demuria, who added that many sexual assaults in Ukraine go undetected. That, too, causes great psychological distress, and the governments and institutions haven’t had many resources to offer there since it is an all-hands-on-deck approach to fighting the war.
All these factors have added up to take a toll on mental and psychological health within the country. This is all, of course, in addition to the constant fear for their lives.
From a humanitarian aspect, Demuria said international groups such as hers will have to invest back into the Ukrainian society rather than run parallel systems to make sure they are empowering the local population to move on, sustain and build on top of what they have to offer.
“It will be really identifying these long-term investment options to get (Ukraine) back on its feet,” Demuria said.
To give Ukraine a hand back up will require a careful effort. Demuria advises against random volunteering as it all must add up to strengthening the existing systems put in place. Essentially, rather than build a different ladder, humanitarian groups and volunteer efforts must help Ukrainians pick up their own ladder swept from underneath them. She suggested logging on to the United Nations Office of Coordination and Humanitarian Affairs website to find trained humanitarian organizations to work with and noted that small things do add up.
“A lot of these organizations are listed and also list the domain they work in,” Demuria said. “The best way would be to get ahold of them, learn what are the best stances against these sensitive topics and take it from there.
“These baby or leapfrog steps are what keep us going.”