Donated clothes help in Ukraine. But there’s one thing the help experts prefer

In downtown Lviv, a huge arts complex is now an aid distribution center.

In the theatre, women sort through boxes of socks, each box resting on a plush velvet seat. In the basement, student nurses distribute the drugs. Elsewhere, volunteers are dividing pallets of dry food into small grocery baskets for displaced families. A second-floor art gallery is overflowing with thousands of bags of donated clothing.

But there is a problem with these donated goods – and there is another way to help displaced Ukrainians that aid groups are considering trying: cash donations.

It’s not that clothing donations have no role in these relief efforts. Nastia Stefanovich, a distribution center volunteer, stands in front of a pile of white grain sacks reaching up to the ceiling. “These are all clothes for zero to 1 year olds,” she says, pointing to one of the many mounds of donations.

But there is an imbalance between what happens in the bazaar and what is exactly needed. Joking that Ukraine has become the second-hand clothing bazaar for all of Europe, Stefanovich says they get a lot of children’s clothes but not enough adult shoes and sneakers. She also says that they receive very little that they can pass on to soldiers on the front lines.

Aid distribution center coordinator Tetyana Kostorna says many people have been incredibly generous to Ukraine, but others are simply getting rid of their worn-out clothes. Some of the donations are unwantedshe says, which volunteers must dispose of or send to a dog shelter for litter.

“I understand that you want to help, but you have to respect us,” Kostorna says. “Respect the people who have lost everything.”

Junk aside, Kostorna is grateful for the many donations she says are helpful. After sorting them, she says, the center is able to provide basic food baskets and clothing to around 500 families a day.

But such physical donations can be cumbersome and time-consuming to deliver, says the Ukrainian representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Karolina Lindholm Billing. That’s why the UN refugee agency and a coalition of aid groups are setting up a program to give money directly to displaced Ukrainians.

“UNHCR plans to provide unconditional cash grants to at least 360,000 internally displaced people,” Billing said. The UN estimates that around 6.5 million Ukrainians – out of a population of 43.7 million – are internally displaced.

The program will begin by distributing funds through the Ukrainian Postal Service. Families will be able to get 2,220 Ukrainian hryvnia, or about $75, per person per month at any branch of the post office, wherever they are in the country. It’s not even enough money to raise someone above the poverty line or to rent an apartment in most parts of Ukraine, but aid groups say it will help people temporarily to move. Help will be available for at least the next three months. UNHCR is involved in similar programs which are launched to distribute the funds to refugees in Poland and Moldova. The programs in these countries disburse the money on ATM cards instead of over the counter like at the post office. Billing says that in a war zone, it’s much easier to transfer money than moving trucks full of food, diapers and clothes.

/Jason Beaubien/NPR

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Jason Beaubien/NPR

Women sort through donated socks at a theater that now serves as an aid distribution center in downtown Lviv, Ukraine.

Cash is also more dignified and often more useful for recipients, Billing says. “It’s better that people get money and can buy whatever they want,” she says. They might prefer pasta over rice, she says, or be used to cooking with canola oil instead of olive oil. Getting money, she says, makes more sense than getting a package with half the things they want and half they wouldn’t have chosen.

UNHCR and other aid groups, including the International Organization for Migration and Mercy Corps, are beginning to enroll people in the cash program. They hope to start disbursements in the next few days. In Poland, several separate pilot programs have started offering money directly to refugees.

Globally, aid groups are coming to recognize that cash assistance makes a lot of sense in some disasters. Wojtek Wilk, director of the Polish Center for International Aid, says the Ukraine crisis is one of them.

“Using cash assistance in the drought-affected area in Africa when there is no food probably wouldn’t make sense,” says Wilk, but in Poland there is plenty of food on the shelves. supermarkets. The banking system works. The influx of cash is also helping rather than undermining local traders. Some people worry that cash is more likely to lead to scams, corruption or misuse of funds. But Wilk says any fraud can be contained.

Wilk says the goal in Poland is to only use cash payments for a few months to help refugees settle. The long-term plan is to register Ukrainian refugees in the Polish social security system. This would allow them to work legally for up to 18 months and access unemployment, housing and other benefits.

The biggest challenge for the cash assistance program, says Wilk, will be getting enough international donors to fund it, especially since millions of Ukrainians could potentially need the support.

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Elizabeth J. Harless