Evaluation of UNICEF’s response to support the influx of refugees from Ukraine
FINAL REPORT | MARCH 2023
Following eight years of armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, at dawn on 24 February 2022, the Russian Federation launched a military incursion across the country. The event displaced millions in search of safety, protection, and humanitarian assistance, creating the fastest growing refugee emergency since World War II.
By the end of March 2022, almost four million people, mainly women and children, had fled to neighbouring countries or beyond. As of January 2023, nearly eight million refugees had left Ukraine and entered Europe.
The crisis is highly politically charged. The international community grappled with its political effects, while the humanitarian system launched a massive emergency response. The European Union offered three years of temporary protection for Ukrainian refugees, and countries opened their doors to those in need.
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UNICEF commissioned an independent evaluation of UNICEF’s response to the outflow of Ukrainian refugees, February-December 2022. The evaluation addressed the UNICEF response outside, not within, Ukraine, in eight countries: Bulgaria, Belarus, Poland, Moldova, Romania, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.
The evaluation covers the period February– December 2022. It asked four main questions:
- How well did UNICEF’s response meet the needs and priorities of beneficiaries and stakeholders?
- How well-aligned was UNICEF’s response with partner needs?
- How timely was the response, and how efficiently were resource converted into results?
- What results were delivered and how sustainable are these results?
The evaluation applied an overarching intervention logic for the response, geared to the implementation of UNICEF’s Core Commitments to Children in Humanitarian Action (‘the CCCs’). A mixed-method approach was applied including documentary analysis; surveys with affected populations and external stakeholders; interviews and consultations with over 100 stakeholders from inside and outside UNICEF; and country missions to Poland, Romania, and Moldova. A range of evidence products were generated for use by UNICEF stakeholders, including an internal website, which contains the timeline for the response and three briefs which describe the response.
Meeting the needs and priorities of beneficiaries and stakeholders
1. UNICEF adopted a twin-track approach to expanding its country presence, undertaking strategic advocacy and negotiation at national level in parallel with programmatic activity on the ground. Its strategic narrative of the Child Protection dimensions of the crisis was substantively appropriate and strategically shrewd. Internally, the division of leadership role between the Regional Office and the Emergency Operations division suffered from an early lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities, which was resolved after the re-designation of the refugee response to a Level 2 emergency.
2. UNICEF deployed a large-scale surge operation to meet needs. However, this revealed shortcomings in the standard response model, with short-term deployments, handover weaknesses, capacity and knowledge gaps and lack of operations expertise impeding progress. Despite wider data constraints, UNICEF supported needs and other assessments, though these were undertaken only later in the response. Learning, which was experiential, supported knowledge management in the same manner.
3. The response was aligned to needs in broad terms of country and sector allocations. However, vulnerable group recognition and programmatic tailoring took time. The programme has become more diversified and nuanced over time, and UNICEF has been a particularly prominent actor in relation to the sensitive issue of Unaccompanied and Separated Children (UASC).
Internal and external cohesion
4. Expanding partnerships to deliver was a steep learning curve, particularly where UNICEF had no prior programmatic presence in the country. UNICEF acted as a generous and supportive facilitator for the wider UN response, with a noted absence of territorialism. It facilitated entry for the UN response in several countries and acted as a strategic coordinator in others. Its ‘national systems first’ model was highly appreciated by national partners.
5. However, balancing ‘no regrets’ with rigour was challenging, with due diligence for new partnerships not always met, and handover shortcomings. The risk of national resource displacement was insufficiently considered, and the role of National Committees inadequately clarified in the early phase of the response. Some partnerships experienced strain in the final months of 2022, due to lack of clarity on resource availability for 2023.
6. Internal coherence faced challenges, linked to the lack of clarity on strategic leadership. Intra-regional coherence and knowledge transfer has been limited, and connections with the ‘inside Ukraine’ response patchy, though with strong cross-border collaboration on UASC and education.
Timeliness and resource efficiency
7. Overall, the response was timely. Rates of programmatic expansion were notably diverse between established Country Offices and emergency response programmes, given the additional time requirements needed to establish strategic and operational space. Although resources were relatively quick to arrive, the time needed to build up to programmatic readiness in some countries affected the pace at which funding could be committed and utilised. Partners experienced little to no disbursement delays.
8. Initial target-setting suffered from data gaps. A process of recalibration of targets provided a reality check of the response’s true emphases. Burdens of data reporting were significant on staff in the early stages.
9. Quantitative achievements against targets were strong in SBC/C4D/AAP and Social Protection, with good performance in Child Protection, Health, Programme Strategy and Education. UNICEF’s four existing Country Offices saw mostly higher achievement levels of quantitative targets than nonprogramme countries. Some notable achievements were made through advocacy, including sustaining global attention to the crisis’ effects on vulnerable children.
10. Attention to equity was stronger than that to gender equality and the empowerment of women, despite previous barriers faced by women and girls in Ukraine. Accountability to affected populations mainly relied on partner systems, with few feedback loops into UNICEF’s own planning and programming. Nonetheless, beneficiaries indicated relatively high satisfaction levels with UNICEF interventions.
11. The response has adopted a strong nexus focus. The ‘national systems first approach’ provided a potentially strong sustainability lens, but this was inconsistently applied. The two main risks to sustainability relate to partnerships formed in the early stages of the response, which did not always adopt a medium-term view, and UNICEF’s inability to extend the same level of financial resourcing into 2023, which risks the continued commitment and goodwill of partners.
12. The issue of sustainability also raises a central conceptual dissonance; namely, the delivery of emergency response, implemented through national systems, and focused (in the sustained phase) on strengthening those systems, requires a different model from the short-term ‘humanitarian’ instruments which currently govern it.
Overall, the evaluation finds that UNICEF’s response to the regional refugee crisis was swiftly executed, effective and appropriate for context. Prioritising response delivery through national systems and placing the ‘best interests of [every] child’ at the heart of the response, helped built its reputation as a principled and impartial actor.
UNICEF deployed staff and resources to meet needs, building a narrative with governments of its comparative advantages while engaging programmatically on the ground. It also successfully deployed its powerful communications and advocacy capacities to highlight suffering. The opportunistic/expedient approach to partnerships supported localisation, but shortcomings included unsystematic due diligence; fast turnover in surge deployments; limited overview by the Regional Office of programme development; and sustainability. Overall, UNICEF’s response largely met the commitments that the CCCs demand, despite contextual complexities.
The response has also highlighted some key dilemmas and institutional fault lines. Operationally, the response generated some valuable lessons, many linked to human resourcing and institutional capacities. Strategically, it has highlighted the conceptual disjunct between the medium-term view needed for a response as ‘delivered through systems, and systems strengthening’ and the shortterm institutional tools available to address it. The wider question arising from this evaluation is, therefore: is there room, and a requirement for, a new model of emergency response for such contexts?
- Extend links to political and security intelligence systems.
- Review UNICEF’s emergency response model for middle- and high-income settings/protracted crises.
- (in line with findings from the Humanitarian Review and COVID-19 evaluation) Build emergency capacity across UNICEF, including for national staff in contexts with low emergency propensity.
- Reconfirm and communicate the role of National Committees in emergency response.
- At regional level, interpret the CCCs for this context.
- Generate a clear corporate statement and position on gender in the response.
- (in line with the Humanitarian Review) Centralise lesson learning in the response, building on the coordination meetings now being held.
- Build emergency preparedness, geared to an ethos of systems-strengthening into new CPDs as they are developed and approved.
- Define the UNICEF legacy post-crisis response.