Delivering for children in emergencies: UNICEF’s response in Ukraine and beyond

Emma Maspero, Senior Emergency Manager at UNICEF Supply Division, tells us about UNICEF’s ongoing work to deliver vital supplies for children in Ukraine and in other emergencies around the world.

UNICEF supplies
25 March 2022

Tell us about your current assignment in Ukraine. 

Right now, I'm in Lviv, western Ukraine and my job is to support our UNICEF country office in the emergency response to the war. All of our work is centred around getting life-saving supplies to children and their families, most urgently within Ukraine but also to those displaced in neighbouring countries. 

My day-to-day activities include reviewing the most needed items, finding ways to build a strong pipeline to make sure our supplies are arriving, and then organizing for them to get delivered as quickly as possible to the communities and children that need them. Thanks to the quick actions of colleagues, the country office set up a warehouse in Lviv and it has been running at full speed to receive supplies, mainly from UNICEF Supply Division’s warehouse in Copenhagen. From here, we send them by road or rail throughout the country. I’ve been joined by Supply Division colleagues Fergal and Omar to support the new warehouse and country office logistics team. It’s all hands-on-deck and it’s been great to see colleagues rolling up their sleeves and helping to load and offload trucks. 

In any emergency that I’m sent to support, my job is to make sure I’m giving the country office the help it needs. They are the ones working hard while dealing with the worry of having family and friends in danger. 

What is the humanitarian situation like in the country? 

The situation in Ukraine is extremely worrying. As of today (25 March 2022), 4.3 million children – more than half of the country’s estimated 7.5 million child population – have been displaced. This includes more than 1.8 million children who have crossed into neighbouring countries as refugees.

Within the country, the situation continues to deteriorate rapidly, and children are in desperate need of protection. As I crossed the border from Poland to Ukraine, there were so many children and women moving in the other direction. What struck me was not only seeing children and their mothers carrying what they could, including their few precious belongings or pets, but there were also many elderly women. It really hits home that there are so many vulnerable groups caught in the middle of this war.

"The focus is on making it happen, so as windows of opportunity open, we’re taking full advantage to move supplies."

What supplies is UNICEF delivering to Ukraine? Is it difficult to get them where they are needed most? 

UNICEF was one of the first organizations to get supplies across the border, which meant we could start distributing essential items quickly. In the west of Ukraine, we are seeing a lot of internally displaced people, while in the rest of the country there are many cities encircled and under heavy fire. 

A few days ago, we hit the milestone of 1,000 metric tonnes of emergency supplies dispatched to Ukraine and the bordering countries of Moldova, Poland and Romania. We are delivering a mix of goods that includes health supplies, hygiene kits, education and recreation items for children and teenagers, as well as winter clothing and blankets for babies and children up to the age of 14.

These are especially important as it has been bitterly cold. Supplies delivered to the surrounding countries have mostly been sent to support ‘Blue Dot’ centres, a joint initiative between UNICEF and UNHCR. These one-stop safe spaces provide information to traveling families, help to identify unaccompanied and separated children and ensure their protection from exploitation, and are a hub for essential services.

Finding transport options to carry our supplies to the hardest hit cities is difficult, but we’re looking at every option to move large quantities as fast as we can. Just this week, we were thrilled to hear that a train carrying UNICEF supplies made it Kharkiv in the north of Ukraine. The city has been under intense attack, and we had to move quickly to get supplies on the train. On-board was everything from medical kits to clothing and blankets. The country office team are leaving no stone unturned to find ways to distribute these goods. The focus is on making it happen, so as windows of opportunity open, we’re taking full advantage to move supplies. 

A social worker plays with Ukrainian refugee children in a child friendly space at a UNICEF-supported Blue Dot site at the Moldexpo Refugee Accommodation Centre in Chisinau, Moldova.

What do you foresee as the most critical supplies needed for children in the coming weeks and months? 

Winter clothes and blankets are important because the temperature is really low. We also have a demand for health supplies, including medicines, midwifery and surgical kits, which are going to become more and more critical so that clinics and hospitals can continue to take care of patients. Water and sanitation supplies are always amongst the most important items we procure, meaning people have a secure and safe supply of drinking water. But we still face huge challenges getting supplies to areas that are currently inaccessible. Humanitarian corridors are a necessity for UNICEF and any other organization trying to deliver life-saving goods and services. 

UNICEF is currently delivering life-saving supplies for children in other emergencies around the world. Where are they? 

UNICEF is responding to several major emergencies at the moment. Afghanistan and Yemen are perhaps the two biggest in terms of volume of supplies being shipped. Children in both countries face a perilous situation which is affecting their right to grow up in safety, avail of health care, receive adequate nutrition and an education.

I spent three years in Afghanistan and it’s a country that will always be very close to my heart. Having spent a lot of time working on school construction and textbook printing I’m very concerned about children, especially girls, getting access to the education they deserve. Also, the issue of malnutrition is worrying me right now. We see that parents are struggling to feed their infants and children, and when they can, the food doesn’t always contain enough essential vitamins and nutrients. It’s a massive emergency that we can't take our eyes off and it's continuing to take a lot of effort to get the volume of supplies needed into the country. Logistics in Afghanistan are extremely challenging as it is a landlocked country with harsh winters that can cut off road access to many parts of the country, but we are always working to overcome these hurdles.

UNICEF supplies
Ahmad Shah,12, receives a blanket, winter jacket, boots, tarpaulin, and a bucket and hygiene kit from UNICEF in the aftermath of an earthquake in Afghanistan in January 2022.

What about UNICEF’s response to natural disasters?

We need to be able to react at a moment’s notice to natural disasters and we’ve seen our fair share of these in recent months. Since December, typhoons have hit the Philippines, while Madagascar experienced multiple storms in the space of a few weeks. Tonga also reeled from both a volcanic eruption and a tsunami in January. 

Tonga was perhaps one of the most logistically challenging locations for us because of its distance from our regular supply bases. But a Brisbane supply hub worked extremely well, and the UNICEF country and regional offices were able to quickly send in initial supplies including essential water, sanitation and hygiene kits, water containers and buckets, tarpaulins, recreational kits, and tents. 

In terms of preparedness, we maintain critical stocks of emergency supplies at our primary warehouse in Copenhagen and in other global hubs including Dubai, Guangzhou and Panama City. However, it’s not just the sudden onset natural disasters that we track, but other emergencies such as the escalating drought in Somalia are on our radar too.

"There’s no better feeling for a logistician than standing on a tarmac watching a plane full of supplies touch down. Or seeing a truck loaded with supplies leaving a warehouse knowing they’re going to children who need them."

If you could leave us with one example of supplies making a difference, what would it be?

I’ve worked for UNICEF for 14 years in six different postings. I’ve seen first-hand how the supplies we deliver save and change lives and that’s why I love what I do so much. It’s hard to pick just one example because I have seen the value in so many of the items we send. 

In Zimbabwe, I know that we were able to save lives by helping to stop the acute watery diarrhoea epidemic with water, sanitation and hygiene items, while the textbooks we delivered helped to change lives through learning. In Afghanistan, I visited hospitals and held a newborn where our health supplies were at work. My favourite supply item in Afghanistan was the blue UNICEF backpack and I always keep my eyes out for them being worn by girls and boys on their way to or from school. In Somalia, working on hospital and primary health care centre rehabilitation was so important for me, especially during COVID-19 to help ensure that people have access to basic health care. 

There’s no better feeling for a logistician than standing on a tarmac watching a plane full of supplies touch down. Or seeing a truck loaded with supplies leaving a warehouse knowing they’re going to children who need them. And while every emergency is different, the end goal never changes – to reach as many children as possible as fast as we can.

UNICEF's work to deliver winter clothing to children in Ukraine.