Photo: Uzhhorod, Ukraine – February 27, 2022 – A woman and children are pictured at the Uzhhorod-Vysne Nemecke checkpoint on the Ukraine-Slovakia border, Zakarpattia Region, western Ukraine — Photo by Ukrinform / https://depositphotos.com/

Business and the Ukraine Crisis: Supporting Women and the Most Vulnerable

By Zahid Torres-Rahman, CEO, Business Fights Poverty

While much has been done by the business community in response to the Ukraine crisis, much more is needed, and this must start with a better understanding of the needs of the most vulnerable people and communities. This article provides insights into understanding who the vulnerable are and advice on actions that businesses can take, along with useful links.

At the heart of Business Fights Poverty is our focus on harnessing business to support the most vulnerable people and communities around the world. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, and unleashed a humanitarian crisis, business has been quick to respond.

There is an ever-growing list of businesses taking action—through their philanthropic giving to UN agencies and non-profits, statements condemning the invasion, and core businesses (including evacuating employees and suspending business operations in Russia).

For our part at Business Fights Poverty, we activated, on 24 February, our Rapid Response Facility which we coordinate with Crown Agents, the humanitarian procurement and logistics NGO. To date, with the support of companies like GSK, Russell Reynolds and Entain, we have shipped 11,000 individual first aid kits to Ukraine in response to requests by the Ukrainian Ministry of Health. We continue to look for funding partners to enable us to reach 50,000 as soon as possible.

But while much has been done by the business community, much more is needed, and this must start with a better understanding of the needs of the most vulnerable people and communities.

We need to better understand vulnerability

Of course, at one level everyone is vulnerable in Ukraine right now, including the nearly two million refugees and internally displaced people. But as with all crises, whether conflict, COVID or climate change, it is the most vulnerable people who suffer most, often reflecting deeper inequities, such as by gender and race.

As important context, Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe. According to a 2020 report by UNICEF, even before the current crisis, the proportion of the population living in absolute poverty was expected to be pushed up by the pandemic from 27.2 per cent to 43.6 per cent. We know from experience around the world that poor people are least able to withstand shocks, whether that be extreme weather events or man-made disasters. Poor people do not tend to have a sufficient level of assets to provide them resilience now and in the future. At the same time, many households, even if they are not currently living in poverty, are vulnerable to being pushed into poverty; one event – such as the loss of a job or the death of a family member – can be enough to push them into poverty.

With International Women’s Day this week, gender is another important lens to apply to the current situation. A Rapid Gender Analysis published by CARE International UK last week shows the distinct impacts on women and men, including “the current contrast between the requirement that Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 years stay and join the fighting, and media images of mostly women, children and the elderly fleeing the country”. There are already shocking reports of sex traffickers targetting women and girl refugees at the border, with Ukraine (even before the current crises) a major source, transit and destination point for human trafficking in Europe.

Women also make up the majority of those facing poverty, and therefore least able to withstand shocks. According to Ukrainian State Statistics Service data, cited by CARE, women made up 72.2% of those registered for social assistance and 73% of those applying for in-kind aid and cash assistance in 2018. This reflects deep inequities by gender, with CARE concerned that the crisis threatens to undo much of the modest progress made on gender equality in Ukraine.

Race and ethnicity, too, are playing out as a key factor. The estimated 250,000 Roma community have faced particularly acute levels of poverty, driven by discriminaton and exacerbated by lack of identification documents and therefore access to state social assistance programmes and healthcare. In the past few days, reports have emerged of Africans being prevented from escaping the country. This is against the backdrop of a starkly different narrative about supporting refugees from Ukraine, compared to, for example, Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea.

And while the world has rightly stood up and responded to those affected in Ukraine, including through economic sanctions on Russia, an analysis of vulnerable people impacted by the crisis would not be complete (and does not seem to be getting any coverage in the media) without understanding the impacts on low-income Russians who will be most affected by the chaos already hitting the Russian economy.

How can business support the most vulnerable?

First of all, businesses need to understand who are the most vulnerable so that their response efforts best meet the needs of these people and communities. CARE, for example, suggests collecting gender data to ensure a gender sensitive response. As with any crisis, it means working with international and local NGOs to give voice to those most impacted, ensuring the voices of women and minority groups are listened to and reflected in emergency and long-term responses.

Second, businesses can look to build the resilience of refugees, including through access to the skills and resources they need to find employment or start a business. The EU anticipates up to 5 million refugees from Ukraine, and an additional 7 million people displaced internally. Sadly, we know that the average length of time a refugee is displaced is between 10 and 26 years. Helping refugees build their livelihoods in the host country will be important for some time to come. Beyond saving lives, business has a role to play in saving livelihoods and people’s continued access to learning.

Of course, while we all hope the war will end soon, it may take months to resolve and many years for the country to rebuild; helping with the efforts to rebuild the country in an inclusive way will be key for business. This will need to include efforts to build the resilience of low-income people and traditionally marginalised communities, including through microinsurance and financial inclusion, social protection and adaptive safety nets, and more generally by building people’s access to health and education and other forms of capital.

Third, business needs to use its voice to stand up for the rights of refugees right around the world. According to UNHCR, there are 82.4 million people globally who are forcibly displaced. In a guide that we published with Pearson, Mercy Corps, UNHCR, Thomson Reuters Foundation, Business Call to Action and Innovest Advisory, we argue that there is not only a moral obligation to support the global refugee response, but also an economic and social imperative. We identify five key refugee needs that present the greatest potential for scalable, refugee-inclusive business models: education, livelihoods, health and wellbeing, information and communications, and financial inclusion. We highlight 17 different business models, and deep-dive into three: digital education for refugee children, buying from refugee-owned or inclusive enterprises, and safe and sustainable off-grid energy solutions. Within each of these areas, companies can support refugees as employees, producers, suppliers, distributors, and customers in their value chains. We also learnt about some of the factors that will help these models work in practice and scale: identifying benefits and incentives for host countries, and building both; using aid to catalyse markets and attract business; and advocating for laws and policies that encourage refugee self-reliance and business engagement.

Business has been quick to stand up on Ukraine, and that is commendable. Now they need to look deeper to support the lives, livelihoods and access to learning of the most vulnerable people, impacted by this war and other crises around the world, both immediately and over the longer-term.

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