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What the response to the crisis in Ukraine says about western humanitarianism

March 15, 2023

Interview by Daniel Teunissen, adapted by Ashley-Rose Redstone

Ritesh Shah (pictured), a senior lecturer of critical studies education at the University of Auckland told Daniel Teunissen on 95bFM’s The Wire that focusing solely on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is hurting the response to other crises. Photo: supplied by Ritesh Shah.

Listen to the full interview

Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ukraine has received significant support. 

Several countries, including Aotearoa, have offered financial aid and military assistance, to try to reduce the consequences of the invasion. 

But the support for Ukraine has led some to question why refugees fleeing from other humanitarian crises, including in Afghanistan, Yemen and Sudan, have not been given the same attention.

Ritesh Shah, a senior lecturer of critical studies in education at the University of Auckland, told Daniel Teunissen on 95bFM’s The Wire that the response to the crisis in Ukraine calls for a difficult discussion about our treatment of refugees outside of Ukraine. 

Shah explained that white, Christian, Ukrainians seeking refuge are often more accepted by the West than refugees from other countries.

“We need to recognise that those seeking refuge from Ukraine are often seen as looking like, quote-unquote, us. We've seen this mentioned explicitly by the media and politicians.”

"There's a sense that they're different from other refugee and asylum-seeking groups. They're seen as less of a threat, and their cultural values and beliefs are similar to those of us in the West. I think it really symbolises a core concern, which is that there is an endemic sense of racism and Orientalism in the way that we think about supporting some in need but not others."

Shah emphasised that focusing solely on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can hurt the response to other crises, and prevent people's needs from being met.

“If we look at Ukraine, nearly 80% of the money that's been asked for under humanitarian appeals has been funded. But if we compare it to, say, Afghanistan, only 38% has been funded, 27% for Yemen, and 20% for Sudan.”

Shah said other crucial aid, such as expertise from experienced responders and political attention, is also being diverted away from other crises.

He argued that western humanitarian efforts often refuse to acknowledge and address racial bias.

“We hide behind the principles of humanitarianism which are quote-unquote impartiality and non-discrimination. But if we look at what happens in practice, those humanitarian values aren't occurring at all.”

Shah said that focusing on western issues overshadows those in similar situations and doesn’t allow their voices to be heard. 

To reduce this bias, he said there is an urgent need for transparency and accountability in humanitarian outlets such as in the media and in political leadership. 

“We need to look at who leads these humanitarian organisations and are making decisions. Often they are people with privilege, and white individuals, who aren't able to see that racism.”

“I think we need to do a better job in humanitarianism, in subverting the idea that the expertise lies with those in the West.”

Shah further discusses why the world’s other humanitarian crises don’t see the same response as Ukraine in a recent article for The Conversation. 

Public interest journalism funded through NZ on Air