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CIDA Central and Eastern Europe Branch : Humanitarian Assistance

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Date de publication

Program Overview

Canada has a long-standing tradition of providing assistance to the victims of both human-caused and natural disasters. For Canadians, humanitarian assistance is less an act of charity than it is an expression of our collective values, culture and vision of how a community of nations can cooperate during periods of crisis. Canada's humanitarian assistance is seen as an important and visible manifestation of our country's investment in global peace and human security.

The goal of the Canadian International Development Agency's (CIDA) humanitarian assistance program for Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) is to provide a rapid response mechanism that focuses on emergency situations to save lives, reduce suffering and assist people to return to self- sufficiency. Care and support are provided to the most vulnerable populations, including children, elderly persons, refugees and internally displaced persons. Particular attention is paid to the needs of women.

In most cases, Canada's humanitarian assistance is offered in response to calls for support from international organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Red Cross. However, in some cases, CIDA also provides support to well- established, experienced Canadian relief organizations with a proven track record of assistance operations in the area where a given emergency situation is taking place.

Responding to Complex Emergencies

Within the vast expanse and varied socio-economic, cultural and political fabric of the region, there exists a highly disparate pattern of humanitarian assistance requirements and actions. For Central Europe, natural disasters will represent the greatest risk. Socio-economic upheaval will continue to threaten Russia for some time. In Southern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, deep-rooted conflicts will continue to result in complex political emergencies which will dominate the humanitarian assistance agenda. The indigenous capacity to respond to these crises varies enormously across the CEE region.

Central and Eastern Europe

Program Objectives

CIDA's humanitarian assistance to the CEE region has contributed to international relief efforts to help people in emergency situations rebuild their lives. In this respect, the humanitarian assistance program also supports CIDA's objectives for the CEE region, which are the following :

  • to assist the transition to market economies;
  • to facilitate Canadian trade and investment links with the region; and
  • to encourage good governance, democracy and adherence to international norms.

Canada's program of humanitarian assistance to Central and Eastern Europe began in 1989 with the end of the Cold War. The program began by providing food aid, medical services and pharmaceuticals products, and has evolved to respond to a succession of complex emergencies and natural disasters. Increasingly, these emergencies not only involve the need for humanitarian assistance, but also include important political and security dimensions.

With the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, religious and ethnic rivalries have erupted into armed conflict and violence in Southern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Millions of civilians have been victims of violence in the region. They have been forced to leave their homes for fear of their lives, have been wounded or killed, and have endured the deaths of their loved ones.

Moreover, the pressures generated by economic and political transition have resulted in varying degrees of socio-economic upheaval in the region, particularly in Russia. Because the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have re-entered the international mainstream, they are now exposed to the vagaries of global economic pressures. This means that millions of people in already weakened states have been put at greater risk as a result of economic dislocation.

In addition, Central and Eastern Europe has long been prone to natural disasters, including floods, forest fires and earthquakes. The wide temperature swings and inclement weather characteristic of many parts of the region often exacerbate the severity of humanitarian assistance emergencies.

Chronological Overview

1989: Canada's humanitarian assistance program began with a focus on providing food, medical services and pharmaceutical products. Considerable assistance was provided to the former Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary and the Caucasus.

1995: Humanitarian assistance focused on responding to the violent armed conflict in former Yugoslavia, particularly with respect to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Once the Dayton Accords were implemented in 1996 and the reconstruction program had begun, humanitarian assistance in the former Yugoslavia gradually diminished.

1997: In response to the worst floods to hit Central Europe in more than a century, CIDA provided basic needs assistance to flood victims in the Czech Republic and Poland.

1998-99: Humanitarian assistance was provided to ease the suffering in Kosovo and later to assist the refugees flooding into neighbouring countries during the armed conflict in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In Russia and Ukraine, basic foodstuffs and clothing were delivered to respond to food shortages caused by global economic turmoil and crop failures.

Project Profiles

Providing Aid to Kosovo

In January 1999, in response to an appeal from the UNHCR, Canada provided humanitarian assistance to address the mounting crisis in Kosovo. The program's main objectives are to meet the essential humanitarian relief needs of persons affected by the conflict, support return and rehabilitation efforts, assist host families and communities to alleviate the burden of hosting refugees, and to monitor and prepare for future flows of displaced persons.

Winter Emergency Relief

In 1997-98 and 1998-99, CIDA supported the winter emergency relief operation undertaken by the Red Cross in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. The Russian economic crisis, combined with natural disasters in some areas, meant that many people had difficulty obtaining the basic items they needed to survive the harsh winter. The project provided warm winter clothing, basic food and hygiene items to help some of the most vulnerable populations, including children and elderly persons.

Supporting Elderly Refugees in Slovenia

In 1996-97, Help the Aged Canada provided assistance to elderly refugees who had come to Slovenia seeking refuge from conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. This small-scale project complemented the work of the UNHCR and the Government of Slovenia. It provided small but necessary items - for example, eyeglasses, boots and underclothing - to the elderly, who were disproportionately represented in Slovenia's refugee camps.

Providing Basic Medicine to Armenia

MAP (Medical Assistance Programs) International, a Canadian non-governmental organization (NGO), is helping to improve medical services to 200,000 residents of the Shahoumian district of Armenia. Working in partnership with the Armenian Ministry of Health, MAP has shipped much- needed basic medicine to the Malatia Medical Centre, which is helping it to meet the short-term needs. In addition, MAP has provided training to Armenian doctors in current gynecological and urological medical techniques. The program, which began in 1996, will be completed in July 1999.

Ensuring Safe Water in Bosnia

In order to improve the water supply in Bosnia-Herzegovina, between 1995 and 1996, CARE Canada supplied the country with more than 50 mobile water purification units that were powered by solar energy. These units, which were Canadian made, allowed locals to purify water obtained from any source. This was necessary because the violent conflict in the area had destroyed underground infrastructure, and many water sources were cut off. Water that was available was not necessarily potable. The purification units were used in neighbourhoods, hospitals and community clinics, and some were set up by creeks and streams. This allowed people the opportunity to gather safe drinking water in areas where they would be relatively free from the risk of sniper fire, which was not the case with the limited number of existing safe water sources.

Assisting Areas Affected by Flooding

CIDA has provided emergency assistance to areas affected by floods in recent years: in Sakha Republic in northern Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. CIDA funding helped provide hygiene parcels, bed sheets, water filters, blankets, shelter materials, medical supplies, basic foodstuffs, and clothing to victims affected by the floods. This assistance was distributed by the Red Cross and local humanitarian agencies.

Voices from the Field

Reaching Out to the Elderly in Bosnia

During the violent conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, social networks broke down, families were split apart and civilians struggled just to survive. This meant that many of the elderly in Bosnia had to fend for themselves. For those who were frail, mentally ill, or in need of medical attention, coping during the war was an overwhelming life or death struggle.

With support from CIDA, CARE Canada reached out to the most vulnerable populations in Bosnia, including elderly and disabled persons and - in some cases - children. Through a project called REACH, a multidisciplinary team of professionals worked to provide elderly and disabled persons with food, clothing, medical attention, care-giving and counseling. Because the elderly often could not, or would not, leave their homes, workers went door to door to deliver services.

Nevin Orange, a program officer for CARE Canada, was in Bosnia working on the REACH project. As he explained, "During the war many elderly people were not able to leave their homes. They weren't mobile enough to go out. Or they were scared out of their wits, and didn't want to go out and risk being hurt."

Many of the members of the REACH team of nurses, doctors, caregivers and social workers who provided help to elderly people were Bosnians themselves. As Mr. Orange commented, "There is no lack of well-educated specialists in Eastern Europe." However, in addition to helping manage the REACH project, Canadians were also involved in directly delivering services.

People who were members of the support team did take on a risk to their own lives in delivering these services. However, as Mr. Orange stated, "When it means people are going to die, you will always find people - including Canadians - who will go on the front lines. These people were very brave." For the elderly people who received food and medicine, as well as comfort and counseling, their efforts made a crucial difference.

Now that the war in Bosnia is over, the REACH project is focusing on creating change at the social policy level in Bosnia. The project's focus is to work at the policy level to help develop local capacity to deliver social programs. As Mr. Orange says, "The social welfare system they had will never exist again." He adds that another alternative has to be worked out.

"We are bringing together policy makers, local decision makers, NGOs and international donors to turn over, as much as possible, what can be turned over to local capacity." CIDA funded the REACH project, which is still ongoing, from 1996 to 1999.

Providing Hope for Orphans in Ukraine

One of the legacy's of the Soviet system in Ukraine is that orphans living in institutions are segregated from mainstream society. They live in overcrowded institutions that are poorly supplied, and attend special schools that have lower standards. Moreover, Ukraine's severe economic problems have also meant that the needs of orphans have been unmet.

Since 1993, with some funding from CIDA, a Canadian voluntary organization, Help Us Help the Children (HUHTC), has been working to provide humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian orphans in the short term, and to help improve Ukraine's system of orphanages in the long term. Canadian and Ukrainian volunteers have delivered humanitarian assistance to more than 50,000 children in 200 orphanages throughout the Ukraine. This assistance includes primary medications, infant formula and other nutrient supplements, hygiene products, clothing, shoes, toys and educational materials.

HUHTC also organizes annual summer camps in the Carpathian Mountains, which are attended by more than 500 children each year. The camps aim to teach entrepreneurial and life skills to youth aged 12 to 17 to help ensure that they have resources to draw upon when they leave the orphanages.

Ruslana Wrezesnewskyj, a Canadian volunteer involved in HUHTC, says these camps mean a lot to the children. "You can see the results [of the project] in the kids' faces. They know us. They wait for us. It's a whole stimulus for them. They actually try to do better in school because they know that then they might be the ones chosen to go to camp."

In addition to meeting the basic human needs of orphans, HUHTC also focuses on strengthening the capacity of their Ukrainian partners. These efforts have resulted in the formation of a counterpart NGO in Ukraine, the Association of Orphanage Directors (which seeks to strengthen the capacity of orphanage directors); the involvement of Ukranian banks in supporting the project activities; and the initiation of fund-raising activities from Ukraine's public and private sectors.

HUHTC is also working on establishing 20 Centres of Excellence that would serve as model institutions for undertaking educational reform in orphanage schools. These Centres of Excellence will focus on child-centred learning and life skills development, which are new methodologies for alumni of the old Soviet system.

The ultimate goal of HUHTC's efforts is to ensure sustainability and to contribute to democratization and the building of a civil society in Ukraine. "Ukraine is trying to democratize after being under communist rule for 70 years," says Wrezesnewskyj. "So we are trying to show the best of how democracy works, and that addressing humanitarian needs is part of it."

She adds that she believes integrating orphans into mainstream society is crucial for Ukraine's development. "Every child who has changed represents hope for the future."

For More Information

For further information on CIDA's program for Central and Eastern Europe, please contact:

Canadian International Development Agency
Public Enquiries, Communications Branch
200 Promenade du Portage
Hull, Quebec
K1A 0G4

Tel.: (819) 997-5006
Toll-free: 1-800-230-6349
Fax: (819) 963-6088

Or consult CIDA's Web site:

This site is maintained by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)
=A9 Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, 1999