Justin Derbyshire: Q&A on Ukraine | News and blogs

March 2022

Justin Derbyshire, CEO of HelpAge International

HelpAge International’s CEO, Justin Derbyshire, played a key role in setting up the organisation’s humanitarian response in eastern Ukraine in 2014 as program manager. HelpAge International is one of the few INGOs operating in the country since then, working with a network of partners and volunteers to support nearly 5,000 older people living near the contact line between government-controlled and non-government areas. governmental.

Nearly a third of those affected since 2014 are over the age of 60, making it the “oldest” humanitarian crisis in the world. Here he tells us about the organization’s work in Ukraine, memories of his visits there and what needs to happen now.


What struck you during your visit to Ukraine?

I last visited Ukraine in 2016 and what was really clear, especially in the rural areas, was that most of the people around me in the villages were older.

Isolation was a big problem. Migration for jobs to bigger cities like kyiv or to France, Germany or Poland meant that older people were left to fend for themselves.


How was life for older people in Ukraine?

We work near the “contact line” where life was tough. People living across the line in areas not controlled by the rebels were isolated and unable to access the services they depended on, including health care and pensions.

This meant that people regularly crossed the line to get what they needed. It was not easy, with shelling in both areas. Each trip could take up to eight hours due to the processes involved.

We have set up a soup kitchen to welcome people when they arrive. We weren’t allowed to count numbers, so we handed out cups of different colors depending on whether it was older men, older women, or younger people. We then counted the cups that were left at the end of the day. This is how we know that we feed between 500 and 1,000 people every day.


What has HelpAge International done to help older people there?

We lobbied for easier access to income and health care, and to provide support for their physical and mental health.

Access to their pensions provided them with a basic income allowing them to feed and heat themselves.

Along with health care, we helped with assistive devices like canes and frames and getting medicine and other basic necessities so they could be as healthy and mobile as possible.

We also set up a network where older people were regularly contacted by telephone and old people’s groups were created. People who needed to be displaced, who were housebound or who had little contact with family could meet three times a week to chat, sing, do things – whatever they found useful.


What is your fondest memory?

When I visited senior group meetings, I would sit in a corner and watch and listen. Invariably, they gathered around a piano and sang traditional songs. Hearing the passion in their voices and seeing them come together in such a beautiful way, despite everything, was very special.


How do you feel about what’s happening now?

I am angry that the world did not react sooner to what was happening in Ukraine. It’s as if people almost see it as collateral damage to geopolitics. In 2014, Russia occupied and controlled part of Ukraine, killing thousands; in 2015, Russian soldiers shot down an airliner. But nothing happened.

A population has been invaded. And Europe and the United States did not react at all. It made it seem like it was okay and it undoubtedly led to the change we see now.


What are your main thoughts now as HelpAge responds to new challenges?

We think first of all of the people we meet and their safety.

In our planning, the safety of our incredible staff and volunteers in Ukraine and the region is our priority.

What is happening shows why peace must go hand in hand with development. Conflict destroys progress. It destroys homes, health care, education and everything that has been put in place. And, perhaps less visible but so important, it’s people’s physical and mental health that is really being harmed.


What is HelpAge International’s emergency response?

The Ukrainian people are incredibly resilient, but the level of violence they are experiencing is hard to imagine.

Our priorities are to continue to push to end the conflict and bring the essentials to the people. If we can make sure they have access to money, they can decide for themselves what they need most and help local economies work.

We must then support the rebuilding of this beautiful country, communities, homes and hospitals – and rebuild people by providing mental health support.


What should international actors do?

The Ukrainian crisis reveals a number of shortcomings and challenges.

Globally, humanitarian funding has been unable to meet growing needs due to the number of man-made conflicts and natural disasters. Ukraine has been overshadowed and completely underfunded. Last year, Ukraine was the second least reported humanitarian crisis in the world, according to Care International.

For too long, the needs of older people have been ignored by international agencies and governments. In Ukraine, despite being called the “oldest” humanitarian crisis, specific needs were rarely reported, let alone taken into account.

We see this over and over again. Even with Covid-19, it was outrageous that the first two UN reports on the pandemic failed to highlight older people as a vulnerable group when this was glaringly obvious to everyone, wherever they were. are found in the world. This is systemic ageism and an example of the ability of the global system to meet the specific needs of older people.

The lack of data does not help. In some regions, data on older people is not even collected. Where it is, everyone 60 and over is grouped together as if the needs of a 60-year-old were the same as those of an 80-year-old.

All of this must be taken into account so that humanitarian responses are truly inclusive and that older people are not forgotten.

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