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Donated clothes help in Ukraine. But there's one thing aid experts like better

Nastia Stefanovich, a volunteer at the distribution center in Lviv for goods donated for Ukrainians in need, points out the piles of clothes that have been arriving.
Jason Beaubien/NPR
Nastia Stefanovich, a volunteer at the distribution center in Lviv for goods donated for Ukrainians in need, points out the piles of clothes that have been arriving.

In downtown Lviv, a massive arts complex is now an aid distribution hub.

In the theater, women sort boxes of socks, with each box resting atop a plush velvet seat. In the basement, nursing students divvy up medicines. Elsewhere, volunteers parcel out pallets of dry food into small bundles of groceries for displaced families. An art gallery on the second floor bursts with thousands of bags of donated clothes.

But there's a problem with these donated goods — and there's a different way to help the displaced Ukrainians that aid groups are planning to try: cash handouts.

It's not that the clothing donations have no role in such aid efforts. Nastia Stefanovich, a volunteer at the distribution center, stands in front of a pile of white grain bags reaching to the ceiling. "This is all clothes for children ages zero to 1," she says, pointing to one of the various mounds of donations.

But there is an imbalance in what's arriving at the bazaar and exactly what's needed. Joking that Ukraine has become the secondhand clothing bazaar for all of Europe, Stefanovich says they receive lots of children's clothes but not enough shoes and sneakers for adults. She also says they get very little that they can forward to soldiers on the front lines.

The coordinator of the aid distribution center, Tetyana Kostorna, says many people have been incredibly generous to Ukraine, but other people are just getting rid of their worn-out clothes. Some of the donations are junk, she says, that volunteers must throw away or send to a dog shelter to be used as bedding.

"I understand you want to help, but you have to respect us," Kostorna says. "Respect the people who lost everything."

Junk aside, Kostorna is grateful for the many donations she says are useful. After sorting them, she says, the center is able to provide staple food baskets and clothes to roughly 500 families per day.

But such physical donations can be cumbersome and time-intensive to deliver, says the Ukraine representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Karolina Lindholm Billing. That's why the U.N. refugee agency and a coalition of aid groups are ramping up a program to instead give cash directly to displaced Ukrainians.

"UNHCR is planning to disburse unconditional cash grants to at least 360,000 internally displaced persons," Billing says. The United Nations estimates that nearly 6.5 million Ukrainians-- out of a population of 43.7 million — are internally displaced.

The program will start by distributing funds through the Ukrainian postal service. Families will be able to get 2,220 Ukrainian hryvnia, or roughly $75, per person per month at any branch of the post office regardless of where they find themselves in the country. This is not even enough money to lift someone above the poverty line or to rent an apartment in most parts of Ukraine, but aid groups say it will help tide people over temporarily. The assistance will be available for at least the next three months. UNHCR is involved in similar programs that are being launched to distribute the funds to refugees in Poland and Moldova. The programs in those countries disburse the money on ATM cards instead of over-the-counter as at the post office. Billing says in a war zone, it's much easier to transfer cash than to move truckloads of food, diapers and clothes.

Women sort donated socks in a theater now being used as an aid distribution hub in downtown Lviv, Ukraine.
/ Jason Beaubien/NPR
Jason Beaubien/NPR
Women sort donated socks in a theater now being used as an aid distribution hub in downtown Lviv, Ukraine.

Cash is also more dignified and often more useful for recipients, Billing says. "It's better that people get the cash and can buy what they want," she says. They might prefer pasta to rice, she says, or be used to cooking with canola oil instead of olive oil. Getting cash, she says, makes more sense than getting a package with half of the things they want and half that they would not have chosen.

UNHCR and other aid groups, including the International Organization for Migration and Mercy Corps, are starting to enroll people in this cash distribution program. They hope to start disbursements in the coming days. In Poland, several separate pilot programs have started offering cash directly to refugees.

Globally, humanitarian groups are coming to recognize that cash aid makes a lot of sense in some disasters. Wojtek Wilk, the head of the Polish Center for International Aid, says the Ukraine crisis is one of them.

"Using cash assistance in the drought-affected area in Africa when there is no food wouldn't probably make any sense," Wilk says, but in Poland, there's plenty of food on the supermarket shelves. The banking system is functioning. The influx of cash also helps rather than undercuts local merchants. Some people worry that cash is more likely to lead to scams or corruption or misuse of the funds. But Wilk says any fraud can be contained.

Wilk says the goal in Poland is to only use cash payments for a few months to help refugees get settled. The long-term plan is to enroll Ukrainian refugees in the Polish social security system. This would allow them to work legally for up to 18 months and get access to unemployment, housing and other benefits.

The biggest challenge for the cash aid program, Wilk says, will be to get enough international donors to fund it, especially given that millions of Ukrainians could potentially need this support.

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Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.