Uprooted by conflict in Ukraine, one middle-class family’s isolating struggle
Workers solder metal at a UNDP-supported factory in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine. The violence there eliminated 1 million jobs within two years. Photo: Mackenzie Coursin-Knowles/UNDP

Working in the midst of conflict always feels like an uphill battle. But it also presents opportunities for doing development differently. That’s the spirit of the new Strategic Plan, says UNDP Country Director Janthomas Hiemstra. 

The violence in eastern Ukraine has caused total disruption, killing 10,000 people and displacing a further 1.6 million. But it has also struck the heart of the Ukrainian economy, eliminating one million jobs by the Spring of 2016, and reducing bridges, factories and clinics to rubble, with recovery costs at that time estimated at US$1.5 billion.

The deepest scars are societal. I have met hundreds of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who speak of isolation and sorrow, many of them far from their relatives across the contact line, which separates areas controlled by the government from those that aren’t. For the Ukrainian populations that have welcomed IDPs with exemplary hospitality, this has also meant sharing schools or clinics, and co-existing with strangers.

Doing development in such circumstances presents unique difficulties. The violence can flare up at any point, businesses have to start anew after months of hard work, while the availability of basic supplies – like water or bread – is unpredictable particularly close to the contact line on both sides. Situations like these require different types of actions that build resilience, while addressing urgent needs through a mix of short- and long-term activities.

Still, while the conflict was a severe shock for Ukraine, we quickly understood that many of the problems in eastern part of the country weren’t entirely new. Long before the fighting, heavy mining and steel industries had begun a long-standing decline, resulting in lower productivity and unemployment. Further, local governments weren’t equipped, or at times too corrupt, to provide adequate services even in times of peace.

A new way of doing business

For us at UNDP, the question wasn’t just how to carry on in the midst of a crisis. It was how to use the situation as a springboard for change. We would attempt to rethink the way partners work with each other, try out new ways of involving citizens, and help the government to modernize, all the way down to the hromada (municipal) and community level.

With that in mind, our recovery and peacebuilding programme set out to help restore critical infrastructure and social services, boost the economy and promote resilience and peace-building in five conflict-affected regions, known as Oblasts.

We took the bold step of deploying a strong team of 70 staff in the East - as close as possible to the contact line. That in itself took months of extremely hard work because we didn’t have that staff. Now, our women and men are working directly with IDPs, host communities, local and regional governments and crucially, provide a security umbrella for international donors and dignitaries. We now serve as trusted and neutral advisers in the most difficult areas, straddling recovery and development efforts.

In the east, we initially had no other agencies to partner with. Over time, we created a platform that is bringing together 12 donors, together with UN WOMEN, FAO, UNFPA and UNDP, businesses, social impact investors and our national counterparts. We run one programme, have one work plan, one monitoring and evaluation system and we meet twice a year in the eastern cities of Kramatorsk or Severodonetsk. This year, we have begun to hand this platform over to the government.

Investing in the future

Thanks to our presence on the ground, we have mobilized fresh new funding, having put into place transparent procurement and contracting modalities. In December 2016, the European Investment Bank (EIB) facilitated $200 million in loan funding for projects which UNDP is screening and monitoring. Hospitals, schools and power stations are being repaired.

In one sub-project that received Japanese funding, a shelled water facility has been entirely fixed. It now distributes running water to 3.5 million people.

It’s local administrations that are now leading this type of work and our role is to help them modernize, under the umbrella of Ukraine’s decentralization reform. We’re helping to put into place leaner and more responsive local administrations, and legal support units to help IDPs claim social benefits as they cross the contact line. With support from Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands, we’ve also set up local offices that listen to grievances and solve issues practically.

Finally, we launched a vast employment programme designed to inspire people from war-affected areas, many of whom worked all their life in mines and factories, to become entrepreneurs. We’re now working with hundreds of companies, using crowd-funding and other modern techniques, to help them design solutions that benefit everyone.

Reaping the rewards

It’s incredibly rewarding to meet the people who are part of the transformation we’ve kicked into motion. Last week I met one of many farmers, Olga Popova, who lost hundreds of sheep and pigs when her village was shelled. Sadly, I learned Olga’s grandson died when his tractor hit an antitank mine. She was able to claim reparation and is replenishing her stocks, so she’s now able to cope a little bit better with the situation.

But it’s people like Vadym Lyubchenko who give me the most reason to be hopeful. Vadym repairs potholes in Severodonetsk, Luhansk. Together with a team of four workers, and with a little bit of our support, he bought a machine to heat asphalt using infrared technology and is increasing the size of his team and pace. He’s doing business and doing good at the same time.


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