A Ukrainian evolution: from civil society organization to think-tank

August 11, 2021

Yurii Romashko, CEO of Institute of Analysis & Advocacy and Generation 17 participant. Photo: UNDP Ukraine

Arriving for a routine medical check-up, Yurii Romashko was told that before receiving medical care, one had to make a contribution to the hospital’s charity fund. He was suspicious.

“Medical services were supposed to be free,” he says. “They wanted cash, there were no receipts, no reporting system. As a lawyer by education, I clearly understood that something was wrong here. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.”

It was 2013. He and a friend started looking into it. Turns out it was not isolated to this hospital but in every region of the country, clearly a systemic issue.

“We did countrywide research, and analysed how this 'corruption' scheme worked. Together with journalists, we tried to figure the amount of money the hospital could have been getting, but didn’t.”

Corruption has been a recurring issue in Ukraine, especially before the Maidan protest in 2013-2014. In this particular case, most people understood the health foundation donations were a corruption scheme but didn’t want to touch it.

There were risks, they received threats  - unknown people calling to tell them to stop or it would be bad. “That also made us know we were on the right track,” he remembers.

Yurii and the IAA team in 2018. Photo: UNDP Ukraine

After their years of research and an effective advocacy campaign, activists managed to smash the corrupt informal payments scheme, and the Ministry of Health issued an order outlining reporting standards in this area.

This was just a starting point for Yurii and his team’s interest in data analysis and digital solutions. Encouragement and support in their analysis work and policy outcomes pushed them to start the Institute of Analysis & Advocacy (IAA).

IAA began to position itself as a think tank that helps governments make more effective decisions, particularly in policy development and implementation. The team conducts research into public finances, the health sector, public procurement and other areas.

Yurii, now 28, a lawyer and CEO of the Institute, has overseen the expansion of their work covering Eastern Europe and Central Asia. "We don’t just put our recommendations on the table, but also advocate for them directly,” he says. “As we kept working on this, we realized that digital tools work the best. They ensure high transparency for the simple reason that automated processes cannot be easily manipulated.”

Among their digital initiatives are a public procurement system in Poltava Oblast; the development, together with the All-Ukrainian Network “100 % Life” and TI Ukraine, of a price module to compare medical procurement costs; and the development of the liky.ua service, where one can check the availability of medical items purchased with budget funds – from drugs to facemasks. The team is now working on a project related to road haulage and minimizing corruption risks through digitalization.

“We also created an e-Poltava solution for Poltava city, based on the smart city concept, and we plan to scale it up,” Yurii adds. The solution includes a mobile application for city residents and tourists, e-offices for utilities and a city management portal administered by specialists from the Poltava City Council's Response Department.

“The methodology is the same, we just go into new spheres and involve experts in that area,” he says. They develop a proposal and ideas for solutions, which they discuss with the relevant partners and governments.

Yurii at the Open Government Partnerships summit in Paris, 2016. Photo: personal archive

Yurii Romashko at the office of IAA. Photo: UNDP Ukraine

Among the team’s achievements is also the establishment of the Budget Advocacy School – a platform for strengthening institutional capacity in analytics for organizations working in budget advocacy.

When the pandemic hit, Yurii's team created a public dashboard for monitoring changes in retail prices for goods of high social value and those with anti-epidemic purposes. The team also started monitoring data related to international aid and loans allocated to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“This issue has long been relevant, since emergency assistance from the countries comes quickly, and accountability is not always guaranteed for all parties involved,” says Yurii.

The team also cooperates with Central Asian countries on some digital solutions.

IAA has been an active part of implementing the transition of Ukraine’s public health system from donor funding, provided by the Global Fund, to public funding. They provided legal and analytical support and consultations in the process. The solutions are not only applicable to Ukraine, but also Central Asian countries. “This experience has proved to be useful for other countries where the situation is almost identical,” Yurii notes.

From regional to global stage

In 2021, Yurii was selected as one of four participants in the Generation17 programme, a partnership between Samsung Global and UNDP that enables young leaders working on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to reach a global audience, interact with those from different countries, and improve cooperation and action.

Already working on solutions to social challenges in their countries, this helps them strengthen and scale up their activities and provides a network for communication and exchange.

During their first online meeting, Yurii was inspired by Yejin Choi’s (Korea) idea to develop a mobile application for children with disabilities. “They’ve developed a complex software solution and architecture, filling it with social content,” he says. “I hope that we’ll learn more and see how it can be adapted for Ukraine.”

Yurii's team will focus on three priority SDGs for their changemaking efforts.

 “The story of how our organization started its activities fits perfectly with [Goal 3: Good health and well-being]!,” he says. “Then there is Goal 9, related to infrastructure development and innovation – we’re now involved in a major road haulage project – and the broader Goal 16, Peace and justice, which encompasses many components of our work.”

Yurii is mainly motivated by two things – change, and the people who drive change. “It really inspires me when I see that our work has brought some practical benefits – when you can see a concrete result for the authorities, citizens or business.”

“Why is it cool?,” Yurii asks. “Among other things, it’s a great opportunity to tell people more about Ukraine and our experience implementing the SDGs – to scale up our digital solutions and adapt the solutions of foreign colleagues that may be relevant in Ukraine.”

Yurii never expected to be in this position: “I always thought I would be a lawyer, but when I started doing this, I don’t know, I just feel myself on my way. I understand it’s what I want to do. And now it drives me.”

His success is noted. IAA has been ranked among the top-100 think tanks in Central and Eastern Europe the last three years. With this new opportunity, it has the potential to be even more impactful.

Read an interview with Yurii on the Samsung Mobile site.