Exclusive interview of the Resident Representative of UNDP in Ukraine Dafina Gercheva with the Interfax-Ukraine

November 30, 2020

Photo credit: UNDP Ukraine

Originally published on 27 November 2020 at the website of Interfax Ukraine Information Agency

- A year ago, the president issued a decree on Ukraine’s sustainable development goals for the period up to 2030. How far has Ukraine come on the way to achieving these goals in the past year?

- The decree of the President of Ukraine on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which was issued in September 2019, is a very important milestone on Ukraine's path to the achievement of the 17 global sustainable development goals. UNDP and other sister agencies are actively supporting the Ukrainian government in setting national targets and indicators derived from the global ones, and advancing 2030 Agenda.

In 2017 UNDP assisted the development of a national SDGs baseline report, as well as regional baseline reports in  all 24 oblasts of Ukraine. This year we supported the preparation of the first Voluntary National Review of the progress made towards the achievement of the SDGs  in Ukraine. It was presented at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development under the auspices of ECOSOC (the United Nations Economic and Social Council), which was held in July 2020 in New York. The review notes that some progress has been made in 15 of the 17 goals. However, there are areas where there are gaps and set-backs, so there is a need to accelerate and intensify work to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

In general, Ukraine is making progress towards the ultimate objective of 2030 while trying to leave no one behind. However, there is still much to do. It’s important for UNDP and its development partners to continue to support the activities of the government of Ukraine, the private sector, and civil society, so that these goals are achieved as planned.

- How sincere is the desire of the Ukrainian government to move towards the realization of the global goals? Can we say that achieving the goals of sustainable development is a priority for Ukraine, regardless of who is running the country?

- As you know,  Agenda  2030 is the boldest manifesto that humanity has ever had. It gives us a sense of direction, an action plan to protect the people and the planet, and promote prosperity, peace and partnerships. Achieving these ambitious goals requires achieving and implementing at least five preconditions. The first is ultimately political will. I know that Ukraine has strong political will, a desire to move forward in this process of achieving the global goals. In addition, there is a need for strong, transparent, efficient and effective corruption-free institutions. It’s also important to provide human and financial resources, including both funding coming from official development assistance, as well as financing coming from Ukraine, but also outside Ukraine.

Another of the preconditions in question is the application of the whole-of-governance approach. Achieving these goals and advancing the Agenda 2030 requires breaking down sectoral silos and applying an integrated and holistic approach. And there is a need for a whole-of-a-society approach: It’s not just the state that should be responsible for achieving these goals – it is also the responsibility of civil society and the private sector. So collective and concerted efforts are required to achieve this ambitious goal.

-  A report was released in early September stating that "the pandemic is pushing the country into the worst recession in decades – perhaps even into a depression, with catastrophic consequences for the most vulnerable." How does the UN assess the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ukraine at a time when the number of patients has increased significantly? Which problems have worsened in Ukraine, and need to be solved the most urgently?

- The COVID-19 emergency is a global, deadly and multifaceted crisis. It has hit hard the foundations of human development, namely health, education and income. This is probably the most formidable challenge facing humanity since the Second World War. We know that the world will defeat the pandemic. We also know that we will be able to get out of this situation if we act together and in solidarity now.

After the crisis erupted in March, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asked UNDP to take a technical lead on assessing the socio-economic impact of COVID-19, as well as on the development of the response and recovery plan. We launched this process in Ukraine in May together with our sister agencies, international financial institutions, in particular the World Bank. We presented the results to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Ministers on 18 September this year.

I want to highlight three critical issues arising from this assessment. First of all, governance, human rights, access to justice and rule of law challenges are escalating. Secondly, inequalities are also deepening. Thirdly, unfortunately, we’re seeing an increase in domestic and gender-based violence.

Some of the key findings of the COVID-19 socio-economic assessment include: a sharp decline in consumption; GDP is falling. Many people have been laid off, and many became unemployed and do not have the same income as before.

Secondly, we see from the assessment that, unfortunately, by the end of this year more than 9 million people will fall back into the poverty trap.  The unemployment rate is rising. Since March, more than 4 million people have been registered as unemployed. However, we think that this figure is actually higher, because the share of the shadow economy in Ukraine is large. We also saw an increase in domestic and gender-based violence of more than 30 percent. This worries us a lot. These findings suggest that there is a need to take urgent actions, and we have recommended appropriate actions to the government.

First, efforts to strengthen the resilience of the healthcare system should continue to be supported. Second, there is a need to develop and implement evidence-based policies targeting marginalized and vulnerable populations. To this end, cash benefits, unemployment benefits and other measures, including the rapid expansion of the social safety net, should be provided. Third, there has to be a continuation of support for small- and medium-sized enterprises. Looking at the private sector – in particular small- and medium-sized businesses – more than 10 percent of these enterprises are already on the verge of bankruptcy and will soon go out of business. They need financial incentives and other guarantees of support so that they can continue their work. It’s also important to emphasize that in a time of crisis, such as now, there must be policies that lead to growth and employment. It’s important for us to follow this path and not deviate from it.

- How is the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian healthcare system coping with the COVID-19 challenge?

- Obviously, the healthcare system is now under a lot of pressure, and is reaching certain limits. The government is doing what it can to ensure that the system is provided with everything it needs, and that all the required support is provided to the people affected by the virus. But this is a very complex matter. On the one hand, all of the necessary measures are being taken. Ukraine’s development partners, working not only with the Ministry of Health, but the entire government, are providing financial and other resources, equipment, and helping the healthcare system to fight the crisis. However, it has to be said that there are many challenges and problems ahead of us. But we’re not stopping, we’re going to continue to provide this assistance and work with the health system at large, but also with the Ministry of Health. It’s worth noting that UNDP has been in partnership with the ministry since 2015, with the main task of our joint efforts being to strengthen the ministry's procurement capacity. In 2018, we formed a central procurement agency, have been strengthening its capacity, and have already prepared a strategy to hand over these functions from UNDP to the central procurement agency, so that it has everything necessary to procure medicines and medical devices, and so that it operates in line with anti-corruption practice.

- Is there any indication that there has been a setback in healthcare reform, or the halting of changes initiated by the previous government of Ukraine?

- In general, Ukraine's reform agenda is very ambitious. The transition and social transformation process is politically charged, takes time and could be painful. However, I want to say that there is a political will and determination at the government level. Despite all of the obstacles, they are moving these reforms forward. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis have revealed certain issues, leading to delays, and sometimes set-backs in these reforms – including healthcare reform. As we know, the second phase of healthcare reform was launched  in April this year, and we are hopeful that its implementation will be swift and smooth.  The most important thing today is for the government to be able to implement the COVID-19 emergency response plan that was developed with technical support provided by UNDP, other UN agencies, and development partners. We think this will pave the way to accelerating the implementation of the entire reform package, including healthcare reform.

- Very recently U.S. company Moderna stated that the effectiveness of their candidate vaccine against COVID-19 is 94.5 percent. BioNTech and Pfizer say their vaccines are more than 90 percent effective. What are your predictions for when the COVID-19 vaccine will actually be available, and, most importantly, when it will be available to Ukrainians, including the most vulnerable?

- This is a $1 million question. If I had a crystal ball, I could tell you right away, but I don't have one. As we know, there’s been some good news: we’ve learned that two vaccines are already quite successful, they are 95 or 96 percent effective against the virus. More than 100 other vaccine development programmes are underway, and some of these vaccines are already being clinically tested in humans. So I think there will definitely be an effective vaccine against COVID-19. However, there are many questions over who will have access to these vaccines, when there will be access to them in Ukraine, when Ukraine will be able to purchase these vaccines, and how Ukrainians will have access to them. So, there are some positive developments, but unfortunately, we can’t say anything concrete yet.

- In what other ways has the pandemic affected Ukraine? Journalists complain that using the excuse of the pandemic, they are being denied access to socially important information – court hearings, and so on. In what areas do you see the pandemic being used as an excuse in such a way?

- The pandemic has accelerated the existing trends in the economy and society, including the increasing use of technology, telework and automation. This will have lasting effect on how people live and work.

While technological advances are generally positive for societies over the long term, over the short-term they create disruption, and as the market is adjusting to the new normal the pain is not shared evenly.

In terms of access to information and digital transformation, the pandemic itself is a test of democracy and citizenship. While the COVID-19 emergency is posing complex and formidable challenges there are emerging opportunities that have to be seized, such as: (i) leapfrogging to a digital universe after the crisis and (ii) transitioning to a green economy.  

Although I have said that digital transformation is a positive development, there are people who could be left behind. These are people who do not have the proper skills to use digital technologies, people who are not literate in their use. So we have to remember that this process must be properly governed and managed.

At the end of last year, we conducted a study of the level of digital literacy of Ukrainian citizens. It showed that more than 53 percent of respondents have a  digital literacy below the baseline, while 15 percent have no digital skills at all. You can imagine what this situation means for these people. If we translated all government services online, there would be a lot people who would be left out.

Returning to your question, access to information is a basic human right, so I don’t know why journalists might be denied access to public hearings or other events. There are various digital platforms – they can also be used by journalists who want to have access to information, to inform the public and influence public opinion. I don't think a pandemic should be an obstacle to you to attend, for instance, courtroom hearings or other such events.

- Micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises have suffered significant losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How would you rate the help given to them during the crisis, and what should be done?

- Providing tools to help, and providing financial stimulus to entrepreneurs, especially those working in small- and medium-sized enterprises – that’s one of the required responses to the situation. The government is already working on this. But in fact there’s a very fine line between adhering to the coronavirus response protocol (quarantine, restrictive measures), while ensuring the proper functioning of the economy. After all, a complete quarantine would do more harm to the economy and the country as a whole than it would do to protect the population. A balance needs to be found, and such a balance needs to be based on a detailed analysis and assessment of the situation. I know that small- and medium-sized businesses are very dissatisfied with the situation. But if we look at the epidemiological situation in the country and the rapid growth in the number of people with coronavirus disease, we need to be very careful in how we act. It’s also necessary to ensure that all measures to prevent the disease are actually implemented, including wearing masks, personal hygiene, social distancing and other measures. Yes, this is a difficult decision and a trade-off, and even if businesses are not closed, it’s still difficult for them to work under such conditions.

- Currently in Ukraine there is a crisis caused by a decision of the Constitutional Court In your opinion, what does this situation show, and how threatening is it for Ukraine and our cooperation with our Western partners?

- We, like other development partners, are very concerned about the decision of the Constitutional Court, which declared invalid certain provisions of anti-corruption legislation and declared them unconstitutional. The current situation surrounding this decision is very complicated and comprises a number of important dimensions. On the one hand,  the independence of the court and the separation of powers shows that Ukraine is a vibrant democracy and continues to adhere to its fundamental and sacrosanct values. On the other hand, there are many questions about both the basis and implications of this decision, as well as about the dispute resolution mechanisms currently available to resolve the apparent impasse. The decision of the Constitutional Court could significantly affect the efforts that Ukraine has already made to become a modern, democratic, prosperous country. Ukraine has already made a number of commitments to eradicate corruption, and such commitments must be met in order for its development partners, including the EU, the IMF and other development partners, to continue to provide the support that the country needs. So there’s a lot at stake here, but we’re convinced that wisdom and prudence will prevail, and there will be soon  a well-considered resolution of this issue.

- What prevents the Ukrainian authorities from starting full judicial reform?

- I wouldn’t say that there are any major obstacles preventing the government from implementing judicial reform. However, based on my own experience (I’ve worked in almost all of the countries in our region over the last 28 years), I can say that these are painful processes, and the transition from a centralized planned economy to a market economy and democracy takes time. The two most complex and difficult reforms are justice sector and healthcare. There’s a lot at stake here, there are vested interests. The successful implementation of these reforms affects many other factors. For these reforms to be successful, comprehensive support and active engagement of stakeholders and all sectors is required. That’s not easy, but you still need to keep working on it. The government must fulfil its obligations to the citizens of Ukraine and still make progress in these reforms, although it is a complex process.

- The European Union and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Ukraine have launched the School of Local Economic Development in eastern Ukraine. Please tell us more about this initiative.

- This is an initiative that was launched relatively recently as part of a broader Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme, which is supported by 13 development partners. The largest of these partners is the EU. The programme is implemented by four UN agencies, and UNDP is leading this comprehensive and impactful programme.

The school of local economic development covers 19 communities in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, and we have already started working with them. The aim of this school is to strengthen the capacity of local authorities and the local communities,  civil society organization and local businesses to plan their budgets properly, taking into account gender equality, and to mobilize resource for the implementation of development projects, which will address local challenges and meet the needs of local communities.   We plan to hold a conference to mark the completion of this school in May next year in Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk.

- A poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology with the support of UNDP in Ukraine and in cooperation with the ZMINA Human Rights Centre showed that 53 percent of Ukrainians were in favour of restoring transport links and full-fledged connections with the populations of the territories not under the control of the Ukrainian government. What is UNDP’s position on this? Is it the time for this now?

- The conflict, which has been going on in eastern Ukraine for seven years, affects the lives and livelihoods of 3.5 million people on both sides of the “contact line” every day. We do not yet see a final solution to the conflict, which is a protracted armed conflict, not a frozen one.  This conflict has changed people's lives, raptured social fabric, destroyed roads and other infrastructure, disrupted the local economy and service delivery. Families and communities are now separated, and friends do not keep in touch, so this conflict has caused a lot of damage and has devastated the lives of people on both sides of the conflict line. I leave the politics of conflict resolution to others, but what I care about – and what UNDP strives for on a daily basis – is to respond to the impact of the conflict: to repair the social fabric, to build forward better and greener, to recover, restore, repair and reconcile. This applies to infrastructure, jobs and the economy, and to people-to-people relations. All of this requires connectivity and cooperation. So we believe that bridges should be built and connections between people should be restored. However, it must be emphasized that a long-term solution to peace-building is impossible without ensuring that the government communicates with the people, people keep in touch with each other, and that the systems are interconnected. I mean water supply, environmental protection, healthcare, social protection and so on.

I’m convinced that it really is very important to start building bridges and thinking about how we can unite people, so that we can reconcile them as soon as possible and resolve the conflict.

- You have probably heard about the "Action Plan" proposed by the Ukrainian delegation to the Tripartite Contact Group, and a poll initiated by the president, in which one of the questions was on support for the idea of creating a free economic zone in the Donbas. What is UNDP’s position on such initiatives?

We welcome the government’s reintegration initiatives: revitalizing local economies has proven to be very important in restoring the economy and social fabric in conflict-affected countries around the world. The conflict has severely affected Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, resulting in bleak economic prospects, job losses, migration, poverty and social exclusion. UNDP stands ready to continue boosting local economy, strengthening social cohesion, and supporting peacebuilding efforts.

Free economic zones have been successfully used as an instrument to galvanize and intensify economies. The rationale behind this approach is to attract investors and generate employment. The new jobs will contribute towards poverty reduction, rapid and sustainable economic development, enhanced resilience and increased prosperity. Eventually, such a zone may trigger a structural transformation, which is so much needed to move up the value chain. There are many areas where investment is lacking. Therefore, this initiative would be able to solve this problem and offer new opportunities to local entrepreneurs, local communities, as well as social service providers, who today labour against outdated infrastructure and a lack of financial resources to reach everyone in these regions and meet their needs.

- What do you think the conditions for the free economic zone in Donbas should be for it to work? In general, how realistic is the implementation of this project?

- I think it's quite realistic. I also believe that this is a very necessary, very timely initiative. Indeed, there’s also a need to put in place the preconditions for its implementation. I’m referring, in particular, to the need for full transparency and accountability when it comes to attraction and allocation of foreign direct or domestic investments.

Public authorities should be able to work effectively on the ground, upholding  the rule of law, protecting human rights, ensuring access to justice and information, and addressing the needs of local communities. 

- The Ukrainian government is considering the possibility of introducing a mediation mission to the Donbas. However, this is probably impossible without Russia's consent in the UN Security Council. A possible change in the format of work of the UN Security Council has been discussed. Is this issue still relevant, and how realistic is the involvement of peacekeepers?

- As you know, the political resolution of the armed  conflict in eastern Ukraine takes place within the OSCE-led Minsk process, and at the political level, in the Normandy format  (Between Ukraine, France, Germany and Russia).

The UN is not a party to either of these, but it remains very much concerned with the impact of the conflict, and continues to lead on humanitarian, recovery, development and peacebuilding efforts.

Over the past few years, there have been numerous ideas voiced by various officials, experts and others, some calling for a UN-led peacekeeping mission, others calling for a UN Interim Administration, and others still calling for an OSCE police mission. At the end of the day, the only viable solution for any meaningful conflict resolution and stabilization mission is one based on the consensus of all parties, and supported by genuine will on all sides.

- The Joint Forces Operation continues to report cases of civilians being killed and injured by landmines. In the spring, the United Nations Development Program in Ukraine (within the framework of the United Nations Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme, co-funded by the Government of Canada), launched a new project in eastern Ukraine to increase national demining capacity in Ukraine. What are the project’s results and achievements?

- This is another fairly new initiative that was launched recently. It is funded by the Government of Canada and is part of the broader Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme. Unfortunately, Ukraine is one of the most landmine-contaminated countries in the world and has become one of the countries most affected by anti-vehicle mine incidents. The presence or suspected presence of landmines, booby-traps, anti-vehicle mines, cluster munitions, or any number of other  explosive remnants of war (ERWs) adversely impact civilians’ lives, restricting agriculture and disrupting essential infrastructure and services in many parts of eastern Ukraine.    

The Verkhovna Rada passed a law on Mine Action in December 2018, and in June 2020  a new law on simplifying the work of all mine action operators was adopted.

The Mine Action project has a threefold objective: (i) to strengthen the capacity of the Government of Ukraine for planning and implementing gender responsive mine action; (ii) procure state of the art specialized demining equipment for the Mine Action Operators; and (iii) raise awareness and sensitise all stakeholders about the importance of prevention and protection.

It is too early to talk about the results, but in a year, perhaps even less, we will be able to provide you with concrete achievements.

- At the moment, while the most acute problem in Ukraine is the COVID-19 pandemic, what reforms should the Ukrainian government be keeping in its sights?

- I strongly believe that the government, with the support provided by development partners, should intensify its  efforts towards strengthening the resilience of the health system, enhancing governance and improving social compact, expanding social protection system and social safety nets; proving income generation opportunities for vulnerable groups and small businesses who have lost their livelihoods; adopting policies that are conducive for growth and employment; transitioning to a digital and green economy. Suppressing the pandemic and stimulating the economy are two sides of the same coin. The spread of the disease should be prevented while economy should recover forward better, fairer and greener. 

- What are the further plans of UNDP in Ukraine in the near future?

- When the pandemic hit Ukraine, we were one of the first organizations to provide an integrated, comprehensive, gender-sensitive and human rights focused response.

Within the framework of our first proposal we further strengthened the resilience of the health system (including through the procurement of Personal Protective Equipment for health facilities in eastern Ukraine); enhanced the capacity of the government for effective and efficient crisis management and coordination (we supported the establishment of two Crisis Coordination Units in the Cabinet of Ministers under the auspices of the Prime Minister and in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Currently, there are similar initiatives at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Ministry of Ecology). We also led the UN-wide COVID-19 Socio-Economic Impact Assessment and the development of the Response Plan.    

As the pandemic unfolded our service offer evolved.

UNDP’s new response package 2.0 is aimed at strengthening the capacity of the government to manage complexities around four main areas: (i) governance and the social compact; (ii) social protection; (iii) digital transformation; and (iv) the green economy. We are partnering with the Ministry of Digital Transformation and Sweden on the implementation of the recently approve Digital Strategy for Ukraine.

Overall, we are providing impactful, targeted and strategic support to the implementation of the reforms in Ukraine and towards the country’s transformation into a modern and prosperous state.