Opinion: Aid efforts for recovery must put Ukraine in driver seat

As the Ukraine Recovery Conference, hosted jointly by the United Kingdom and Ukraine, kicks off today in London, we have five core recommendations for how to ensure the most effective, localized, and transparent use of aid in the reconstruction of the country.
Bohdan Ferens
Founder of SD Platform, c.p.sc.,
Institute of Democracy and Social Progress
Yannick du Pont
Founder and CEO
of the Dutch organization SPARK
As always, politics dictates the who, when, where, and how of humanitarian and development work. The Russian invasion of Ukraine on Europe's borders has led to a remarkable and admirable outpouring of support to Ukraine from governments around the world, to the tune of $165 billion and counting. Yet, despite more than €50 billion ($54.6 billion) pledged by the European Union, its member states and European financial institutions, a relatively small percentage is assigned to humanitarian aid, and we've seen a smaller slice designated to long-term recovery and rebuilding.

As quickly as it began, Russia's invasion of Ukraine could come to an abrupt halt or drag on for many more years. The international community risks being as unprepared for the war to end as we were for it to start.
Collectively, we have over 45 years experience within international and Ukrainian development. We've witnessed the flaws of the international aid infrastructure over the years, which can entangle countries into sliding pitfalls. A glaring example is the experience of seeing how some aid operations following the Bosnian war in the mid-1990s were designed abroad and the proportion of funding on some contracts reaching the country itself would at times be under 20% of the budget.

In July 2022, the Ukrainian government launched its National Recovery Plan detailing a pathway to rebuilding the economy once the war is over. Such a comprehensive and future-forward plan generated by a nation at war is almost unparalleled. Ukraine's preparedness presents an opportunity.
As the destruction caused by Russian bombing continues to escalate every day, it is likely that this document will require updates. Nevertheless, negotiations and agreements with Ukraine's allies are also ongoing, and the key is to rewrite international aid infrastructure for sustainable, long-term development, while remedying the unkept promises on localization — i.e., giving decision power to Ukrainian groups.

After the start of the full-scale invasion, we saw how Ukrainian key state authorities managed to quickly reorient themselves and respond to the emerging challenges. This was possible thanks to effective coordination, well-established digital support, and the dedication of civil servants at various levels. The country's robust nonprofit sectors, too, make it an excellent poster child for putting localization principles into practice.

For this to be accomplished, Ukraine and its international partners must design an aid infrastructure that ensures accountability to donors and puts Ukraine in the driver's seat of its own postwar reconstruction.

So, how to make sure that this time we get it right?
Clear coordination, publicity, and competitiveness

Ukraine must ensure a central aid coordination institution that has the proper experience, capacity and uniform methodology to map all inflows of aid, track progress in spending and impact, as well as calculate the value for money on all aid received.

This process will require strong political support from both Brussels and Kyiv, especially when external and internal vested financial interests clash with the country's general development objectives. We experienced a positive example of this with Turkey's Office of the Vice President, which would hold all large aid organizations accountable for progress on delivering aid to the Syrian community in regular progress meetings.

With Ukraine, the EU's new Multi-agency Donor Coordination Platform in Brussels has to resist attempts to predetermine European implementing agencies and promise a competitive process where the best plans that sport the best value for money are transparently selected and published. The Ukrainian government could organize progress meetings, holding all of us accountable and report on results attained and value for money.
Avoid tied aid

To guard against political backdoor aid deals that tend to benefit larger, well-connected — i.e., state and INGO — aid implementing agencies, now is the time to promote transparent bidding for aid reconstruction contracts while ensuring Ukrainian entities take a pole position.

Transparency is the best medicine in promoting this, by publishing all opportunities and processes that lead to awards and avoiding unofficial negotiations around implementation contracts where possible. By ensuring that value for money on propositions can be calculated and compared, the best deals for Ukraine can be selected. Strong Ukrainian involvement must be a condition for any program design.
Define aid standards

By providing strong and autonomous roles to Ukrainian civil society organizations and business alliances, sustainable development programs can be locally led, monitored, and meet the needs of the most vulnerable communities.

For this, international aid must define program design standards and demand all parties to demonstrate full and transparent partnerships with domestic institutions.
Value for money

Postwar reconstruction often prioritizes speedy delivery over social concerns and meaningful co-creation with affected communities. This can lead to traditional development professionals missing important social objectives and result in poor value for money. To avoid this, reconstruction initiatives should prioritize both quantitative targets for value for money and soft targets for social objectives, while supporting vulnerable groups such as people who are internally displaced, women and girls, youth, and veterans.

By proactively enhancing domestic organizations' and communities' initiatives, reconstruction efforts will be more inclusive and effective. For this, they must be given equal opportunity in transparent awarding processes.
Avoid corruption

Corruption is not only a domestic affair. In some of the largest aid corruption scandals, international participants were deeply involved. Mechanisms to pursue these must likewise be taken.

While it is clearly important that governments have assurances that their public spending does not dissipate in the hands of kleptocrats, equal attention should be paid in keeping both domestic and international corruption risks in check. Many other postwar reconstruction efforts demonstrate that corruption leads to inefficient development spending and loss of trust.

It is crucial for the Ukrainian government to be able to guarantee the effectiveness of anti-corruption agencies, law enforcement, and the judiciary. Digitized government services and its strong IT sector make it all the more possible to ensure transparency of development financing.

Plus, the country's strong media and civil society can be given specific roles to research, control and publish findings about the efficacy of reconstruction efforts. Evidence to date is promising with clear action being taken on several incidents, as well as the newly established Agency for Reconstruction and Development, headed by Deputy Minister of Infrastructure Mustafa Nayem.
Why we must act now

These principles can ensure that Ukraine's aid infrastructure avoids the short-sighted, repetitive cycle of unplanned and unregulated international aid that caters to vested financial and political interests, rather than the communities they aim to serve.

Time could still be on our side if we not only prepare for postwar reconstruction but also start implementing it now. Despite the fact that active hostilities are still ongoing and intensifying, economic activity and reconstruction of Ukraine's critical infrastructure needs to happen now and offer maximum social protection to those who have suffered the most from the war.
By working with local stakeholders and communities to determine the standards they should expect and the tools they need, they can become leading subjects of their own future, rather than objects of the postwar effort.
This article was also published on devex.com
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