Ukrainians arriving at the train station in Lviv, Ukraine
Ukrainians arriving at the train station in Lviv, Ukraine

To rebuild Ukraine, we must invest in its social fabric

This week, global leaders gathered in Berlin to discuss the recovery and reconstruction of Ukraine, something Chancellor Scholz of Germany has described as a “herculean” task.

After eight months of devastating war, it is clear that Ukraine is facing a protracted humanitarian crisis and longer-term challenges. The level of international financial support is likely to be unprecedented.
Key physical infrastructure supplying electricity and water has been destroyed. People living in severely damaged cities, towns and villages are now facing the prospect of sustained sub-zero temperatures. In large part, the international humanitarian response will focus on assisting Ukrainians with their immediate needs through the harsh, fast-approaching winter.

All of this is essential. But for there to be long-term peace and stability in Ukraine, serious investment must also be made in restoring the country’s social fabric.

Displacement and disintegration

A vital aspect of Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion is its incredible resilience and creativity. Almost 1,700 civil society and volunteer organisations have emerged, but they are struggling to access funds to continue their lifesaving work reaching the groups that are most in need of support. In addition to playing a vital role in the emergency response and the country’s early recovery and reconstruction, these grassroots organisations are essential to rebuilding Ukraine’s social fabric. They need more funding flexibility and attention.

The vast displacement of people in Ukraine since 2014, but particularly since February this year, has left community support networks in disarray. Families have been separated or broken by the violence. Men of fighting age have been conscripted into the army, or are unable to leave the country, and their relatives have been relocated to host communities across central and western Ukraine and throughout Europe. Civil society groups have had to reorient their work or been completely displaced.

The disintegration of Ukraine’s social infrastructure has left people who were already marginalised with no safety nets, such as people from ethnic and sexual minorities. Many feel neglected and trapped, and those who have been displaced are unable to access vital services in their new locations. In areas that have been liberated, services have been unable to resume due to the displacement of decision-makers in local government. A large proportion of people who remain in areas affected by active conflict are those most in need of support. This includes people who are elderly, people living with disabilities and their carers, many of whom are unable or unwilling to leave their homes.

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The integration of internally displaced people into host communities remains a huge challenge. Host communities have been welcoming and temporary accommodation is being provided, but this accommodation is often at a distance from host communities with poor transport links. As Ukraine rebuilds, issues of employment, housing, transport and even language could all cause tension between different communities, and this must be mitigated through sensitive planning and programming.

Seismic changes, long-term challenges

There is evidence that gender-based violence is rising, experienced in particular by women who have been internally displaced or are refuges. An increase in female-led families is seeing women adopt new roles in a society whose gender norms previously afforded the role of breadwinner to men. Any reconstruction will need to be mindful of such seismic social changes.

The war has left many Ukrainians with serious trauma. Violence, fear, displacement and social upheaval are manifesting in a mental health crisis which overstretched government support services and civil society organisations are struggling to address. These dislocations pose both immediate and long-term challenges.

An inclusive recovery

Those involved in supporting Ukraine to recover should champion inclusive approaches that recognise different levels of exclusion, whether based on cultural background, age, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

The international community should continue supporting civil society organisations to recover and rebuild their capacities and expertise, but focus more at the grassroots level. But for civil society to succeed, it must foster a climate that is conducive to reforming, rather than simply reaffirming, the old system.

To accelerate development during and after the war, it is necessary to support Ukrainian civil society in what it has proven itself effective at doing – playing a crucial role in advocacy, service provision and reform at the local, regional, and national level. Civil society’s dedication and adherence to democratic norms can help Ukraine be a participatory, inclusive democracy even while resisting Russian aggression and in a context of militarisation. Support must recognise the importance of building stronger bridges between people at every level of Ukrainian society.

Long-term peace and stability can be achieved in Ukraine, but it requires watchful, patient and well-resourced efforts to rebuild the many layers of Ukrainian society beyond the end of the violence. Displaced populations often take decades to return; social fabric decades to restore.

The war will leave a generation of Ukrainians with serious trauma, making the challenges of reconstruction all the more difficult and all the more important to get right. Everyone with an interest in a stronger and stable Ukraine must focus urgently on protecting and restoring the country’s social fabric alongside the provision of immediate support. And this work must start now.


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