Lugano conference: what does recovery mean for war-hit Ukraine?

Firefighters clear debris in the town of Serhiivka the day after authorities reported that an Russian airstrike on residential areas killed at least 21 people near Odesa, on 1 July, 2022. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Maxim Penko)

Ukraine wants to begin rebuilding while the battle with Russia rages on. But where to start and how to balance urgent humanitarian needs with long-term development?

Five months into the war, Ukraine is banding with Switzerland to launch a reconstruction process. Ministers and leaders of international organisations will meet in Lugano for a two day conference this week, where infrastructure, economic but also environmental and social losses to the Russian aggression will be key areas of discussion.

With schools, hospitals, roads and homes obliterated, around 8.2 million Ukrainians having fled the country, and the battle still raging in eastern and southern Ukraine, where to begin rebuilding will be a crucial question for donors but also the development and humanitarian sector.

The state of Ukraine’s destruction

Since February 24, one fourth of the country of 44 million people has been affected by the war, according to government estimates, with around 24,000 km of roads and the homes of 3.5 million Ukrainians destroyed. The attacks have also led to forest fires and damages to chemical or waste treatment plants, polluting air, water and soils, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of the Environment.

UN figures say nearly five million jobs have been lost and World Bank projections put the country’s economy on the path to shrink by 41.1 per cent this year. Ukraine’s government estimates the costs of the war at $600bn.

For now, pledges amount to a small portion of that at $100bn, including $7.2bn in humanitarian aid, according to Devex’s funding tracker. It’s still quite the leap from the $1.8bn in development aid that went to Ukraine in 2020, according to the development news media. Switzerland and Ukraine hope that the Lugano conference will lead to a scale-up in commitments.

Too soon to talk about recovery?

With Russian forces not letting up, more damages and disruptions to the economy can be expected to continue to pile up, and no one knows for how long. Is it a good idea to pour billions into rebuilding what could be ripped apart the next day?

For Karl Blanchet, director of the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies​​ at the University of Geneva (UNIGE), examples from the past are proof that it is possible to make plans for a country in between bombings. “From 1941, over the span of three years, there were meetings between the UK Ministry of Health, the British Medical Association, the private sector, and so on, to plan what the new health system would look like as soon as the war ended,” he told Geneva Solutions.

Gilles Carbonnier, vice-president of the International Committee of the Red Cross and professor of development economics at the Graduate Institute, told Geneva Solutions that while the conflict is ongoing there are critical areas where efforts should be focused.

He said: “A major priority is to try and preserve access to essential services for the population, including health, safe drinking water, sanitation, wastewater treatment and electricity.”

Blanchet further points out that certain measures, such as training medical personnel, can already be taken and would strengthen the existing system. The World Health Organization (WHO), which will be present at the conference, also highlights the need to not only think about rebuilding physical infrastructure.

“Recovery is not only about investment in facilities, but about investing in people – the workforce, the skills, the organisation to equitably and efficiently deliver the services people need for both their physical and mental wellbeing,” Margaret Harris, WHO spokesperson, told Geneva Solutions.

For the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN agency with the biggest presence in Ukraine since before the war, it will be important to put the situation of Ukraine into context.

“One would think that all conflict-ridden crisis countries are being turned into humanitarian settings where the human agencies are the ones that need to come in,”  said Ulrika Modéer, UNDP’s assistant secretary-general and director of the Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy.

“In the case of Ukraine, we have a government in place that wants to respond, and has all reasons to show that it's still a responsive government to its citizens.”

UNDP has put a major focus on supporting Ukraine’s development of online public services. “Public institutions have been able to issue IDs and passports to people who have had to leave their homes and have become internally displaced in Ukraine or have left the country,” Modéer noted.

Striking a balance

Given the enormous needs in Ukraine, the humanitarian and development world will have to find the right balance between their short-term and long-term goals, something that the two sectors struggle with.

Carbonnier stresses that part of the challenge lies in a traditional way of operating separately: “This situation highlights again the need to break the silos between humanitarian and development assistance, which are mainly inherited from the way donors and administrators have organised, with different budget lines, and sometimes with different offices in charge of either development or humanitarian aid.”

As crises are prolonged and turn from months into years and even decades, both sectors are forced to work together. In zones where the battle continues, humanitarians are key allies, Carbonnier said.

“We need innovative partnerships between humanitarian actors who have the capacity to go as close as possible to the frontlines, and financial institutions and development actors who traditionally engage with state entities on much more long-term programmes,” he added.

Blanchet points out that the lines have become blurred between the two sectors. He gives the examples of humanitarian organisations like the ICRC which have stayed for years on end working in protracted crises like Syria, or even Ukraine, since conflict broke out in the Donbas in 2014.

In Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, amid violent clashes between the army and rebels, the ICRC is working with the municipality, a private water provider and the World Bank to build water infrastructure for half a million people in the Western part of the city.

“We need not just to try to build back but we should really build forward systems and essential services which are more resilient and take into account challenges such as climate change, energy issues, conflict, etc.,” Carbonnier said.

A battle of narratives

If development and humanitarian actors are getting better at cooperating, donors still pose a challenge, where the humanitarian narrative can sometimes overpower the development narrative.

In the case of Ukraine, where there has been a lot of public support for Ukraine and thus pressure on governments from their constituencies to showcase how they’re helping, Blanchet also warns of the risks.

“The risk is that you see a lot of flags and then a lot of inefficiencies in the system, because you're going to have a lot of earmarked funds that may not correspond to the needs of the population,” he said.

Modéer stresses the need for the Ukrainian government to remain “in the driving seat, and that we support their endeavours to coordinate the response on the ground, whether we call it humanitarian, or more long-term development”.

Ultimately the greatest fear for both the development and humanitarian communities seems to be other crises being left behind. For months, the UN World Food Programme has been warning in vain that they’re having to choose who to feed in places like Yemen or the horn of Africa due to insufficient funding.

“There is a risk of budgetary pressure, resulting in less budgetary means from donors for development assistance,” said Carbonnier. And pressure comes not only from humanitarian aid to Ukraine but also from countries ramping up military spending for Ukraine but also for their own defences.

Intentions by key aid donors Sweden and Norway to reallocate aid budget to receive Ukrainian refugees in their territories recently sparked outcry from the public and even from UN agencies. While the plans have been partially backtracked, Modéer sees a worrying trend.

“While the world is becoming a bit more complex, with different problems being intertwined – pandemics, climate change, and war – we emphasise the importance of system solutions and long term solutions. But it seems that among the traditional donors that is the OECD community, there is more short-termism and less willingness to commit long-term,” she said.

Blanchet warns that as crises become prolonged and media attention recedes, there is a danger of donor fatigue – a risk that Ukraine is not immune to if peace does not come along soon.