There are many risks ahead for Ukraine, but one little-considered issue is that the gatherings of the great and the powerful — as at the Ukraine Recovery Conference in London on June 21-22 — may focus on big ideas and big business, forgetting smaller-scale ventures that have already led the way. That would be a poor outcome for Ukraine’s future.

Ukraine has the potential to be completely different from say Bosnia, where the scars of war are still visible 30 years after the Yugoslav wars of Succession ended. For Ukraine, it is critical that people feel they have a role and some influence, in other words that the citizen groups of civil society have a serious contribution to make. And that it is better for Ukrainians to help themselves rather than rely on outsiders.

Volunteering in Ukraine has been supercharged by the war, and can be seen clearly in initiatives such as Building Ukraine Together (BUR), one of the most popular volunteer organizations in the country. It did not wait for the fighting to end before starting rebuilding work. The group was established in 2014, when Russia attacked Donbas and a small group of Ukrainian Catholic University students went to frontline cities, such as Kramatorsk, to rebuild and help local communities create education and youth centers.

Such initiatives are not just about bricks and cement. They have helped develop unity between Ukrainians from western and (the more Orthodox) eastern regions, overcoming old differences in culture and attitudes and so helping build understanding.

In 2021 BUR officially became a public organization, and with the full-scale invasion of 2022, new volunteers rushed to join. Between 2014 and 2022 the group gathered about 5,000 volunteers and helped restore 370 homes for families in need.

Marta Benyshyn, head of BUR’s volunteer camp division, says the main change since the full scale invasion has been the type of buildings they reconstruct. Now BUR works mostly on homes and other buildings destroyed by Russian rockets. The organization offers volunteers short-term opportunities, as well as camps where young people, under the supervision of a trained specialist, spend 7-10 days carrying out construction work for communities in need. There are also longer term projects lasting several months.

Every camp organized by BUR includes work and education. Volunteers work on construction from 9am to 4pm, and the evenings are spent with games, concerts, and meetings with local people, which all help to build a sense of shared commitment and community.

The goal is to teach residents how to help themselves if the need arises. If people have the necessary skills and, most importantly, the desire and awareness of their capabilities, they will continue developing on their own, Marta says.

The group has ambitions to recruit 30,000 new volunteers by 2025 and has about 6,000 currently in the community. It’s main source of income is through donations from within and outside Ukraine, and it has links with partners around the world including USAID and IREX.

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Ukraine’s reconstruction is a pressing topic. And friends are already helping. For now, aid comes from the Ukraine Relief, Recovery, Reconstruction and Reform Trust Fund (URTF), a donor fund supporting the World Bank’s efforts to channel $105bn into the country for relief, recovery, and rebuilding in the next three years. (The bank estimated that damage from the all-out war’s first year was $411bn-plus.) Some states have identified districts for particular focus, Estonia, for example, has taken responsibility for the restoration of the Zhytomyr region.

Such support is inspiring, but Ukrainians, who see the face of war everywhere, remain worried.

Some look to what happened in the Balkans during the Yugoslav Wars of Succession war in the 1990s. Mykyta Vorobiov, from Ukraine, spent six months studying in the region, traveling through Bosnia, the country most affected by the conflict. Destroyed villages and abandoned houses still present constant reminders of that time. Even in the capital, Sarajevo, it was possible to see and feel traces of war, Mykyta said. Houses show shrapnel scars, still not rebuilt after 30 years, and shell marks on buildings on the outskirts of the city raised the inevitable question: “will the same happen to us?” he said.

The war in Bosnia attracted the attention of the world community, just as Russia’s war in Ukraine does now. But Bosnia’s continuing post-war problems have left a trail of disappointment. The result is a seemingly never-ending political crisis, high unemployment, and a sense of a state held together only with outside help.

Ukraine will want something better. Part of the answer will come from groups like BUR and its determination to build a culture of volunteering in a society that doesn’t always understand the idea. “Small villages often need a very detailed explanation that these groups of people are genuinely volunteering, that this is real and people do it because they love Ukraine,” BUR’s Marta said.

People in the BUR community have known each other for years and have hundreds of completed projects behind them. They are wholly focused on a bottom-up movement reflecting the will and determination of the people to take control of their future.

With such passionate teams, working in the right place at the right time, and supported by international financial aid, Ukraine can avoid the gloomy fate of many post-war countries. Grassroots reconstruction movements will help not only in reconstruction, but also by building communities, and a transparent and civil political environment.

That needs to be remembered in London.

Kateryna Panasiuk is an author and journalist studying politics at the Ukrainian Catholic University. When war came to Ukraine, she set up a volunteer project to collect and share the stories of Ukrainians affected by the war. 

Mykyta Vorobiov is a freelance journalist studying politics at the Ukrainian Catholic University. Forced to leave Kyiv when war broke out, he has since combined work at Lviv City Council with coordinating a journalism project and editing articles.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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