Civil society has the right to have a say in Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction

This month, Civil Society Europe and the EEB held the High-Level Conference on RebuildUkraine & Civil Dialogue where civil society came together to try to better understand its role in the reconstruction platform as well as how to foster participation in civil dialogue. There is now a need to reiterate that civil society has a right to participate in the discussion surrounding Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction, writes Valeriya Izhyk, EU Policy Officer for Ukraine Reconstruction with the CEE Bankwatch Network

Imagine your loved one has sustained serious, life-threatening injuries, is unconscious and needs to undergo surgery. The doctors in charge of the operation only vaguely explain what medical interventions they plan to perform, and when you try to inform them about the allergies and special health conditions that this patient has, they respond they will consider that later, during recovery.

The response that Ukrainian civil society gets from different European institutions on the county’s reconstruction feels similar. On 20 November, at the High-Level Conference on RebuildUkraine & Civil Dialogue, hosted by the European Environmental Bureau and Civil Society Europe, and nine months after the Russian full-scale war on Ukraine began, we enter the winter holiday period with the distinct feeling that solutions are being postposed and we are being ignored.

Consultation only in the final stage?

The medical metaphor was not a random choice of words. The European Commission and the European External Action Service envisage Ukraine’s post-war path in three phases: reanimation, recovery, and reconstruction. According to what we heard from the Cabinet for Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, a structured civil society involvement was welcomed and expected in the third phase. The reason, so we heard, was the fast pace of decision-making and the emergency mode in which EU institutions (the ‘doctors’ in this analogy) are currently responding. Under these circumstances, there was not much space for NGOs to oversee or in any way influence decision-making. All eyes were on Member States, as significant support and assistance for Ukraine would depend on their goodwill.

However, civil society – both national and international – does not want to act as a watchdog only once all key decisions have been taken. They rightly want a seat at the decision-making table when European institutions define the next steps of their involvement in and support for Ukraine: what kind of reconstruction is the EU funding? Under what conditionality? How does it ensure transparency and public participation? We have a plenitude of ideas for how to ensure the sustainable and resilient recovery of Ukraine.

Civil society space in Ukraine is shrinking

Natalia Gozak, Director of Ecoaction at the Ukrainian Centre for Environmental Initiatives, reminded the audience that since the beginning of the invasion, civil society space has been shrinking rapidly. Not only are NGOs losing staff due to citizens’ decisions to defend their country in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, but also due to relocation to safer countries from where they can continue their work. To stay afloat, some Ukrainian NGOs found the means to relocate their staff to other European countries to keep them operational to pave the way for Ukraine’s post-war green reconstruction. Organisations and staff members remaining in Ukraine work under very difficult circumstances. For instance, many are deprived of essentials including electricity and the internet.

Under Martial law, Ukrainian civil society has lost many of its advocacy tools. Environmental impact assessments are a thing of the past, proper public consultations are suspended, most public databases are no longer accessible, and street demonstrations are not possible.

At the same time, environmental civil society organisations have become reliable partners of the government in dealing with environmental impacts of the war, and they should be seen as key partners in the post-war reconstruction process, argued Andriy Andrusevych, senior policy expert with the Lviv-based Resource & Analysis Center “Society and Environment”. He stressed the lack of, and urgent need for, support to environmental NGOs at the time of war.

Towards a regular dialogue with EU institutions

Ukrainian civil society organisations have expressed frustration at the difficulty of reaching out to experts and decision-makers within the European institutions to share their experiences and knowledge, and to help decision-makers understand what people and citizens’ groups on the ground are concerned with, as Patrizia Heidegger, Deputy Secretary General of the EEB, summarised.

Rare advocacy trips and the occasional opportunity to ask a question during conferences do not fulfil the well-promoted European code of conduct on partnership in practice. A regular dialogue between European institutions and Ukrainian civil society as well as their European networks is necessary for the EU to comply with its own standards, and to make sure that the EU’s support for Ukraine can directly and effectively respond to people needs and concerns.

In anticipation of the next conferences on Ukraine’s reconstruction in Paris and London, we have heard good news from DG NEAR, specifically about the Support Group for Ukraine – a clearing house for the different European institutions for all requests from Ukraine. Following requests from the audience, it will look into the opportunity of having regular meetings with Ukrainian civil society and their representatives in Brussels to make sure we are not sleepwalking towards the systematic silencing of civil society experience and knowledge.