Ukrainians are showing the world the meaning of resilience

A conversation with UNDP’s Acting Resident Representative in Ukraine

Published by UNDP,  13 December, 2022

Even as the war rages on, many Ukrainians are looking beyond immediate survival to long-term recovery and resilience.

For nearly 10 months, the war in Ukraine has been devastating communities and threatening the lives of millions. Jaco Cilliers, UNDP Ukraine Acting Resident Representative, recently arrived in country and talks here about his initial reflections, the challenges of providing development support in the midst of a war and the need to ensure Ukrainian communities are provided with the opportunity to design their own futures.

What were your first impressions on arriving in Ukraine?

I arrived in winter, so straight away you understand the challenges people are going through. But even though it was cold and gloomy, the incredible beauty of the country just blew me away. And what a sadness it is for people who have this wonderful country to experience such immense suffering and destruction – it really hit home.

And when you meet people here you can see that despite the conflict happening around them, they have a passion for life. The people of Ukraine are showing the world the meaning of resilience. It’s as simple as that. People’s ability to continue to have hope, to still embrace opportunities, even when living through such hardship. It’s inspiring.

What are the immediate needs of people right now, particularly in these winter months?

Everyone’s lives are affected tremendously by energy, electricity and water cuts. These impacts are being felt by everyone, not just those on the frontline, and it is brutal. At the moment the priority is providing emergency support which includes distribution of blankets, cooking stoves and heating equipment.

We’re also setting up shelters where people can go for emergency supplies and we are working closely with the state emergency services who have lost a lot of equipment during the war. Keeping ambulances running and ensuring normal social services is desperately needed right now, so UNDP is providing new equipment to help make that happen.

UNDP works with partners to address immediate needs, including setting up shelters, distributing emergency supplies and keeping ambulances and social services operating.

How is this balanced with providing longer-term support?

It’s a constantly evolving situation. We’ve been asked by the government to lead an assessment of the energy sector. We are in the process of carrying out that assessment, but at the same time, people don’t have electricity.

As an emergency measure, we are providing basic equipment like transformers and also purchasing generators to help respond to those critical energy blackouts in places like schools or hospitals or community centres. The aim is making sure we can repair the grid and the electricity can flow again.

Longer term, we’re focusing on purchasing much larger generators for bigger infrastructure demands and we are also strategizing with the government to transform the energy infrastructure into a modernized energy supply. This means looking at things like alternative energy sources and how you can green your energy.

Mine action and rubble removal, so people can get into communities and start rebuilding, is another big part of our work, and we’re providing the government with capacity support which includes making sure they have the latest equipment and training to meet the scale of the task.

This is fundamental as together with the government we want to scale up our support to rebuilding critical infrastructure – such as hospitals and schools – but that can only be done if it’s safe for people to go in and the debris has been removed.

UNDP Acting Resident Representative Jaco Cilliers visits with partners from the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in Dnipro.

How can you provide support to early recovery and rebuilding in the midst of a war?

It’s vital that we recognize the space between providing humanitarian support and the long-term development agenda that the government will have to engage on. There are a lot of practical things that need to be put in place now so that the Ukrainian population can build the future they want to see.

UNDP’s role in this is broad and varied but essentially it means helping to strengthen government institutions, working to meet the basic demands of the country in this emergency phase and also supporting civil society – to make sure that everyone has a voice when communities are making decisions on the type of future they will have.

And this is a big area for us, to practically help with those design efforts. We all want the war to end as soon as possible, and people are already envisioning what they want their communities to look like. And so we are in those initial phases of helping them design and helping them look at what opportunities exist. Then we can be ready to bring in the resources needed.

UNDP is working with the Ukraine government to provide digital tools, so people on the move can access key services online.

What is the current security situation and how has it impacted UNDP’s response?

Every day there’s something happening that reminds you of the war. Recently we were in a staff meeting and halfway through the sirens went off – so we went to our bomb shelter and continued our work. Because this is why we’re here.

I just came back from the eastern part of the country where our staff are out there working on a daily basis. They are working in communities that have been affected by the war and they’re reaching out to them and bringing them supplies. But at the same time, they are also looking at longer development processes. I was in one community that was really badly affected, and they were having a planning session. Everybody was there, including community leaders, and it was incredible. Because they were designing the future that they want for their country.

People are looking to the future, and we are helping them identify the support that will help go beyond just meeting their immediate needs. Even in the midst of a war, people are thinking about what type of world they want to create for their children and what they need to do to get there.

Removing rubble and clearing landmines are key priorities to allow displaced people to return home and begin rebuilding their communities.

What are the priorities for the next 6 to 12 months?

It’s really scaling up our programme, and we’re working on a couple of things. One is digital transformation; we’re focusing on helping the government to provide a lot of digital services. Because when people are on the move and living through a war it is vital to be able to access things like social services online.

The second is around infrastructure repair. We’re working on a wide range of repair initiatives from schools and houses and hospitals through to bigger emergency infrastructure. And the third is around mine action and rubble removal.

Our aim is to make sure that, where possible, people can safely stay in their homes and communities. And for those that have left – we have to make sure that they have communities that are safe to return to.

Nearly 6.7 million people have left the country so there’s a lot of people living outside that want to come back to Ukraine, but they need to have the opportunity. This is why UNDP is working on supporting small business entrepreneurs and helping to create jobs again.

There’s going to be a lot of work that needs to be done. But UNDP has been in Ukraine since 1993 and we are committed to being here as long as we are needed.

“Even in the midst of a war, people are thinking about what type of world they want to create for their children and what they need to do to get there.”

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