5 Lessons for the Reconstruction of Ukraine

5 Lessons for the Reconstruction of Ukraine

Western governments must make clear from day one that they will not stand for the loss of their reconstruction funds through corrupt behavior.


No one knows exactly what geographic and political form Ukraine will take at the end of this war. A settlement could result in a shrunken Ukrainian state without Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea, or there could be a full restoration of the pre-2014 borders. Whatever the outcome, Ukraine will need assistance to conduct a massive reconstruction effort. As both of us have experienced first-hand, recent post-conflict reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been dismal failures. Hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ funds were wasted on projects and programs that were doomed to fail or siphoned off into the pockets of corrupt officials. Before reconstruction efforts begin in Ukraine, the least that we can do is to take aboard the relevant lessons from the recent past. While the situations in Europe after World War II and the experiences in Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Iraq vary widely, there are five key lessons from our previous efforts that the West should apply as it begins the reconstruction of Ukraine.

Play Hardball on Corruption


Ukraine is one of the most corrupt nations in Europe, and comparable with its neighbor Russia to the extent that many self-serving leaders and oligarchs put their interests before the common good. Therefore, all reconstruction plans should start with the premise that many of the people with whom the West will work in Ukraine, in business and politics, will be seeking self-enrichment through aid projects and programs. These corrupt actors will seek to exploit Western goodwill, financing, and the West’s tendency towards naivete. Often referred to as the “state capture of public institutions,” Ukrainian intermediaries will be seeking to maintain patronage networks, use nepotism and cronyism to award contracts, and offer key ministerial positions for sale. This is the ugly reality found in most of the world and in Ukraine, these corrupt actors exist in spades. If Western officials cannot accept this unpleasant perspective, then they will not be able to protect their taxpayers’ funds. 

The best way to counter corruption is with ruthless conditionality. Western governments must make clear from day one that they will not stand for the loss of their reconstruction funds through corrupt behavior. When construction companies and other service providers are caught carrying out corrupt activities, they must be debarred and blocked from accessing contracts. Debarring, however, is a difficult policy to put into practice since those found guilty of misconduct will employ a range of techniques to cover their tracks. They will change the names of their firms, employ subcontractors, and use political influence to stay in business. Western governments will have to use their intelligence and law enforcement networks in non-traditional ways to stay one step ahead of corrupt officials. They will also have to find the courage to punish those who cheat, even if they hold positions of political power. 

Have Experts Lead the Effort

Diplomats are great at a lot of things, but they are not necessarily experts in building infrastructure. The West is filled with patriotic business leaders and entrepreneurs who have practical experience building infrastructure. Few remember that it was Paul Hoffman, the tough and experienced CEO of Studebaker, who successfully oversaw the Marshall Plan. By appointing another business leader to oversee reconstruction in Ukraine, Western governments could avoid several of the pitfalls that beset their diplomatic corps. First, a business leader will be less constrained by political pressure to protect corrupt or underperforming government officials. Second, as non-career short-term appointees, a business leader will be much less constrained in reporting successes and failures. Finally, successful business leaders know how to change organizations, manage costs, and balance risk. These are the skills that will be needed in Ukraine, and there are a host of qualified business leaders in the United States and the United Kingdom who could carry this load. 

Listen to the Auditors

John Sopko, the former Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, recently released another report on U.S. reconstruction and stabilization efforts in Afghanistan. One of the United States’ biggest problems in Afghanistan was that few were willing to listen to John’s trenchant criticism and many simply refused to accept his auditing work. This is odd since he was appointed by President Barack Obama to head an oversight office created by Congress to independently report on reconstruction successes and failures in Afghanistan. Frankly, U.S. military and civilian leaders were too thin-skinned to accept Spoko’s independent analysis and continued to pour money into projects in Afghanistan that were destined to fail. There needs to be a similar auditor to independently analyze Western reconstruction efforts in Ukraine, and civilian and military leaders need to use this auditor’s recommendations to guide their efforts.

Reconstruction is a Crowded Space

The post-conflict reconstruction landscape is often characterized as complex and crowded. There will be many actors, including international organizations, who will want to help put Ukraine on a path towards political normality and economic growth. One of the biggest organizations to do this will be the European Union (EU), where member states are already planning to pool their efforts and resources to make Ukraine fit for accession to the EU. These actions are partly motivated by the guilt felt by some Europeans for having been too close to the Russians at the expense of Ukraine, and partly out of self-interest and the need to construct a security buffer against Russia. While every contribution will be welcomed by the Ukrainians, there will be a need to impose deconflict measures as well. Too often, international post-conflict reconstruction efforts are marred by duplication, overlap, and rivalry—providing considerable opportunities for corrupt actors to benefit from the ensuing muddle. The EU is a rigid organization and plans made at the outset are difficult to change. Despite its past failures, the United States is more flexible and adaptive by comparison. In Ukraine, there will likely be a clash of aims and approaches between the EU and the United States. It will be important to set priorities and establish a division of labor from the beginning, otherwise waste and inefficiency will occur again on an epic scale.

Balance Reconstruction in Ukraine With Domestic Renewal

As we have traveled over the past decades from the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan back to our homes in the United Kingdom and the United States, we often found it difficult to justify the massive expenditures in post-conflict reconstruction spent overseas in the face of so many problems at home. One need only visit various U.S. and UK cities to see that the needs of many of our taxpayers are not being met. It is morally questionable to send public funds overseas when your own people are living in squalor with insufficient infrastructure and lousy schools. So, while Western governments should encourage stability and reconstruction in places like Ukraine, it is only justifiable if stringent standards of control, accountability, and conditionality are established and enforced. In the end, the West must not forget that political and economic stability begins at home. 

John Manza and Nicholas Williams both have extensive experience working in failed, failing, and conflict-ridden states. John Manza is a Professor at the US National Defense University and Nick Williams is Vice-President at CERIS-ULB Diplomatic School of Brussels. The authors’ opinions are their own and do not reflect those of the US Department of Defense or the CERIS-ULB Diplomatic School.

Image: Reuters.