“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”

“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”

By David Humphries, Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs for Global Communities

Spazheva SvitlamaSpazheva Svitlana began our conversation by telling me that she had just returned from the Leadership Academy for Local Officials training series. She had just been on an exchange trip to Poland, part of the Academy’s curriculum which Global Communities had organized for heads of consolidated communities. I asked her what she had learned. This was my first meeting in Ukraine, but what she said would be repeated again and again by community leaders and local partners throughout my visit.

“We learned how the people of Poland love their country and the importance of having this mentality in Ukraine. This is our land and we own it together. We must involve our communities in every project we undertake and in every aspect of running our country.”

Spazheva then spoke of the practical aspects of leading a rural consolidated community in Ukraine, and what she had learned from Poland’s experience of decentralization and consolidation. But like everyone I spoke to, the conversation began with the importance of identity, ownership and responsibility.

Spazheva is a member of the first cohort of consolidated community heads participating in Global Communities’ USAID-funded Decentralization Offering Better Results and Efficiency (DOBRE) program. Decentralization is a priority of Ukraine’s government, designed to result in more decisions and resources controlled at the local level. In 2015, the government introduced a process through which Ukraine’s more than 11,000 towns, villages and settlements began consolidating into larger and more self-sustaining communities. So far, around 400 of a projected 1,500 new communities have consolidated and elected new leadership. Ukraine’s previous centralized governance system means that local governments, especially villages and rural settlements, have little or no experience exercising their new powers and responsibilities.

DOBRE is creating model communities for others to learn from. I could see that after a year of working with us, Spazheva’s Pokrovska consolidated community was clearly going to be one of these. These model communities are vital: a recent survey by IRI reports that while trust in the central government in Ukraine has decreased, trust in local government is increasing. It is absolutely essential that leaders like Spazheva are able to deliver on this trust.

street lighting
Installation of street-lighting in Pokrovska

Trust is at the center of Global Communities’ approach. In partnering with consolidated communities, we begin the interaction with quick wins, or trust-building projects. These small infrastructure projects, prioritized by the community, demonstrate that transparent, democratic change is possible, and achieve buy-in for longer-term, impactful activities. Many consolidated communities have chosen to rehabilitate parks or public spaces, or to improve educational facilities for schools. In Pokrovska, they focused on street lighting in the central plaza of the town. DOBRE provided resources for the street lamps, and the local community provided the labor to install the lamps. “The community is inspired because they see the results. Now, we have a place to gather together outside for meetings in the evening and it is safer for everyone,” explained Spazheva.

Pokrovska faces challenges. It is a rural community of 23,000 in Dnipropetrovsk in southeast Ukraine, and was created by combining four village councils. The population is 70 percent of retirement age, with 1,700 school-age children. Internal migration means many of the working age population has moved away for jobs in cities. But the council understands the need for economic development and has created a Youth Local Council, and an advisory group of 30 people from local business to assemble a community development plan focused on three facets: the agricultural economy; housing, utilities and services; and education.

We were taken to see a demonstration farm where agricultural cooperatives were producing specialized organic dairy products. By focusing on selling niche, quality produce, the Pokrovska council were deliberately creating a specific economic brand for their community to interest investors, and providing an example for other consolidated communities.

Cattle at the demonstration farm

For those of us who live in decentralized countries, we take the benefits for granted. If our central government fails to function properly, our trash is still collected, our schools still function, roads are maintained, and water is still piped to our homes, because our state, regional or local governments both raise and spend revenue independently. But in a country with a Soviet history — where even the heating in your home was controlled by the central government back in those days — a failure in the central bureaucracy can be catastrophic. In a decentralized country, we can visit our local representatives, turn up to town hall meetings, and vote on budgetary issues; but if even your most local issues are decided hundreds of miles away by unknown powers, there is less transparency and the opportunity for corruption is far greater.

In Ukraine, Global Communities is working in partnership with USAID in seven oblasts, while the European Union, with whom we coordinate, is focusing on the others. What makes our approach unique is that it is at the grassroots: working with the council to engage their community members in a transparent process of prioritization and budgeting, training them in strategic planning and service delivery, so that a cadre of competent, transparent and hard-working council leaders can inspire economic development in their communities and provide a backbone of stability in Ukraine.

Throughout my trip, meetings with Spazheva and others reminded me of the phrase engraved on the wall of the Parliament in my home country of Scotland: “Work as though you lived in the early days of a better nation.” It is people like those in Pokrovska who are embodying that work ethic of creating a better country for future generations.