м. Бахмут, Донецьк обл. /Getty Images

Society must decide whether all the destroyed villages should be rebuilt. Four global reconstruction lessons for Ukraine from David Mazzuca, who rebuilt the US coast after Hurricane Sandy

Bakhmut. Фото Getty Images

While the intentions behind any kind of reconstruction effort following a war or a climatological or geological disaster are usually well-meaning, good intentions alone do not stand the test of the immediate months and years of rebuilding. It is important to dispassionately understand the challenges that may be faced.

There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to reconstruction. What may have worked in Tokyo after the Second World War or South Florida following Hurricane Andrew is unlikely to be successfully transferred to Mariupol, Bakhmut or Zaporizhzhia in the 2020s. Every country is different; every community is unique. No one place is the same, so international examples can only serve as instructional inspiration.

Desire alone is not enough

In the coming months and years – almost as a universal impulse – there will be a well-intentioned rush to rebuild quickly, at high quality, and at least cost. This well-intentioned rush is all too common following disasters of all kinds around the world. 

Yet, it is nearly impossible to minimize cost while also maximizing speed and quality; only two of these three objectives can ever occur concurrently. In order to achieve lasting success, thorough preparation will have to be done before any reconstruction is implemented. 

Preparation can begin with legislation and regulatory reform to mitigate corruption and establish construction standards at a central government level. But it is also just as important that preparation begins in individual communities with residents and local governments readying themselves to lead the restoration of their once lively communities. 

Through localizing decision-making as much as possible and listening to community members, Ukraine can rebuild viable communities. To do so, requires government to build the capacity to manage projects of significant scale and cost and to address difficult rebuilding decisions. 

From my experiences in the United States and my research around the world, I propose that there are four key lessons for consideration before reconstruction even begins. Ukraine has the opportunity to draw on lessons learned from others as it manages its reconstruction. 

1. Decentralize reconstruction decision-making.

In the United States, there is not a national solution for post-disaster reconstruction, but, rather, national funding that is allocated to subnational authorities. Whether following a hurricane or wildfire, decisions on rebuilding are made at the state or local government level. This allows communities to work with government that is closer to the daily lives of those affected. Local decisions that are driven by communities for communities. In the United States, an idea for Boston may not work in Miami. 

The same would go for Ukraine, an idea for Odessa may not work in Mariupol. Thus, from the perspective of the central government, it is important to consider how best to devolve decision-making authority to local government. Decision-making should be generated at the most local level of government that has the institutional capacity to execute programs of significant scale and cost. In some countries that may be at the local level, in others it will be at the regional level. 

Successful decentralization though requires a government authority that has the capacity to manage large-scale projects and that is responsive to community feedback.

2. Build local capacity to manage reconstruction.

It will be key for local government to develop the capacity to manage reconstruction programs of significant scale and cost. The International Republican Institute’s USAID-funded pilot ʼProject Management School for Local Government Officialsʼ in Ukraine is a good example of building local capacity – and local leadership – to manage multiple types of projects. 

Training programs like this are key to ensure that local officials not only have the qualitative knowledge, but also have the skill sets necessary to manage reconstruction programs of significant scale and cost. Government leaders who are versed in project management are better able to deliver transparency to and constructively engage with constituents. 

Such leaders can also learn from an exchange of reconstruction best practices from other governments. Within the European Union, the Solidarity Fund mechanism is often used to fund post-disaster reconstruction activities following floods, earthquakes, and other disasters. 

One of the attributes that makes the Solidarity Fund successful is the reliance on technical assistance in the form of mutual aid from former recipients of funding. As an example, the Italian government, recipients of funding following its 2016–2017 earthquakes, provided technical assistance to Croatia, which received funding following its 2020 earthquake. 

Such knowledge sharing is best done between governments. Outside of Europe though, too often, affected countries and communities rely on third-party consultants and contractors for advisement on rebuilding. 

Rather than encourage capacity building, such practices create dependency, whereby governments rely on consultant and contractor support without building out in-house capabilities. Over the last year in Ukraine, reconstruction technical assistance in the form of city-to-city exchanges with European cities have already begun. 

Whether at the national or subnational level, the more governments can rely on a government-to-government model for support, the better. 

3. Listen to community members.

No matter what level of government manages reconstruction, it is at the citizen level that feedback should be sought to influence what a restored community looks like. From the State of New Jersey following Superstorm Sandy to the Tohoku region of Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, local input drives the return of vibrant communities. 

Community engagement can come in many forms; it may start with groups of citizens self-organizing or with local leaders convening public forums. Japanese society has a tradition of citizen participation in urban planning through groups called machizukuri. In post-disaster environments in Japan, it is common for such citizen-led, community-based groups to influence the reconstruction process. 

Such public feedback makes reconstruction programs better. Another example would be following the 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes in Japan. Kumamoto University opened a community center in one of the region’s most impacted communities to create a forum for residents to meet, reflect on the disaster, and discuss reconstruction projects. 

Whether it be citizen groups, local leaders, or universities, civil society and government in Ukraine ought to conduct a ʼlistening tourʼ with residents – inclusive of those displaced through virtual participation – to obtain public comments. It is never too early to begin conversing among community members. 

Around the world, those recoveries that are the most successful are those that orchestrate a bottom-up approach. Seeking feedback from local communities, rather than dictates from a central government, will create more viable communities. 

4. Be prepared to make the difficult decisions to not rebuild.

Not all rebuilding strategies are created equal. Whether allocating national funding or prioritizing individual projects at the local level, difficult decisions will need to be made. Many, if not all of which, will generate opposition from some quarters. Importantly, Ukrainian society will need to decide whether every community destroyed is rebuilt. When looking around the world for guidance, one finds that not all affected communities following a disaster are rebuilt. In making reconstruction decisions, it is critical to understand what made pre-war communities socially and economically viable. 

With limited budgetary resources, it will be hard to rationalize dedicating reconstruction funding to communities that were in significant decline demographically and economically pre-war. Reconstruction, ultimately, ought to be forward-looking. 

Funding of housing and infrastructure should be for a post-war world, not necessarily seeking to replicate all that was pre-war. It is incumbent upon government to understand the aspects that made a community unique and special to its residents in the first place. 

Thus, seek to restore those aspects in a different form; possibly in an amalgamation of multiple communities. Comparatively, a well-meaning, but short-sighted approach will result in communities that are underpopulated or seemingly recovered but not-fit-for-purpose just a few years later. 

As an example, in the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan, reconstruction authorities built multi-story apartment buildings (in place of low-rise housing) for elderly residents who wished to live communally with shared kitchens and group spaces. 

Yet, just a few years later, those kitchens and group spaces were rarely used and were shuttered. What is rebuilt ought to reflect the needs of the affected communities for today and for tomorrow. 

Ukraine has the opportunity to thoughtfully navigate the implementation of its post-war reconstruction. Leveraging lessons learned from others’ rebuilding experiences from around the world – irrespective of disaster type – Ukraine is well positioned. 

It is an opportunity for the taking. By decentralizing reconstruction authority, building capacity within government, listening to community members, and being prepared to address difficult rebuilding decisions, Ukraine can place itself on a sound path to implement reconstruction and independently meet head-on the challenges of the post-war era.

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