“Winning the war, winning the future,” reflections from Ukraine
Kyiv, Ukraine — In a conference room with some 200 delegates, I listened closely as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spelled out his optimistic vision for the future in the wake of the Russian invasion. He was only a few rows in front of me and, as I glanced around the room, I could see that the delegates were captivated.
“Our strength lies in our people. In our communities, in our ability to act for a common goal,” President Zelensky told the audience at the International Summit of Cities and Regions.
His words resonated with me. As the President and CEO of Creative, I have seen firsthand how communities are the true changemakers in conflict and post-conflict environments. We have worked in some of the most challenging locations and situations for more than 40 years and have seen time and time again that a focus on communities — particularly their leadership — is key to a country’s eventual transition from conflict to peace.
In mid-April, I led a team of five Creative staff members — Tim Kernan, Jim Winkler, Tony Ribeiro and Cecilia Ciepiela-Kaelin — on a one-week fact-finding trip to Ukraine that included the International Cities and Regions Conference, a visit with USAID and a governance training session organized by our partner VNG International, among other meetings.
While the war goes on, the plans for reconstruction and revitalizing the country have already begun. I heard a phrase during the trip that has stuck with me and encapsulates the two major fronts for Ukraine: “Winning the war, winning the future.”
Our conversations with Ukrainian citizens, elected officials, ministry representatives and civil society organizations echoed the present and the future. They were inspirational. They spoke of resilience and determination to move forward.
We witnessed Ukrainians’ incredible bravery in the face of an ongoing war, the disruption of life and the uncertainty of tomorrow. That uncertainty affects everyone, including international development workers.
Air raid sirens pierced the night several times that week, alerting us to the threat of a possible attack. Each time the sirens howled, we moved to a basement bunker until the danger passed. Kyiv was fortunate — at least on those days — as the incoming projectiles were headed elsewhere. Within a week after our departure, however, the 50-plus-day lull of direct attacks against the capital was broken when Russia launched cruise missiles and drones against cities. Most of the missiles were shot down by air defense systems.
WORKING IN CONFLICT SETTINGS
Some of the people we met with knew of our locally-focused and community-led work in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. They were aware that Creative’s team members and partners are agile, results focused and bring in proven methods that support communities as they transition from conflict to peace.
Our Dutch partner, VNG International, invited my talented colleague, Cecilia Ciepiela-Kaelin, to present during parts of a training session in Kyiv with Ukrainian mayors from territorial communities. Among the topics covered were ways to improve their project management skills and position them to apply directly for much-needed donor funds to rebuild their hometowns. The mayors, who were in the capital as a lead up to the International Summit of Cities and Regions, were eager to learn and put forth ideas that would lead to the reconstruction of their communities.
During the last 46 years, Creative has honed its approach to preparing local authorities, civil society organizations and others to initiate and lead their own projects. We strongly believe that development must be led by communities, using inclusive approaches to gather diverse perspectives and other techniques that ultimately lead to transparent, results-oriented outcomes.
During the nearly 20-hour road trip back to Poland, as we inched to the border, I thought back to parts of President Zelensky’s speech.
“If we consider this war a confrontation of ideas,” he said, “together with the victory of our state, we will inevitably celebrate the victory of the idea that people are important. Each and every one. All our communities. Every Ukrainian city, every town, every Ukrainian village. Our entire state. And due to this approach, instead of the ruins that Russia brought and brings to us, we will rebuild a real Ukrainian life everywhere — a European free life.”
Now back in Washington, D.C, I continue to reflect on this trip and am eager to lend Creative’s expertise as the Ukrainian people rebuild their shattered communities and construct a path forward. As neighborhoods, communities and regions come together to overcome hardship, Creative is ready to support them.
We look forward to returning to Kyiv soon and seeing through to fruition the Ukrainian vision for a better, peaceful future.
Leland Kruvant is the President & CEO of Creative Associates International.