I’m used to working with life and death matters of local government. I’ve spent years working on social care where policy can determine how some of the most intimate and vulnerable, yet everyday, moments of someone’s life are spent. But the event LGIU supported and co-hosted yesterday was something really different.
Life and death decisions around democracy and survival in Ukraine took that combination of inspirational and heartbreaking to another level. I watched a local government panel discussion where half the speakers were sitting in a war zone and talking about how important local government has been in Ukraine and how important the links are with local government outside of Ukraine, particularly in Europe, but also elsewhere. LGIU supported and partnered with the Swedish International Centre for Local Democracy to host one of their series of local democracy talks – Local Governments in Ukraine: constraints and opportunities for peace and democracy.
On the inspirational and heartwarming side, I’ve always believed that a flourishing local democracy is vital for a healthy national democracy and thus for peace and good international relationships. Each of the panelists speaking from Ukraine or from a Ukrainian local democracy perspective clearly underlined the truth of this. They explicitly linked the strength of the Ukrainian response to the Russian invasion to the development of local democracy and strong local government institutions in a post-Soviet Ukraine.
Under the soviet system and through the early days of independence political power was highly centralised in Ukraine. And there were a lot of problems with corruption, rural degradation, regional stagnation and lack of investment. 2014 saw the beginning of significant reforms which devolved power and fiscal control to local communities. Dr Tymofii Brik of the Kyiv School of Economics, who moderated today’s discussion, provided a bit of background to these reforms and how they were making a real life and death difference on the ground today before handing over to local government colleagues. The inspirational was how quickly reforms like that have really made an impact, developing strong institutions that are able to support local populations as well as being a line of civil defense during an invasion. It’s heartbreaking that local government is turning away from parks and playgrounds to building barricades and directing people to bomb shelters.
Kristina Levyska from the city of Kamjanets-Podilskyj in western Ukraine talked about the role of local government in keeping services going and how local government is leading the way in helping displaced persons who are seeking safer places to be inside Ukraine as well as helping refugees who are moving on to destinations in Europe and beyond. It was inspiring to see how local government officials like Kristina are once again shifting gears from the day job to acting as humanitarian volunteers. It was heartbreaking to hear her describe how people were arriving to Kamjanets-Podilskyj, once a beautiful and historic tourist destination, now a town of refuge and an onward-transit camp, stunned, utterly lost and with empty gazes. She says they need help from their sister cities.
Councillor Ulyana Pak of Lviv, which has been a key place of refuge inside Ukraine and a gateway for both refugees and supplies talked about the importance of mayors during the invasion. They’ve been a focal point for organising efforts, maintaining morale, but that has put them at risk. It’s incredibly inspirational to see democratically elected local leaders taking on roles they never prepared for and providing that necessary, emergent leadership. It’s heartbreaking to hear her talk about the needs of Ukrainians and how desperately afraid they are that our attention will wane and we’ll stop talking about them.
Valentina Poltavets Executive Director of the Ukrainian Association of Amalgamated Territorial Communities talked about the different situations that elected leaders found themselves in. Mayors or councillors like Cllr Pak in ‘safer’ areas were delivering services and coordinating support for displaced people. Other local governments were organising support for their citizens as well as supporting territorial defence. Still others were in occupied territory and trying to hang on and provide moral and physical support for their citizens often at great personal risk. It is incredibly inspirational to hear about how mayors are stepping into this role – but some have already been kidnapped by Russian forces because they do provide such leadership and a focus for resistance. Military supplies like helmets and flak jackets are needed not just for soldiers but also for civilian personnel and political leaders. All of them are spending a great deal of their time organising logistics of getting needed supplies to the right places. It was utterly heartbreaking to hear her pause and say one of the things they needed was emergency contraception and abortifacients for Ukrainian women who had been raped by Russian soldiers.
Everyone on the call was incredibly grateful for the help they’ve received so far. Supplies delivered to the border collected by local communities all over Europe have made a difference. Of course, the material support is helpful, but even more you could see that knowing that supplies had come from individuals and passed through many caring hands helped them feel less ‘alone’. But there are a list of needs they still have.
Materially they need:
- Food, medical and hygiene supplies. These are needed but they requested that direct aid be coordinated with local people on the ground. If language is a barrier, there are groups that can help. Local governments in the rest of Europe can help broker these efforts with voluntary organisations locally.
- Weapons and protective equipment. Local governments can’t supply weapons but even civilian volunteers and local leaders need the protective equipment to provide effective aid and leadership to a stricken civilian population.
- Coordination – perhaps through existing sister cities. Twinned towns aren’t just for welcome signs. If language is a barrier European organisations like the Council of European Municipalities can help.
Yana Brovidy @YBrovdiy from Council of European Municipalities and Regions @CCRECEMR about the work of supporting #localgov in #Ukraine before the invasion and are continuing to reach out to mayors now. pic.twitter.com/BdQTJqKdSu
— Global Local (@GlobalLocalLGIU) March 24, 2022
More than material
But they need more than that. Every speaker pleaded that we keep telling the truth, to counter misinformation and that we keep talking about Ukraine, that we don’t forget them. They had a special request for locally elected politicians – pressure your central government to provide political and military support to Ukraine.
At LGIU, we know that councils want to help. Our chief executive Jonathan Carr-West wrapped up the discussion by telling our Ukrainian colleagues that their courage is a reminder not to take democracy for granted. And that we have heard their requests for help by co/ordinating aid, welcoming refugees, divesting from Russian investments, and we are pleased to say that our member councils are doing all these things. But that we can also maintain political discourse, steeling our population for the long haul of supporting the Ukrainian people. And we can honour their sacrifice and struggle by living our democratic values every day.
I take part in a lot of events. Rarely, are they so humbling. Local govt reps in Ukraine requesting direct support & partnership from their counterparts in the UK. Practical support & also continued truth telling about what is happening there & mobilisation of political pressure https://t.co/NWBk9PCqkD
— Jonathan Carr-West (@joncarrwest) March 24, 2022
You can watch the whole event here.
In the UK, if you have home check skills you can also volunteer to help with Homes for Ukraine scheme.
|Support for local government |
Local government is sometimes the last line of defence in Ukraine and a key part of the response in other nations. See our support to local government in response to the invasion.