Jaco Cilliers, UNDP Resident Representative in Ukraine
UNDP’s top priorities are to restore infrastructure and assist in preparing for the winter
22.11.2023 11:14

The Russian invasion and attacks on critical infrastructure have caused unprecedented challenges for Ukraine. The United Nations Development Program, which has been helping Ukraine for more than 30 years, estimates that more than 1.4 million homes were damaged and 51% of the generating capacity of our power system was affected.

Ukrinform talked to the UNDP Resident Representative in Ukraine, Jaco Cilliers, about how the UN agency helps Ukraine to withstand and build back better, as well as with demining, state reforms, and assistance to entrepreneurs.


- Mr. Cilliers, winter is coming. Everyone is preparing for shutdowns and Russian attacks on the energy system — we even have had one this season. How does UNDP help Ukraine prepare for the winter?

- The war in Ukraine has resulted in extensive damage to residences, large-scale displacement, and the destruction of critical infrastructure, such as energy, water, and heating systems. This has left millions of Ukrainians highly vulnerable to the impending severe winter conditions.

The arrival of heating season in Ukraine, typically in October, introduces a new element to the dire humanitarian crisis in a nation where the war has left nearly 18 million people, roughly half of the population, in need of assistance. Many people, particularly those seeking refuge in displacement centres that are often ill-equipped for cold weather and those in frontline communities living in damaged homes or lacking heating access, could face a hazardous winter as temperatures plummet below -20 degrees Celsius. The extreme cold might exacerbate the difficulties faced by communities already overwhelmed by the challenges stemming from intense hostilities, widespread destruction, job and livelihood losses, and limited access to essential services such as water and heating.

According to the Ukraine Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment, published in March 2023, approximately 1.4 million homes in Ukraine have been either damaged or destroyed since the Russian full-scale invasion in February 2022. The situation is especially concerning in frontline communities across regions including Donetsk, Kharkiv, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, and Mykolaiv oblasts, where ongoing attacks continue to harm residences and compound the already extensive destruction, further aggravated by the flooding caused by the Kakhovka dam disaster. Individuals in these communities, often comprised of older adults, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups, are frequently compelled to reside in homes with leaking roofs, broken windows, and damaged walls, which hinder their ability to heat their living spaces and protect themselves from severe temperatures. Damage to water systems, electricity, and gas networks further worsens the situation and heightens the associated risks.Moreover, around 93 percent of Ukrainians suffered from blackouts last winter, average household experienced fivecumulative weeks without electricity.

UNDP has made it a top priority to restore infrastructure and assist the government in preparing for the winter season. We've conducted various studies on the impact of Russian attacks on the energy system, and these findings have not only informed the government's actions but also those of numerous international organizations.

Our research has shown that these attacks have resulted in significant damage, with nearly 51 percent of Ukraine's generation capacity affected and 68 percent of the maneuvering capacity impacted. This damage leaves the energy grid highly vulnerable to potential future attacks. It's crucial to understand that energy plays a central role in various aspects of daily life, including people's ability to attend school, receive medical care, and access emergency services. Additionally, it ensures the proper functioning of sewerage systems and provides heating during the winter months.

Furthermore, we have placed a strong emphasis on identifying how best to support the government and have outlined our efforts in three key areas. First and foremost, we are actively restoring the energy grid infrastructure, which has suffered considerable damage. Our contributions include supplying essential equipment and materials to the government, as well as assisting in the repair of power substations. To date, we have successfully deliveredtwo new autotransformers.As a result, over half a million people will have access to electricity.

We take pride in the successful procurement and delivery of two autotransformers to Ukraine. We were one of the first organizations to bring these critical pieces of equipment into the country. As you may know, approximately 45 percent of autotransformers have suffered damage due to the Russian attacks. These are substantial pieces of machinery that play a vital role in providing much-needed support to the people of Ukraine.

Finally, we are also dedicated to efficiently restoring the energy grid. This includes our involvement in promoting green energy technologies and other innovative solutions that can contribute to rebuilding and ensuring a more sustainable and resilient energy infrastructure.

- Having researched the energy capacities, can you state that we are more vulnerable than a year before?

- I think the Ukrainian energy system is incredibly resilient. We have seen the incredible work that power engineers have done to restore the energy infrastructure when it is damaged. And I think Ukraine is in a better position where its air defense systems can better protect against some damages.

But the attacks we saw last winter indeed damaged the equipment heavily. The energy infrastructure is also vulnerable. We realize how important it is to continue to support the restoration of the energy infrastructure and help the government with these efforts.

- It is necessary to rebuild energy facilities, but we cannot simply rebuild Soviet power plants or plants that work on coal. How does UNDP's cooperation with Ukraine work in this field?

- Indeed, at UNDP, our primary focus is on "building back better." Over our extensive history of collaboration with the government, we have come to recognize the critical importance of transitioning Ukraine's energy grid towards a more environmentally friendly and sustainable energy system. We've worked closely with the government to develop a white paper that underscores the advantages of investing in green and renewable energy sources and the compelling reasons for doing so.

Despite the formidable challenges posed by the current circumstances, it's essentialto acknowledge that they also present an opportunity for the people of Ukraine to rebuild their energy system in a more efficient and environmentally friendly manner. This transformation offers the potential to create a more resilient and sustainable energy infrastructure for the future.

Indeed, a crucial aspect of this transformation involves decentralizing the energy grid, which was highly centralized and standardized during the Soviet era. Decentralization serves to reduce vulnerability to attacks and enhances efficiency in terms of both management and energy generation.

We strongly believe that investing in green technologies is a strategic imperative for the government. This approach not only aligns with the EU accession process but also prepares Ukraine for future requirements and expectations. It is our firm conviction that Ukraine should prioritize investments in solar, wind, biomass and biogas, as these sustainable energy sources offer a path towards a more environmentally friendly and resilient energy future.


- Before we speak about the reconstruction of everything else, I want to ask you what budget UNDP in Ukraine operates. I remember you committed to invest $1 billion in the renovation of Ukraine. How successful is the funding? 

UNDP has already generated over$360 million of grant investment funding. That includes a considerable amount of bilateral investment from grant funding and support, which is vital for the country's rebuilding. We also work with international finance institutions in leveraging loans and work closely with helping the government access these loans.

We have generated about 840 million worth of loans that the government uses mainly for energy efficiency and social infrastructure efforts that we have helped — schools, hospitals, water sewage treatment plants, cultural centres, and other sports facilities.

We do not just help with the rebuilding of Ukraine. The quality of the investment and how the funds are invested for us and Ukraine's rebuilding is as crucial as the amount of money.

- Okay, so for at least one billion dollars, is it an annual program, or is it a long-term plan?

It is a long-term plan in terms of investment. As I mentioned, we have already achieved that figure through both direct and indirect investments. We were able to access and help the government access funding as well. But again, we will continue to look at increasing the investment and the funding over the years. 


- Coming to the reconstruction: your motto is “build back better”. I wholeheartedly support it and believe we cannot just rebuild the Soviet panel building, but I fear the budget is not limitless. How do you solve this problem?

I believe that the future of Ukraine hinges on adopting the "build back better" approach, which involves investing in new technologies and innovative strategies to create opportunities for communities and the nation to rebuild.It has two components — one is how you involve community members in the participation and decision-making of what type of future they want and how they want to build their communities.

If people weigh in, meaning if they contribute, they also buy in, meaning they own the processes they help to create. We see that with community rebuilding efforts. The bottom-up approaches are as critical as top-down approaches from the government and the central level regarding how the country needs to rebuild. There is also horizontal integration across different line ministries and actors that the government needs to be involved with. That involves multiple voices from civil society and business in the development based on "build back better”.

In addition, the way sustainable technologies are used is also important. The government is committed to working with international partners on using modern technologies, including greener technologies and conservation opportunities, and looking at how to ensure that the country is more sustainable in the future.

- Schools need renovation, too. You have committed to renovating 100 facilities in 14 regions. How is the process going?

- UNDP is indeed fortunate to have received funding from the European Union and the German government, which enables us to undertake the vital task of rebuilding a minimum of 100 schools. These schools are primarily located in central and western Ukraine, as well as in areas on the front line, such as Mykolaiv.

We work with neglected and damaged schools and are committed to rebuilding them as quickly as possible. We have meticulously selected contractors and conducted technical evaluations to determine the necessary rebuilding efforts for these schools. We are committed to rebuilding 23 schools by the end of the year — some bythe end of November— and the others by early next year.

The reconstruction efforts encompass not only adopting innovative technologies for "building back better" but also addressing issues related to accessibility for individuals with disabilities, enhancing energy efficiency, and incorporating solar panels wherever feasible.

We find the future of the education system so important for long-term development. I think that is why it is also essential that these schools have shelters so that children can be safe when they return to these schools.


- Have you ever encountered corruption while working on reconstruction or signing contracts?

- We have learned from our extensive experience working in170 countries and territories that corruption stands as one of the most significant challenges in the construction of rebuilding and recovery initiatives in any nation. However, in the case of Ukraine, we have observed a clear commitment to combat corruption, with strong leadership from the highest levels of government. This commitment ensures that corruption does not take root in society, and anti-corruption measures are an integral part of the broader rebuilding efforts in the country.

We are very fortunate in our work with the government. For instance, together with the Ministry of Communities, Territories, and Infrastructure Development, we developed its Anti-Corruption Programme for 2023-2025, which includes corruption risk assessments and sets out the main principles of the ministry's anti-corruption work. It is great to see a real commitment in Ukraine to do everything possible to ensure that corruption does not undermine the rebuilding effort. And it is very encouraging to see the government fully realize the dangers of corruption through recovery. They do try to address these efforts by bringing in concrete programs and digital platforms that can also make the process much more transparent and open in terms of the application process and recovery efforts.

We are also concurrently working at the local level, strengthening the capacity of local communities in this field and recognizing their pivotal role in the recovery endeavour.Ukraine is implementing decentralization reform both in terms of policy and budget, which is why it is essential to work with communities to enhance transparency in resource utilization for reconstruction.

To provide our support most effectively, UNDP, in collaboration with the Ministry of Communities, Territories, and Infrastructure Development, surveyed 170 communities to assess their needs in establishing effective anti-corruption efforts. As of now, considering the assessment results, we are supporting 13 territorial communities throughout Ukraine in enhancing transparency and accountability at the local level.

With initiating various anti-corruption efforts, these include training journalists and community leaders to report when they see corruption and bringing opportunities to the government and institutions so that they can report, as well. We help with reviewing technical papers and procurement, including reviewing procurement documentation and other areas that are transparent and open.

Another important aspect of our work in promoting transparency and accountability is our support for small and medium-sized businesses. The businesses are pivotal in revitalizing the economy, creating employment opportunities, and fostering sustainable development, especially during war and post-recovery in Ukraine. To ensure Ukraine achieves a transparent and successful recovery, businesses must prioritize integrity and compliance. That is why UNDP is enhancing the capacity of small and medium-sized businesses in this area through various training sessions. Additionally, at the beginning of next year, an online training course for businesses titled "Strengthening Integrity: Minimizing Risks and Building Compliance by Businesses during Reconstruction," developed with our support, will be available for learning on the Diia.Education portal.


- Demining. Ukraine is the most mined country in the world, which will haunt us for a very long time. I know you co-operate with the SESU. What contribution does your team make?

- Ukraine faces two distinct mine action challenges. Firstly, there is the actual contamination from war remnants, including mines, UXO, and other explosives, which is possibly the most severe in Europe since World War II. This necessitates extensive clearance operations aligned with both international and Ukrainian standards.

Secondly, there are areas suspected of contamination, primary those which were under Russian military control, despite a lack of evidence. The perceived danger in these areas calls for innovative solutions and a risk management approach to mine action, ensuring safety until the land is confirmed as either contaminated or clear of mines.

UNDP actively supports SESU by providing funding, equipment, and training to revitalize the Ukrainian economy and contribute to global food security. Beyond financial and logistical support, we also actively collaborate in strategic planning, contributing to the development of Ukraine's national demining strategy. 

To streamline the demining process, we leverage innovative technologies such as satellite imagery, drones, and high-powered computing. These tools are subject to rigorous testing to ensure both their effectiveness in identifying safe areas and the safety of the personnel involved.

We applaud Ukrainian tech companies for their innovative spirit in advancing demining solutions. Furthermore, the UNDP has facilitated comprehensive training for over 150 SESU personnel, including emergency hotline operators, psychologists, and medical professionals, to ensure holistic support for communities affected by landmines and war-related incidents.


- Big investments in Ukraine are a crucial aspect of reconstruction, but I believe it is impossible to revive the country without the help of small and medium businesses. How does the UNDP help Ukrainian entrepreneurs?

- Absolutely, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of any economy, and they will play a pivotal role in the future of rebuilding Ukraine. The significant increase in unemployment rates, around 20 percent, according to the Statista platform, and the rise in poverty levels underscore the urgency of the situation. Ensuring that Ukraine avoids an unemployment crisis is of utmost importance, particularly for SMEs, as they have the potential to create jobs and generate employment opportunities that are essential for sustaining and revitalizing the economy.

UNDP helps to sustain businesses through various mechanisms. We provide small grants and assets to businesses that have started to rebuild themselves or need to do so. Many small businesses have lost some of their assets and equipment, so we support them with that. We do various trainings. We have mobile centresthat provide education programs and skills-based training for entrepreneurs, which I think is a future that should be encouraged within Ukraine. Ukraine possesses an encouraging entrepreneurial spirit, which can generate a lot of income and opportunities for creating jobs through small and medium businesses. 

We've also focused on relocation centres, recognizing that people in frontline areas have faced substantial challenges, including job losses and limited opportunities. Our approach involves generating skills and providing opportunities for individuals in these areas. These efforts are instrumental in raising awareness about the significance of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and, more importantly, delivering tangible skill development and business opportunities that empower individuals to rebuild their lives and communities effectively.

- Last but not least is the governance reform. Ukraine is facing massive challenges. It needs to meet the EU demands and reform to receive investments. Meanwhile, we have thousands of veterans, displaced persons, and those who need social security. It is not only a matter of money but also of mechanism. How does UNDP help Ukraine to address these challenges?

- What has become evident to us, both throughout the country and as I observed when I arrived here in November last year, is the vibrancy of civil society and its substantial contributions to development efforts.

We collaborate with more than 230civil society groups across Ukraine, and we firmly believe that government influence and leadership must be complemented by the support of civil society, along with community groups. While our primary mandate involves working with government departments, we recognize that long-term development necessitates the active involvement of civil society, including young activists and the private sector. We prioritize engaging with these three essential entities because effective developmentcan only be achieved when they work together in synergy.

Furthermore, we are actively involved in forming community groups that contribute valuable insights to the planning and developing community-oriented initiatives at a grassroots level. We have partnered with approximately 80 communities to establish planning committees where individuals' voices and inputs are actively considered. This approach not only enhances the effectiveness of rebuilding efforts but also ensures that local communities are actively engaged in recovery and development.

We have observed that technology and digital platforms present numerous opportunities to enhance access and service delivery to people in various ways. UNDP has actively collaborated on initiatives such as mobile administration services, which streamline administrative processes and provide digital platforms for faster access to government services. These efforts have been pivotal in driving the transformation process in Ukraine. It's heartening to witness the government's commitment to investing in digital transformation and platforms, exemplified by the daily work of the Ministry of Digital Transformation.

Moreover, UNDP works closely with the Ministry of Digital Transformation, the Ministry of Social Policy, and the Ministry of Veteran’s Affairs of Ukraine to digitalise highly-demanded and priority services for vulnerable groups, including veterans, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and those who require social support. For instance, following the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, UNDP supported the development of essential services for internally displaced persons to aid the Ukrainian Government in addressing the severe humanitarian crisis precipitated by the war. These services enabled displaced persons to register their status and apply for monthly assistance from the state, declare changes in the place of residence and cancel their status online — quickly and safely. UNDP also contributes to the creation of digital tools to help veterans return to civilian life. Now, on the e-Veteran and the Diia portals, veterans can apply for business grants and monetary support if they have a disability or fill in the “Perehid” questionnaire to ease their transition to civilian life. People interested in becoming veteran mentors in their hromadas can apply to participate in the programme online, too. Our key priority is to support people from the most vulnerable groups. Therefore, a set of social e-services were developed together with our government partners, such as regarding a housing subsidy, benefits for people with children, and services on child adoption. As of the end of 2023, these and other UNDP-supported electronic tools were used more than 19.8 million times.

UNDP supported the Ministry of Social Policy with their initiative to support Ukrainian families impacted by the war. The initiative is aimed at helping them to stabilise their emotional well-being, speed up their societal integration given the present conditions, involve them in practical activities during the war, and foster trust within families, employing modern, proven methods. In this pilot project, UNDP reached about 150 war-affected Ukrainian family members and introduced a social family restoration programme. The initiative culminated in the development of recommendations for the programme’s future application.

All of these areas collectively contribute to the governance and the establishment of essential systems. However, it's imperative that reforms remain at the forefront of the government's agenda. Reforms will continue to play a crucial role as Ukraine progresses toward the EU accession process, aligning the government and the people of Ukraine with the requirements of this significant step.

Ivan Kosiakin, Kyiv

Photo: Yevhen Kotenko

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