A ‘Nothing-Burger’: Questions ducked at the Berlin Conference on Ukraine’s Reconstruction
7 November 2022
Through September and early October, questions on Ukraine’s reconstruction gathered momentum and moved up the leader board of issues on a packed global agenda.
For months the US, the EC, IFIs and the G7 had been united in outrage and shared a sense of common purpose. A big World Bank report assessing the damage and estimating costs of reconstruction had landed in late September and significant battlefield gains by the Ukrainians and the approach of winter had focussed minds on short term and urgent reconstruction needs.
So the Europeans and their Ukrainian Counterparts, the IFI’s, the G7 and hordes of summit sherpas, experts and academics gathered in late October to take decisions on, and plan for, Ukraine’s reconstruction and to put flesh on the promises and principles of earlier conferences.
Berlin’s Unanswered questions
There were any number of meaty questions that needed to be addressed: see my earlier blogs:
Questions such as who pays? Who leads? When to start, where, using what approaches and modalities? Loans or Grants? How to address corruption?
These questions were not answered. The official statements and communiques from the Europeans and the Germans after the Berlin Conference simply restate the vague aspirations set out at Lugano in July that reconstruction is urgent, will be expensive, and needs to be led and coordinated.
On the question of how the international community should better coordinate assistance, German Finance Minister Lindner stated last week that:
‘The goal must be to set up an international platform for the reconstruction of Ukraine…to allow Ukraine to connect on an organised basis with G7 members and like-minded states, with the EU and with international financial institutions.’
This seems to be a sort of holding position – Ursula von der Leyen said much the same in her speech in Berlin, and indeed had set out more detail on a proposed platform in July which the EC would lead. Perhaps there are efforts going on behind the scenes to corral and coordinate the dozens of different agencies, INGOs and IFIs involved in working in parallel on new ‘Marshall Plans’, developing blueprints, setting up sector working groups or clusters. But the signs aren’t good.
For a breakdown of all the reasons that Berlin was a Nothing-Burger see Germany, EU play awkward hosts to Ukraine reconstruction conference – POLITICO.
Why reconstruction planning now is urgent
If the European Union/NATO wishes to secure its eastern borders it needs to win the peace as well as help win the war.
In an age increasingly defined as an existential struggle between autocracy and democracy the world will be watching to see if the democracies of the West can deliver peace, and then without missing a beat, restore Ukraine to relative prosperity through effective reconstruction.
The reputation and global leadership of the West is at stake and Ukraine’s reconstruction is the litmus test of its power.
Reconstruction needs to be seen as an investment and not a cost
When totting up the costs of reconstruction – which will dwarf that of any other reconstruction effort in history – it is importance to consider the credit and debit side of the balance sheet with the costs of reconstruction on one side of the ledger balanced with the values one assigns to peace on the other.
It is difficult to conceptualise let alone monetise the future value, to us all, of a prosperous and friendly Ukraine or of effective, coordinated action and leadership by the West. But this value is easier to grasp when one thinks through the costs and consequences of failure.
Time is not on our side
One big taboo is when reconstruction should start. European governments are reluctant to pour taxpayers’ money into rebuilding a country at war if there is a chance that investments into energy, railway and other infrastructure could be destroyed.
“The whole issue of reconstruction is something which can only start once there is peace,” EU Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn told POLITICO in September.
This is nonsense, and the line most favoured by those who want to kick this into the long grass: to bat away tough decisions and effective planning for an issue as complex, costly and critical to the future of Europe is as short sighted as it is negligent.
Cranes, Scaffolding and Jack Hammers: physical infrastructure is the key priority
After security, the rapid rebuilding of physical infrastructure is the most critical factor in ensuring that the West can secure the peace by restoring prosperity.
In Iraq there was no more potent symbol of the failure of the international reconstruction efforts than the piles of rubble and smashed government buildings that remained in the Green Zone for many years after the cruise missile attacks that destroyed them. Even Germans were still clearing rubble from the World War II in the mid 1970s.
Only the rapid rebuilding of physical infrastructure – and the tangible sense of progress that brings – will give the people of Ukraine confidence: confidence in their future, confidence in democracy and the rule of law and confidence in the process that leads to EC membership.
Too often botched reconstruction loses the confidence of citizens and confidence drains away: Iraq and Afghanistan are case studies in failure.
Rafiq Hariri, the late Lebanese leader, understood the importance of generating confidence in the future by prioritising the rebuilding of physical infrastructure: there is no more potent symbol of renewal than the sight of massed cranes and scaffolding, and the sound of jack hammers: for day after day, year after year Hariri was pictured in a hard hat to break the earth on a new building site or to open a new road. It is to be hoped that President Zelensky will see this and – when the security situation allows – swap his olive green military fatigues for a hard hat and shovel.
This author favours US leadership of the international effort to rebuild Ukraine and the establishment of a properly resourced but timebound Reconstruction Agency packed full of Ukrainian and international technocrats, engineers, lawyers, quantity surveyors and auditors.
Why should the US take the lead? The Free World is crying out for leadership and the US is by far the biggest player in Ukraine.
MetricsLed in Ukraine 2022
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