January 24, 2023

Limited GovernmentPolicy

Ukraine Will Need a Civic Overhaul Once the War is Over

By: Emily Schroen

The U.S. government has committed over $68 billion dollars in aid to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February. Much of this support is channeled through third party NGOs, but a significant amount is handled by the Ukrainian government. Ukraine has wrestled with debilitating corruption for decades, and it’s unlikely all donated funds are being spent appropriately now, much less after the war. The United States is going to spend billions of dollars on Ukrainian reconstruction, and starting now with anti-corruption education could prevent future crisis spending.

The UNHCR estimates only half of primary-school aged refugee children go to school. The COVID-19 pandemic compounded this effect in Ukraine, and now some seven and eight year old Ukrainians have never set foot in a classroom. 

This isn’t just bad socially, it’s physically dangerous. Low levels of education and high levels of inequality in education increase the risk of violence, creating a cycle of conflict and displacement. For a nation with Russia at its border and a corrupt, infant republic, this could mean a descent to authoritarianism.

Many of the eight million Ukrainians that have fled fled to Europe are students. They are often resettling in countries with healthier economies and political infrastructure. Krzysztof Szczęsny, the Director of the Modlińska Humanitarian Aid Center in Poland, attests, “Many Ukrainians in the countryside don’t have indoor plumbing or similar luxuries. These people will demand reforms if and when they return to Ukraine.” Ukrainians are hungry for a healthier, less corrupt economy, but are unequipped to advocate for it.

One Polish educator is turning this desire for change into political action. Robert Szczęsny worked with Ukrainian educators for years before the war. When Russian invasion paused his work pioneering youth education centers in Ukraine, he transferred those projects to the Modlińska Center in Warsaw. In his mind, equipping emerging adults with knowledge about democratic ideals, economics, and civics could prevent an authoritarian slide after the war. 

The education program in the Modlińska Center is already improving general education rates for its residents. Refugee children are conducting science experiments in their own language, creating group art projects, and having debates about social issues. Students attending Ukrainian schools online can have critical hands-on lessons, while students in Polish schools can get language help and cultural support. One of Robert’s projects will have displaced Maripoul students rebuild their city together in Minecraft. Another project will pilot a civics masterclass for teenagers.

The international community, the United States included, is starting to notice these innovative efforts. UNICEF partnered with the Modlińska Center and Polish Child Development Foundation to construct classrooms for students to learn in. Robert is also helping Japanese educators incorporate Ukrainian materials into lessons for the Ukrainian students. A French nonprofit is providing English lessons for young adults. Even Ukrainian schools,operating from a warzone, are transplanting Robert’s programs into their classrooms. 

The United States could curb future instability in Europe by supporting these efforts now. Leaders like Krzysztof and Robert have proven it is possible even without traditional classrooms or the materials U.S. classrooms take for granted. In the refugee shelter, producing results quickly, efficiently and cheaply is the difference between life and death, dignity and despair. The U.S. government should take notes.

America is already hemorrhaging funds into Ukraine, and education must come second to basic survival necessities. For congresspeople, Republicans in particular, it’s hard to see past those dollar signs. However, an investment in Ukrainian education today could mean a more stable Europe following the war. Empowering Ukrainian youth to demand and create democracy isn’t just an investment in Ukraine, it’s a downpayment on US interests in Europe at large.