History reveals how to get Ukraine reconstruction right: Anti-corruption

Residents carry Ukrainian national flag as they gather in the Olympic Stadium to mark the Unity Day, the day Western intelligence agencies allegedly said they'd be invaded by Russia, in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 16, 2022. REUTERS/Umit Bektas     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

While there is currently no clear end in sight to ongoing Russian military aggression against Ukraine, discussions are already active about Ukraine’s reconstruction. At the Lugano conference in July, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky underscored the urgent need to plan for reconstruction before the end of open conflict. On October 25th, the German G7 Presidency and the EU Commission are hosting the International Expert Conference on the Recovery, Reconstruction, and Modernisation of Ukraine. These and other discussions on Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction present a critical opportunity to incorporate meaningful anti-corruption mechanisms into a rebuilding process that involves hundreds of billions of dollars and extensive coordination among the international community.

Successfully countering corruption—including undermining the power of kleptocratic oligarchs and sustaining ongoing efforts to reform political institutions—will help ensure reconstruction funds are well spent. A strong anti-corruption plan is an investment in Ukraine winning and maintaining a future peace. In this essay, we draw on lessons learned from previous reconstruction efforts in and beyond the region to suggest priorities for governments, donors, and civil society to help mitigate corruption risks during Ukraine’s reconstruction.

We examine three diverse jurisdictions where grand corruption played a role in undermining post-war reconstruction efforts: Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Czechoslovakia. Across varied environments, political histories, and security contexts, corruption has persistently eroded post-war reconstruction efforts. We highlight several key lessons and considerations that should inform Ukraine’s reconstruction efforts.[1] These lessons reinforce our overarching recommendation to ensure that anti-corruption programs are prioritized, as we also discuss here. Integrating these anti-corruption priorities into the reconstruction process will support a future for Ukraine that is characterized by good, equitable governance.


Though the circumstances in Afghanistan (and our other examples) vary greatly from Ukraine, we can draw on these experiences to help inform reconstruction plans and more specifically, corruption mitigation techniques.

Absent sufficient oversight, corruption, and mismanagement impeded efforts to reconstruct physical infrastructure and strengthen institutions in Afghanistan. $2.4 billion of the $7.8 billion in capital assets were reportedly not used for their intended purpose, abandoned, or destroyed in Afghanistan. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) investigations found American personnel and contractors who were suspected of bribery, fraud, kickbacks, and money laundering. While the investigations focused on Afghanistan, SIGAR’s critique of U.S. priorities and methods points to the need for foundational oversight and transparency from the outset of reconstruction efforts.

In Afghanistan, the United States did not succeed in crafting a consistent, coherent reconstruction strategy or adequately prioritize the sustainability of its reforms. The United States underestimated the amount of time that reconstruction required and prioritized spending quickly on short-term goals (often focused on security issues). Afghan institutions and powerbrokers found ways to co-opt the funds for their own purposes and continue corrupt practices. Aid money was poured into government ministries run by Afghan warlords who never separated themselves from preexisting patronage networks (or otherwise “self-corrected” toward good governance as some U.S. officials hoped they would). And though corruption in Afghanistan was widely recognized, “the United States did not substantially ramp up its emphasis on building security institutions based on accountability and good governance” until it was too late, around 2015. The failure to mitigate corruption had profound effects on the daily life of Afghans as well as the country’s broader security. For instance, Afghan troops paid bribes for medical attention and at times, widows “would probably not receive their pensions without bribes or connections.” In the end, corruption not only negatively affected many Afghan people’s quality of life but also degraded their government’s ability to hire and effectively retain troops.

To prevent repeating these kinds of shortcomings in Ukraine, stakeholders in that country and internationally should reference SIGAR’s post-mortem analyses and others, which recommend instituting robust, transparent oversight of officials and institutions during all stages of future reconstruction efforts. In Ukraine, this will be best served by including civil society to help monitor and ensure that these massive capital inflows reach their intended targets. For instance, Ukrainian civil society organizations like the RISE Coalition, in cooperation with the Ministry of Infrastructure, have already begun developing a pilot system that would help to manage reconstruction projects and monitor funds, as well as provide citizens and civil society access to information on the beneficial owners and generalized flows of funds (to the extent this information is open). The system will allow individuals—outside of Ukrainian government officials—to track and monitor the flow and impact of the reconstruction funds.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Like Afghanistan, the reconstruction efforts in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) lacked a coordinated, coherent long-term sustainable plan. Moreover, jurisdictions and agencies tried to do too much at once.

Following the three-year war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and a negotiated peace agreement in 1995, the stakeholders sought to “build a market economy based on the rule of law and privatize state assets to attract foreign investment that can create jobs.”

The exact cost of reconstruction remains unclear. However, experts estimate it to be anywhere from $5.1 billion to $15 billion $600 million of which the United States reportedly pledged. And while the international community organized and attended five donor conferences, the reconstruction effort suffered from deep political complexity, compounded by corruption, poor long-term planning, lingering ethnic rivalries, decentralization, and the misuse of funds.

The task at hand was substantial. Prior to 1992, BiH was not an internationally recognized government. Rather, it was a part of Yugoslavia. The peace agreement was signed by three key parties (among others): BiH, the Republic of Croatia, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In the years following the war, jurisdictions and agencies not only managed funds directed toward reconstruction but also toward maintaining the peace agreement, known as the Dayton Accords. Agencies, jurisdictions, and organizations expressed their intent to do the right thing: tracking their funds through audits, implementing a form of conditionality (requiring benchmarks to be met to unlock phases of aid), and supporting free, pluralistic media. However, they did not institute coordinated procedures nor commitments before distributing aid, and in the end, roughly $1 billion of foreign funds reportedly went “astray.” Due to the deep domestic network of corruption and poor international coordination, what has been described as a “massive leakage” proved unavoidable.

The international community arguably failed to invoke long-term sustainable reform and effective anti-corruption mechanisms. For instance, when it came to meeting reform “conditions,” progress in implementing them could not be sustained. According to the High Representatives, that was because “leaders from all three ethnic groups [had] not made a concerted effort to curb corruption.” The attempt to bolster free, pluralistic media also suffered due to “the desire for quick results” and insufficient engagement with civil society. And perhaps most devastating, the donors “failed to ensure the rule of law and increased transparency prior to disbursing either grants or development loans.” Instead, international agencies delivered substantial amounts of aid to “corrupt ‘moderates’” to “depress popular support for the nationalist parties,” hindering sustainable development.

To avoid these kinds of errors in Ukraine, that nation and the international community must first construct short-term and long-term reconstruction plans that account for domestic complexities and bolster transparency, accountability, and participation mechanisms. Then they must agree that aid will be conditioned upon the government implementing “long-standing rule of law and judicial reforms during the initial relief phase(s).” Finally, aid should be delivered through international financial institutions that have well-developed processes of upholding conditionality, although their architecture should be augmented with new platforms to coordinate oversight and conditions.

These conditions must be transparent and measurable with public and mutually agreed upon parameters. Broad statements will not suffice. For instance, the Ukrainian government cannot hypothetically say they “will support” accountability measures, like journalism. Rather, they must work to develop concrete plans and benchmarks for increasing journalists’ capacity and improving their capability. Conditionally unlocking aid as these benchmarks are met allows the international community, including civil society, to support Ukraine’s short-term and long-term reform efforts.


The complicated legacy of reconstruction efforts in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, earlier known as Czechoslovakia, continues to impact their current situations with corruption. Thirty years ago—at the beginning of reconstruction— the United States hoped to help support the transition from communism to post-communist existence, which included supporting free market economies and liberal democratic institutions. The consensus in Washington was that this transition would be different than classic foreign aid in that the recipient country was suddenly ready to build modern institutions, and the most important way U.S. policymakers could support them was by starting to get the money out the door quickly.

As required by the SEED Act of 1989, this assistance strategy included years of direct U.S. involvement and brought about a complete reconstruction of the economies and government institutions. This sustained effort is partially credited for the liberal democracy that remains vibrant in both countries to this day. But rapidity and lack of oversight during the privatization processes burdened the countries’ economies with corruption, which also persists today. From the principal U.S. assistance program from 1990 to 1996, only 5% of aid directly promoted democratic institutions in the Czech Republic. Similarly, just 9% of aid focused on democratic institutions in Slovakia. With this relative underinvestment, democratic institutions were ill-equipped to develop robust political checks on public corruption.

The speed of the privatization process, in conjunction with a lack of regulations and massive sell-offs, facilitated the establishment of “private fiefdoms serving the whims of entrenched lords” and “allowed for widespread corruption, which in turn has undermined the liberal project.” Just like in Afghanistan and BiH, the focus on speed during the reconstruction of the economy came at the expense of sufficiently building strong regulatory safeguards and institutions.

In fairness, investments in civil society helped launch programs that “remain a key component of Czech and Slovak democracy to this day.” Of this aid, which was dedicated to political governance, USAID sponsored training for local elected officials, bolstered the free media, and expanded civic education. While these efforts were insufficient to prevent widespread corruption, they have counteracted it.

These partial successes can inform anti-corruption aims in Ukraine’s reconstruction efforts—but a much larger effort should be made in Ukraine. Particular attention should be paid to the role of free and pluralistic media. As Eisen and Blumenthal discuss in a recent piece, journalists serve as “watchdogs” of democracy and anti-corruption efforts, and protecting and encouraging them is essential in holding governments accountable. To truly allow journalists to act in an oversight role, Ukraine’s vibrant civil society organizations and international donors must prioritize the needs of journalists and their civil society partners on the ground, including local-led training sessions and investment in long-term capacity building. The United States boosted independent media in the Czech Republic and Slovakia by providing technical and financial assistance, which in turn has bolstered the liberal democracies in both countries. The strength of the press in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia is ranked within the top 30 globally by Reporters Without Borders. That strength has in turn contributed to effective, high-profile accountability campaigns to expose public corruption. U.S. reconstruction efforts can build on ongoing aid strategies in Ukraine to continue supporting the media sector, thereby expanding its capacity to fight corruption.

looking ahead

The postwar reconstruction process in Ukraine will be an important test for the international community. To avoid capture and kleptocracy—which ultimately impede support to those in need and can cripple reconstruction—Ukraine and the international community must learn from past reconstruction challenges. By building strong transparency and oversight mechanisms; developing conditions for aid; coordinating among international financial institutions; and amplifying support for civil society, including investigative journalists, Ukraine and its partners have an opportunity to advance sustainable anti-corruption efforts and secure Ukraine’s future.


[1] We recognize of course that these examples and the factors we describe are illustrative rather than exhaustive, as the dynamics in each of these jurisdictions are complex and cannot be fully unpacked in a brief piece.


  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    The authors are grateful to Ivana Lefebvre d’Argencé and Zoe Hatsios for their fact-checking and copy-editing support. The authors also thank Josh Rudolph, Annie Pforzheimer, Kemal Derviş, and Miranda Patrucic for their insightful comments.