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What Can Ukraine Teach Canada?

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An anti-establishment movement gains momentum in the West. Democracy has an in-built remedy against the self-destruction -- grass-root initiatives as a way to reconnect the existing institutions with ordinary people. This remedy requires that volunteer initiatives go beyond their usual role of a service provider. The experience of volunteers in Ukraine is instructive: they are heading toward becoming a watchdog of the government.

Following the 2013-2014 revolution of dignity and Russia's subsequent aggression that resulted in the annexation of Crimea and Ukraine's loss of control over a part of its territory in Donbass, Ukraine's people have faced the need to start the process of state and nation building over again. The West is expected to provide help and assistance in this difficult moment in Ukraine's history, especially Canada with its significant population of Ukrainian descent. What is usually overlooked, however, is how Ukraine may be of assistance to the West in making democracy work more efficiently on a daily basis.

The prevalent discourse focuses on what the West can teach Ukraine. Quite a lot indeed. A country suffering from protracted war, widespread corruption and the lack of a tradition of effective government needs to take lessons on how to modernize virtually every aspect of the existing public institutions.

Is there something that Ukraine can teach the West? The question is not as outlandish as it may seem at first sight. Ukraine's unique experience in fighting for human dignity may be of relevance in reviving democratic institutions elsewhere.

Yet it is definitely not up to the Ukrainian government to be a role model. That government is perceived as highly corrupt (Transparency International, TI, ranks it 130 out of 168 based on the criterion of public service cleanness).

Who then could eventually go beyond the role of a pupil? Volunteers. The volunteer movement is probably the most valuable thing that Ukraine has produced recently. The volunteer movement has been consistently perceived among the top three most trusted institutions in the country (along with the church and the military).

The argument that Ukrainian volunteers may potentially be considered a role model for Westerners needs to be clarified. After all, Canadians' degree of involvement into voluntary associations tends to be one of the highest in the Western world.

A survey conducted by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in September 2016 shows that the total volume of monetary contributions (without in-kind donations) made by Ukrainians to charities and voluntary initiatives during past 12 months amounts to 0.4% of GDP, which does not exceed similar figures in Canada (0.4-0.5%). Median volunteer hours per year in Ukraine are close to 120 against 55 in Canada, but the ratio of volunteers to adult population in Canada is higher (47% against 7%).

The fact that Ukrainian volunteers often provide services and goods that their state fails to supply seems to make their case less relevant for the West. The peak in the volunteer movement coincided with the early stages of Russia's aggression. Ukraine's army turned out to be unprepared not only to curb the covert (in Donbass) and overt (in Crimea) invasion but also to offer assistance to the civil population in the zones of conflict and to take care of the wounded and the veterans. Fortunately, the Canadian armed forces hardly expect to receive food, clothing, medication and military equipment from Canadians as a condition for their operation.

The area in which Ukrainian volunteers have some unique experience of potential interest for Westerners lies elsewhere. It entails attempts to control the government on a daily basis. It is precisely because the governments in the West are believed to be less corrupt (Canada is ranked the 9th on the TI list) and more effective in supplying public goods that their constituency tends to take too much for granted, as far as their government institutions are concerned. As a result, volunteer initiatives that focus on controlling the delivery of public services are rare if not inexistent.

Ukraine's volunteer movement has roots in the 2013-2014 attempt to create institutions that would protect the human dignity of its citizens. After initially having no choice but to serve as a substitute for their failed state, Ukrainian volunteers are progressively moving toward the realization of a much bolder task, that is of interest for ordinary people in the West, namely to control the government on a continuous basis and not to take anything related to the government for granted.

Ukrainians create most checks and balances from scratch. In a way, Ukrainian volunteers may be compared with the builders of the first modern democratic nations in the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet their example may be relevant for Canadians since there are also a number of issues concerning the operation of their government that call for grass-root initiatives.

Access to the law is one of them. One's right to equal treatment before the law is a foundation of human dignity. This is why Ukrainian volunteers increasingly turn their attention to reforms of that country's law enforcement system: the police, the office of the attorney general, and the courts.

In contrast to Ukraine, the principles of the rule of law are believed to be respected in Canada. However, access to the law still has a problematic character in North America. A party that is better represented has more chances of winning regardless of the merits of the other, poorly represented, party.

The seriousness of this issue is acknowledged and addressed with the help of various legal aid programs, the pro bono work done by the barristers etc. What is often missing, nevertheless, is the willingness not to take the efficiency of such remedies provided by the government and professional associations for granted, the willingness to take bottom-up initiatives in this and several other areas.

It is exactly here that the experience of Ukrainian volunteers seems particularly relevant. Volunteer associations in the West may and perhaps should become again a watchdog and an advocate in addition to being a service provider.

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