The experience of war is all-encompassing. It is a life changing experience. No country, no society, no community, no individual ever comes out of it the same. However, people almost always hang on to the hope that once the violence stops things will go back to some sort of normal, at least for those that survive. But this is almost never true, because war and the structural and individual violence it unleashes changes entire societies to the core. Rarely for the better.
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), the country from which I come, changed for the worse. It is more violent, more reactionary; politically, socially, and economically drained of resources and progressive ideas, and emptied of people. But the country did not have to change for the worse, despite the destruction it suffered. Where BiH is today is a result of political and economic decisions imposed on our society by both domestic and international elites. It is a result of the (in)actions of the United Nations and its agencies. It is a result of economic and political interests of individual countries and multilateral organisations such as the international financial institutions, and the European Union. It is the result of the domestic elites in power, that rather than seeking to serve the interests of the people, were seeking to make money out of our suffering. Looking back at almost 30 years of our attempts to recover from war it is possible, almost with surgical precision, to point out the decisions and processes that led us to where we are today.
One of the things that is crystal clear in the case of BiH is that the push to transform our political economy and to integrate the country into the global capitalist market was far greater than the desire to deal with the consequences of war. Among the many players that used BiH as a laboratory for their (neo)liberal ideas of how recovery should happen, there really weren’t that many of them that were interested in exposing and abolishing the root causes to violence and war.
Even though these players presented their efforts as post-war recovery, what was taking place was something completely different. The recovery and reconstruction process were separated from the people’s experience of war and the devastating consequences of it. Post-war transition translated into increased poverty, depoliticisation, disempowerment, disillusion, and more anxiety, sadness, and bitterness for most people. The recovery became an elusive concept available only for the privileged few, those that managed to cash in on both destruction and reconstruction.
Gorana Mlinarević, a fellow feminist, and I wrote extensively about the BiH experience in a series of essays published by WILPF in 2021. Our reflections in that series are relevant for understanding the efforts and approaches to “reconstruct” Ukraine that are already underway even as the war there continues. Despite the temporal, contextual, and geopolitical differences between these two wars, the structures in place that drive war and the players that lead “recovery” efforts are similar. For a while, it seemed entirely impossible for any country to fare any worse than the trainwreck of BiH reconstruction and recovery, but looking at how things are unfolding in Ukraine, it might do just that.
Sadly, war is an opportunity for many
War is a lucrative affair for certain corporations, people, and institutions. We might not be able to convince the governments around the world that investing in social infrastructure, care, and environmental sustainability is what must be done for this planet to survive, but they don’t need any convincing to spend money on destruction. It is wars, not the well-being of people and planet, that sends elites into a spending frenzy.
According to Deutche Welle, since Russia’s annexation of Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporozhye, and Kherson, the profits of the oil industry have gone up a staggering 350 per cent, and the profits of the arms industry 150 per cent! The longer the war continues, the more money there is to be made, and not just through selling weapons to Ukraine but also to all the other countries eager to militarise. Using the war in Ukraine as an excuse, EU member states have announced increases in their military budgets by close to additional €200 billion in the coming years, while at the same time they claim there is no money for social infrastructure and public services.
We should also bear in mind that Russia, the second biggest arms dealer in the world, is under sanctions. While this hasn’t stopped all Russian arms sales, some of Russia’s portion of the market can be claimed by someone. Of course, the United States is a top contender to fill that slot, and the White House hawks have already started talking about how to exploit the situation for the benefit of the US military-industrial complex.
For private corporations and elites in many Western governments, the war in Ukraine is an opportunity to profit from the market that Ukraine has become—a market that will expand even further once the reconstruction starts. In these governments’ (mis)directed and cold geopolitical analysis, it is also an opportunity to settle scores with Russia. Many make claims that “we are in this together,” but the support being provided demands scrutiny and critical reflections.
In 2007, Canadian author Naomi Klein published a book called The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism, in which she exposes the exploitation of disaster-shocked people and countries by the global capital. From Iraq to New Orleans, she shows how global capital moves in and enforces its neoliberal ideas on countries, cities, and people who are still recovering from the shock of war or natural disasters. She documents how capitalists uses people’s traumatisation to push through laws and neoliberal policies that otherwise would not be passed without opposition—such as undermining labour rights, making deep cuts to social spending, depleting the public resources, and outsourcing vital public services to private actors. Klein says that the disaster capitalist complex, as she calls it, has in only a few years expanded its market reach with the ultimate goal of introducing the model of for-profit government into the everyday functioning of the state—in other words, to privatize it.
It has been some 15 years since Klein wrote this book. In between then and now, the workings of disaster capitalism have been further exposed by academics and activists alike. Many protests around the world have been in opposition to neoliberal policies. And if the scale of the devastation and depletion of our public sectors and social infrastructure, caused by harmful neoliberal policies, was not clear enough before, it certainly became very evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite all the evidence on how harmful neoliberalism is, it appears that it has continued to be a highly popular tool used by multilateral organisations, happily cheered on by so-called economic experts, and diligently implemented by our governments that now these days seem mostly to be in the service of corporations and not people.
A new market to exploit
One year into Russia’s aggression and illegal annexation of parts of Ukraine, there are few things that come as a surprise for those of us who have either experienced war and/or work on abolishing it. It is all too familiar and too predictable. The individual and societal trauma is massive; the exhaustion of activists and organisers (particularly women) from trying to respond to all the humanitarian needs is palpable; the number of Ukrainians being driven from their homes and forced into displacement is proportional to the immense violence unleashed on their lives. The destruction is massive, the outlook for the future dire. In other words, conditions have been met for disaster capitalism to descend on the country. And indeed, it has.
Ukraine is the newest opportunity for disaster capitalism. While Ukraine is no stranger to neoliberal policies, it is only now that the most extreme interventions can be pushed through, because people—potential opponents of these policies—are busy either surviving or holding their communities together. As in most conflicts, Ukrainian women bear the bulk of this much needed and life-saving labour, which is neither recognised or accounted for in political and economic spaces where the recovery is discussed and decided on. As Olha Georgiev said, reporting from a panel called Transnational Feminist Solidarity in Support of the Reconstruction and Struggle of Ukraine: “The extent to which the concepts of the reconstruction of Ukraine will reflect the interests of Ukrainian workers, particularly women, will depend on the extent of their participation in the debate, and on the extent to which their voices will be heard and recognized.”
The false dichotomy between economic recovery and peace
What we are witnessing in Ukraine is how the process of planning for reconstruction and recovery—which should be centred around the pursuit of sustainable peace, based on the everyday realities of those suffering—is being highjacked by the drive for profit maximisation. Instead of those most affected, it is the international financial institutions (IFIs), investment funds, and other private actors that seem to be setting the agenda for peace in Ukraine. But they don’t disclose that that is what they are doing. Instead, they introduce a false division between official peace negotiations (which are nowhere to be found) and economic recovery interventions, portraying them as two completely different processes.
Whereas peace negotiations (when put in place) will be left to “important” men in uniforms accompanied with diplomats, the economic interventions underway are portrayed as an “objective” course of action, devoid of financial interests and ideology of those planning for them and unrelated to peace, other than in its reconstruction element. So in between the peace negotiations reserved for the “important” men, and economic interventions reserved for “experts” there is really no room for those most affected by the war to influence how the transition from war to peace will be carried out. There is no room for them to have a say in the political economy that will underpin the transition from war to peace, despite the fact that it is their labour, made invisible, that right now is holding up entire communities all around Ukraine.
The consequences of approaches like this one are highly visible in BiH today, some 30 years after the war. They are visible through the domination of neoliberal ideas of profit over people, and continuous manufacturing of crisis by the domestic and international elite as a tool to hold on to power, and thus resources and wealth. If the approach in BiH, some 30 years ago, is similar to the approach in Ukraine today, can we really expect a different result?
By allowing IFIs, investment funds, private actors, and other multilateral organisations with vested financial and political interests to set the agenda for “recovery”—and thus for peace—Ukraine, as many other countries in similar situation before, will surrender its right to create domestic policies in the best interest of the people. It will also give up the right of the people to have influence over decision-making with regards to the country’s political economy through a democratic and transparent process. How countries decide to shape the political, economic, and social processes, as different parts of a whole, to carry them through the recovery process, matters. It matters greatly. There is really no line of division between political and economic aspects of transitioning from war to peace. That is a false dichotomy. At the same time, most people affected are held outside of decision-making spaces. Their involvement is at the most formulaic.
In the midst of war, it is of course exceptionally difficult to scrutinise the process of (re)shaping a country’s political economy, which is exactly what those propagating for the shock doctrine count on. It just does not feel urgent enough, there is no headspace and energy amongst the activists, or they are actively being kept outside decision-making spaces. Those that do find the energy and headspace to engage with these matters are told that “now is not the time” and any opposition to policies implemented are portrayed as unpatriotic.
But the thing is, there is no later.
Our future is shaped at the very same time as our present is killed.
It is shaped in distant cities, by (mostly) white middle-aged men, in an environment sterilised not only of death and destruction, but also of our everyday lives and realities.
Unfortunately, we see much of this approach in Ukraine, as if the so-called international community has not learnt its lessons from the many conflicts they have caused and/or intervened in before.
Making profit out of the support
Ukraine faces an urgent economic and social crisis. Due to Russia’s ruthless attacks on civilian infrastructure, and the fact that the economy is not able to function under given circumstances, the country is facing an imminent social and economic breakdown.
The estimates are that Ukraine’s basic, non-military budget financing needs are well over US$3 billion a month. The World Bank estimates reconstruction costs to be nearly US$350 billion, while the Ukrainian government says the total bill can be as high as US$750 billion. With peace nowhere in sight and Russia’s continuous attacks on Ukraine, there is really no way of knowing what the final cost will be. Furthermore, these estimates probably only consider physical infrastructure and don’t account for the lives lost or destroyed, the opportunities missed in terms of education or schooling, the long-term effects on the overall health of the Ukrainian people, and the general traumatisation—all of which come with long-term economic and social costs for the society.
One would think that comparative to other ongoing conflicts, the massive support rallied for Ukraine would make a difference. But without any prospect for peace—and with so many players actively opposing any attempts to negotiate a solution—combined with the fact that a big portion of the money committed under the guise of solidarity is in fact loans, the money that is pouring into Ukraine actually makes for a very dire picture. So-called solidarity is slowly but surely becoming Ukraine’s debt trap.
A newly established database by Kiel Institute for World Economy has been able to trace €84.2 billion in government-to-government commitments in the period January to August 2022 (accesses in January 2023). That is quite amazing, but it is worth looking at the fine print. Despite all public outcries of solidarity and support for Ukraine, the so-called solidarity has not stretched as far as debt relief. Rather, the “solidarity” has been of a mixed kind. Some of it has been aid but a lot more has come in form of new grants and loans, or military support.
If we look at the numbers of the top three supporters of Ukraine—the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada—far more has been earmarked as military and financial aid, i.e. new grants, loans, and loan guarantees, than humanitarian aid. So, for example, the United States has provided Ukraine with €15.053 billion in financial aid, compared to €9.906 billion in humanitarian aid. The United Kingdom has sent Ukraine €0.398 billion in humanitarian aid, while the financial support has been considerably higher, €2.555 billion; and Canada’s humanitarian aid has been €0.288 billion compared to the financial support in the amount of €2.139 billion. The military support of all three countries is far above the humanitarian support.
Looking at the European Union (EU), out of €19.7 billion that has been mobilised by the EU in 2022 €16.7 billion are actually new loans and grants. €7.2 billions out of this money come in the form of micro-financial assistance, which is a special kind of EU support, conditional on the existence of a credit arrangement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and satisfactory track record in implementing IMF conditioned reforms in the country, which have already had a detrimental effect on people’s lives, in particular women’s. And this was even before Russia’s invasion.
Within the €19.7 billion, €3.1 billion come in the form of military support provided under the cynically named European Peace Facility. This money doesn’t actually go to Ukraine but is used to reimburse EU member states for their in-kind military support to Ukraine, which basically means that the support EU member states have been bragging about is good old arms trading dressed in language of (militarised) solidarity. Only a small fraction of the €19.7 billion goes to much needed civil society support: €31 million to be exact.
For 2023, the European Commission has planned for €18 billion to be dispersed throughout the year in the form of concessional loans to be repaid in the course of maximum 35 years, starting in 2033. In addition, the European Investment Bank (EIB) has committed €2.2 billion for loans and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has planned for €2 billion to support resilience and livelihoods in Ukraine and affected countries. When it comes to the World Bank Group (WB), by January 2023 it has dispersed 16 out of the US$18 billion it mobilised in emergency financing.
The financial support is made in coordination with and between IFIs, mainly the IMF and the WB. As noted above, the EU’s micro-financial assistance is directly related to Ukraine’s ability to fulfil IMF conditionalities. So, it is worth looking into what conditions the IMF is imposing on Ukraine. According to its website, the IMF has so far disbursed US$1.4 billion in emergency financing and another US$1.3 billion is in the pipeline, under the newly established Food Shock Window. In addition, in December 2022, the Ukrainian government requested a four-month long Program Monitoring with Board involvement (PMB). Key measures within PMB include revenue mobilization and reviving the domestic debt market, preparing a financial sector strategy, and enhancing transparency and governance. PMB means that the IMF and Ukraine will coordinate fiscal, monetary, and other policies to support the “macroeconomic and financial stability” of Ukraine.
Unless one is an economist it is not easy to understand what looms behind these somewhat complicated words. What does IMF mean with macroeconomic stabilisation? Well, among other things, it seems to mean cuts and reforms of social spending. The Ukrainian government has agreed to start working on a plan for post-war reform of social assistance so that it aligns with the requirement to maintain fiscal stability. In plain language, this means cuts in social assistance, and probably elsewhere as well. Ukraine’s painful history with IMF started already in 1994 when the first IMF loan was conditioned with among other things reduction of subsidies and introduction of targeted assistance to the population, speeding up of the privatisation of public sector enterprises, reduction of state deficit and deregulations. The main purpose of this approach is to ensure that Ukraine’s economy and budget are stable enough to repay the growing debt, no matter the costs for the population at large. While cutting back on public spending on health care, education, well-fare and alike, the government relies on private actors to pick up the slack.
Solidarity as a debt trap
The support provided to Ukraine should not be framed as solidarity. Solidarity would require someone doing their utmost to stop the war as a first step in helping Ukraine. What we see happening here is cold and calculated profit-making. The conditionalities placed on this so-called “support”, which comes with political, economic, and social (re)engineering of the Ukrainian society, without effective inclusion of those most affected by the war, will harm rather than help Ukrainians.
All of this new debt money is just the tip of the iceberg. It comes on top of Ukraine’s already existing national debt, which amounted to US$71.71 billion in 2021. And we can expect more to come over the next few years. Already in 2015, Oleksandr Kravchuk, a Ukrainian economist warned for Ukraine being pushed towards a “Greek scenario” in which “financial aid is provided in exchange for strict social and economic measures, and as a result, the country remains not only in a state of socio-economic crisis, but also with a portfolio of multibillion-dollar debts”.
Ukraine’s growing debt will become a powerful, disciplinary tool in the hands of IFIs. The war in Ukraine does not operate outside of the modus operandi of “global powers” and capitalism in general. We don’t have to wait for 20 years to pass to understand the effects of this approach through which the international community, in all its shapes and forms, instead of insisting on peace is insisting on debt. We can look at the outcomes of the neoliberal onslaught of the countries in Latin America; the effects of structural adjustment programmes on the African continent; or even more recently, the bankruptcy of Sri Lanka, the latest victim of the debt trap, with catastrophic consequences for the people. Other examples can be found in eastern European countries and their transition to market economies, an experience with which Ukraine is already familiar.
Sadly, the road that Ukraine is being pushed down is very clear. This approach will not only push Ukraine deeper into a debt trap, but it will also almost certainly send the country down a long road of austerity measures and economic hardships, so that the lenders can ensure their so-called solidarity borrowing is duly repaid, because that is what the conditionalities are ultimately for. As it is clearly spelled out on the IMF’s website, they are measures “meant to safeguard IMF resources by ensuring that the country’s balance of payments will be strong enough to permit it to repay the loan.” And repay Ukraine shall.
A country outsourced
Despite the enormous debt being amassed, the money being lent to Ukraine is not nearly enough for the massive war economy that the Ukrainian government must entertain. As the war drags on, lacking any credible peace process or even any serious attempt to negotiate a ceasefire, Ukraine is left with no other choice but to continue looking for more money to survive in war-time mode and keep the economy afloat.
Whether an approach born out of pure desperation, or an actual ideological and political conviction (probably both), Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been diligently following the neoliberal recipe. He has turned to private actors for support. He has addressed the New York Stock Exchange with a message that the reconstruction process in Ukraine is an opportunity for corporations to “invest in projects worth hundreds of billions of dollars to share the victory with us [Ukrainian people].”
To match the invitation, his government, with the support of WPP, one of the leading communications companies in the world, has started an online platform called Advantage Ukraine with promises that Ukraine is “The greatest opportunity in Europe since World War II”. The platform invites entrepreneurs to invest in hundreds of projects, and offers them in return deregulations and financial stimulations, up to ten years exemption from corporate income tax, up to 500 permits for public business services, and much more from the neoliberal kitchen. On the investment menu, on offer is the military industry, natural resources, energy sector, logistics and infrastructure, agro-industrial complex, power industry and much more.
In line with this approach, in November 2022 the Ukrainian Ministry of Economy signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with BlackRock, the world’s largest investment fund that manages US$8.5 trillion in assets—and also, by the way, owns 7.7% of WPP. The MoU says that BlackRock will provide consultative assistance to Ukraine in developing a special platform to attract private capital for the recovery and support of Ukraine’s economy. In other words, BlackRock is put in charge of setting up and running an international investment fund for recovery of Ukraine.
BlackRock is controversial. Last year, feminists from around the world came together in their demand to UN Women to end its partnership with BlackRock due to its “well-known record of prioritizing profits over human rights or environmental integrity”. The global campaign Corporate Accountability has put BlackRock on its Corporate Accountability’s Corporate Hall of Shame for its role in driving climate catastrophe, its investments in weapons production and role in militarization, and much more. CODEPINK also has a campaign against BlackRock for its investments in weapons manufacturing, and
Jubilee Debt Campaign claims that BlackRock is making profit out of Zambia’s debt crisis.
We probably don’t even have the bandwidth to understand the size of potential profit for BlackRock from the war in Ukraine and its special position awarded to it by the Ukrainian government. But what we do know is that we are looking at a fully privatised recovery plan. A country outsourced.
In keeping with its promise of being “the greatest opportunity” for private actors to make money, the Ukrainian government has doubled down on the neoliberal policies it put in place many years before the second round of Russian invasion in February 2022. In August last year the Ukrainian parliament adopted Law 5371—a draconian intervention into labour rights. This Law, which was proposed already in April 2021 but did not pass due to lack of sufficient political support, removes those employed in small and medium-sized companies (under 250 employees) from the country’s existing labour laws. This means that more than 70 per cent of the Ukrainian workforce is now forced into a system where their contracts—and rights and obligations that are usually negotiated collectively, such as salary, working hours, vacation, sick-leave, and benefits—will be subject to individual negotiation between the employer and the worker. The adaptation of Law 5371 came on the heels of already heavily curtailed labour rights. Previous interventions into the labour law made it more difficult to organise in trade unions, introduced “suspension in employment” allowing the employer to suspend work and wage of a worker for an extended period of time, enshrined the right for employers to unilaterally suspend collective agreements, and so on. These types of interventions are neoliberalism 101.
There is sufficient evidence from other contexts for us to know how these types of interventions into the labour law will end. They will lead to precarity and to more inequality, and the power the workers lose will be difficult to regain. The power dynamic between the worker and the capitalist is already asymmetrical, which makes labour laws and unions, which at least provided some sort of collective protection and strength in numbers, hugely important. That protection is now gone for large parts of the Ukrainian work force. Without collective protection, the employer (the capitalist) is given free rein to decide what the priorities will be: decent salaries or maximisation of profit. A good capitalist always chooses profits.
We also know what this will mean for women and others who already have very few bargaining chips. In other contexts where war has not even been an aggravating factor, neoliberal onslaught on labour rights has led to further devaluation of women’s labour, increases in part-time employment, even lower salaries, no protection against sexual and other forms of harassment, lay-offs leading to economic dependency, an increase in care responsibilities, as well as growth in informal and flexible working arrangements. All of this push women and other marginalized groups into poverty, insecurity, and precariousness.
Leveraging private capital for peace
While neoliberalism has clearly been a driver of many crises, neoliberal ideas continue to permeate contemporary approaches to post-war recovery and reconstruction. Think tanks, independent so-called experts, private banks, international financial institutions, and government officials are full of “good advice” that boil down to deregulations, privatisations, and market-based solutions. The line of those supporting neoliberal economic policies is long. In one policy paper issued by The Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), for example, the following friendly advice was offered:
Ukrainian circumstances call for more market-based allocation mechanisms to ensure cost-effective solutions that do not overburden the state capacity, exacerbate existing problems (such as corruption), or encourage (untaxed) black market activities. To this end, the aim should be to pursue extensive radical deregulation of economic activity [emphasis added], avoid price controls, and facilitate a productive reallocation of resources.
Leveraging private capital and investments for recovery and prevention in relation to conflicts and violence is not a new model. The international financial institutions, in particular the WB, has been advocating for this approach for a long time now. This approach is based on the neoliberal assumption that the unquestionable foundation for peace and development, both within and between states, is market democracy and that the solution lies in “leveraging private capital” and the development of a “healthy private sector”. What the WB and other advocating for this approach don’t discuss is how the private sector is driven by maximisation of profit and growth and not by societal needs, and that helping a society recover from war, if done with people’s best interests in mind, is usually not suitable for profit-making.
Commodifying harms and violations
Those propagating for market-based solutions are crystal clear about how they see the market and what its role is. They say that the market is not about distribution but about efficiency and that the problem of distribution is a political one. In a capitalist world, a market is only as efficient as the profit and growth it generates. So, how does capitalism profit from harms and violations?
Let’s consider what an efficient, market-based solution to the many problems facing a conflict or post-conflict country would look like. Take for example the reconstruction of housing. If war is taking place in populated areas, as it is in Ukraine and did in BiH, the destruction of housing is massive. But from a market perspective, there is a limited amount of profit to extract from people’s need to rebuild their homes. Soon enough, that “market” will be saturated, and private investors will start looking at what generates real profit: high value apartments and luxury compounds. These will be built first to house all the internationals that will descend on the country to “assist” in its rebuilding, and then to serve as an investment-opportunity for those few that have managed to turn the post-war period to their economic advantage. Decent and affordable living for those recovering from war will soon enough disappear from their radar. Perhaps in Ukraine it already has. According to Oleksandr Kolesnichenko in December 2022 planning laws were changed through expedient procedures by the Ukrainian parliament handing over “unprecedented powers to Ukraine’s construction industry” that seem to have set its eyes on historical buildings and their attractive locations, looking for opportunities to turn them into, among other things, multi-storey residential complex.
We can look at healthcare as well. In a post-war society, healthcare, from a capitalist point of view, can be a highly attractive market. Countries emerging out of conflict are usually in great need of specialised healthcare. But people who have lost everything and are looking to restore their lives usually don’t have means to pay for that service, nor should they have to. Countries emerging out of war should prioritise massive public investments in the healthcare sector—but those investments will in the short-term generate very little or no profit at all. However, in the long run these investments can generate great benefits for society. They can lead to healthier people able to work and engage in democratic processes. They can contribute to lessening the burden on women to provide care, freeing up their time, energy, and resources to engage in public life. But while the societal gains can be many, investments in universal healthcare will not be filling any private actors’ pockets, which means that most likely the army of private actors BlackRock can “leverage” will not be interested in ensuring universal healthcare. They will be interested in profit making, and profit can be found in private hospitals, private pharmacies, private care, all for a nice, market-competitive price, to be enjoyed only by those who can afford it.
We need a paradigm shift
It turns out that peace is a highly political thing. How our societies are shaped during and after a war, in a political, social, and economic sense, is a matter of ideology, choices, priorities, interests, and ultimately what sort of vision exists for reconstruction and recovery. More than anything else, it is about who gets to create that vision and who gets excluded in the process.
Sometimes the workings of neoliberalism and disaster capitalism are under the radar and insidious, packaged in big words like economic prosperity, development, accountability, rule of law, or even in technical terms like macroeconomic and fiscal stability. The changes can stretch over a longer period of time, making it more difficult for potential opposition to understand the full scope of their consequences. In Ukraine, that is not the case. Under the chaperon of war and recovery, the neoliberal full-frontal attack on Ukrainian society is underway, and it is taking place out in the open. The neoliberal solutions have nothing to do with stopping the war, but will have everything to do with peace, with what sort of lives the people of Ukraine will be able to lead once the war stops, and who will be in control of their lives.
The world has seen one war and one attempt to recovery too many to know that the neoliberal approach not only does not work, but that it actually makes things worse. And things have gone from bad to worse, in Ukraine and all around the globe. The war in Ukraine plays out against a backdrop of rapidly changing global dynamics and compounding crises. Some, like the Columbia University historian Adam Tooze, refer to the current context as a polycrisis. In polycrisis, he argues, the shocks are felt differently across the globe, but as they interact the whole is worse than the sum of its parts.
We don’t really know where this polycrisis is going to take us. Nowhere good, it seems right now. The world is on fire and unfortunately for the people of Ukraine they are in the middle of it all. The war in Ukraine has brought the world to the brink of an all-out nuclear war. It has contributed to massive militarisation all around the world, offset the recovery from COVID-19, and put saving our planet from climate change and environmental destruction on hold. This is a pause we cannot afford. Furthermore, the political and economic elite of the European Union, the United State, China, and other countries are using Russia’s imperialist aggression against Ukraine to assert their place and/or dominance in this fast-changing context. Perhaps finally realising that the Earth’s resources are finite, the game for the remaining resources—oil, gas, timber, minerals, water, cobalt, lithium—is on! The political and economic elites, while hiding behind big concepts like nation-states and national identity, even justice and solidarity, are driving millions of people in countries they claim to represent over the cliff. As the war in Ukraine escalates, so do all the other crises we collectively face.
Around the world people are struggling with inflation rates and poverty. Many low and middle-income countries that were already facing sovereign debt crises caused both by irresponsible lending and massive enforcement of neoliberal agendas, compounded by the COVID-19 crisis, are paying a huge price for a war they have nothing do to do with. The war in Ukraine has had serious consequences on both energy and food security. The price of staple foods, petroleum products, and agricultural inputs has risen sharply, driving the levels of acute food insecurity, in particular in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Food Programme the ripple effects of the war in Ukraine has put 345 million people at risk. With the surge in international oil and gas prices, there is also a high risk of the countries in the Global South being thrown into an economic crises on top of the one already caused by COVID-19. In such situations, countries have to turn to international creditors such as the IMF to stabilise their finances. But that “support” will come with a political, economic, and social price that no one should be forced to pay.
These are no ordinary circumstances, and it is evident we cannot go on like this. We need a paradigm shift.
The countries and organisations that claim to care about Ukrainian lives have to stop relying on an approach that commodifies harm and that uses war as an opportunity to make money. They instead must refocus on helping to bring peace to Ukraine. For every day that goes by in Ukraine, without any serious attempt to build peace, we see new threats emerge, from killer robots to nuclear weapons. We see bombardment of homes, hospitals, schools, and water and sanitation infrastructure. We see environmental destruction. No serious reconstruction, of either physical infrastructure, or people’s lives, can take place while the killings are ongoing. Those countries supporting Ukraine must use their financial aid to enable Ukraine to focus on development of a healthy public sector, which is instrumental for gender-just peace, for restoring social trust and stability, and ensuring efficient and adequate provisioning of social and economic rights.
Instead of producing debt, exploiting people and nature, we must work on creating conditions that will help people around the world to recover after the destruction caused by wars. These conditions cannot be created if we continue piling on the debt, waiting to reap the profit from it. Debt is not a tool that will bring sustainable peace, to Ukraine or anywhere else. We must demand debt cancellation for all countries that find themselves in a debt trap, created by irresponsible and unfair lending, undemocratic and untransparent processes that move the money from public sectors into private pockets. It is time for all sovereign debt accumulated through exploitative relationships between the borrower and the lender to be cancelled so that countries can focus on dealing with the many crises they are facing.
We must move away from neoliberal solutions and the fixation of private property, private actors, and growth as cornerstones of development, putting instead focus on real solidarity, collective actions and interests, and sustainable and fair international relations.
Moving away from neoliberal solutions requires, more broadly, a systematic analysis of socioeconomic conditions to guide in building real solidarity. Understanding how militarism, patriarchy, imperialism, colonialism and capitalism are structures that rely and thrive on war is important for confronting those propagating these paradigms and developing alternative frameworks for action. We cannot build sustainable peace, in Ukraine or elsewhere, if we continue relying on the structures that cause harm in the first place to then save us from that harm. Instead, we must simultaneously work to abolish these structures of violence and instead build systems for solidarity and care.