This is an excerpt from “Seeing Ukraine Then and Now,” by Jerold S. Kayden, as it appeared in Harvard Design Magazine.
At the time of this writing, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is front and center in the news. The mounting numbers of dead and wounded stun the imagination. The creation of millions of refugees crossing into Poland and other Eastern European countries testifies to the indiscriminate brutality of war. Those of us in the professions of planning and designing cities cannot fathom the immense physical devastation being visited upon them. Homes, civic structures, and physical infrastructure have been wantonly destroyed. Billions of dollars will be needed to rebuild. Now is decidedly not the moment to ponder how to rebuild, but there will be a time, hopefully in a not too distant future, when Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian planners, designers, and other professionals will be pressed into action. As I watch the unfolding horror, I can’t help but be reminded of an earlier period in my life.
On January 1, 1995, I flew from Kyiv to Boston to start my new position as an associate professor of urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. For more than two years, I had been shuttling between Boston and Ukraine as a United States Agency for International Development–funded advisor to Ukraine’s new government on issues of land reform. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine sought to introduce private market reforms to its state-controlled economy. Land and housing, among other state-owned assets, were on Ukraine’s privatization agenda. How much land should be privatized and how it should be accomplished were two of many questions confronting the government.
It cannot be emphasized enough that no one—Ukrainian or non-Ukrainian—had experience with mass-scale privatization. The former Soviet states and republics, along with former Eastern bloc countries, were suddenly flooded with foreign consultants, funded by various multilateral and bilateral donor organizations (USAID, World Bank, International Finance Corporation, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, among others), many claiming to have the secret sauce that would ignite mixed market economies. When it came to laws that could enable such transformations, the proposals too often involved cut-and-paste jobs on laws from the consultant’s home country. I remember seeing verbatim excerpts from Connecticut’s housing condominium law being circulated for adoption in an Eastern European country as it worked to privatize hundreds of thousands of housing units in multifamily buildings. That type of copying of laws and policies from an entirely different context constitutes the worst kind of technical assistance delivered by international consultants.
This piece was originally written for and printed in Harvard Design Magazine #50: “Today’s Global,” in spring 2022.