A Drive to Deepen and Widen Ukraine’s Roots of Resilience
By Daniela Schwarzer
Over the past year, the people of Ukraine have performed extraordinary things—beyond the military successes of 2022 that pushed Russian troops out of swathes of occupied territory in the north and southeast of the country.
This is only part of Ukraine’s remarkable story. Away from the frontline, millions of ordinary people have mobilized to help each other: offering shelter and support for those driven from their homes by the fighting; sharing cooking stoves and generators as Russia unleashed air attacks on their towns and cities; joining volunteer networks to deliver essential medicines and other support to the old.
Much of this extraordinary work has been supported or organized not by the government, but by the civil society groups and organizations that have proliferated across Ukraine since 2014, when the violent suppression of mass protests in support of Ukraine’s EU aspirations, known as the Revolution of Dignity, led to the fall of the then-pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.
The Open Society Foundations have been funding civil society groups in Ukraine through the Kyiv-based International Renaissance Foundation since the early 1990s with the goal of strengthening accountable, democratic government. With the start of the full-scale war, we set out to increase and widen this support for civil society, through the launch of a new Ukraine Democracy Fund—and invited other funders to join us.
Open Society committed an initial $25 million to the fund and invited other international philanthropic partners to join; 11 others have so far done so, bringing up the total funding committed to just over $44 million.
As an indication of the desperate need, in a normal year, our International Renaissance Foundation in Kyiv gives some 300 grants; last year, with the additional support from the Ukraine Democracy Fund, it gave more than 500. Those funds helped provide transport, generators, and other equipment to local hospitals, for example, and aided those who could not help themselves: the elderly, those with children, the sick, and wounded.
At the same time, we continued our funding of established national groups working on anticorruption efforts, on media freedoms—continuing today the work that began since Ukraine’s independence, aimed at building a new, more open, and more accountable European democracy—a system that stands in stark contrast to the thuggish authoritarianism that prevails in Russia under Vladimir Putin.
So in the first year, over $21 million has been given out by the Ukraine Democracy Fund. Of that just over $5.9 million was used to boost civil society in Ukraine itself; $5.6 million went to groups speaking out and raising money for Ukraine internationally; and $10 million went to support refugees and others across the region.
Internationally, the fund has supported the Business for Ukraine Coalition, launched to call out sanctions violations and hold companies to their commitments to leave Russia; it has supported efforts to mobilize writers and thinkers in Latin American through the Hay Literary Festival’s #AguantaUcrania; it has reinforced the massively successful U.S. fund-raising efforts of Razom Ukraine. In Ukraine and beyond, it has filled important gaps in serving refugees, internally displaced persons, and often-overlooked and vulnerable populations inside and outside the country, such as people of color and students fleeing Ukraine, the elderly, and chronically ill and palliative-care patients.
And both internationally and within Ukraine, we have supported the painful task of documenting war crimes and other abuses, and pushing for accountability and justice—including through the Center for Civil Rights, a joint-recipient of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, and the international 5am Coalition.
After one year of war, the fund has taken account of what has been achieved so far, and is now launching an expansive second phase—with an urgent appeal to partners to join us by committing additional funds over the coming two years.
Our goals will include continuing work to strengthen a resilient democracy in Ukraine, and to hold Russia’s political and military leadership to account for the crimes committed by an unprovoked war of military aggression. The fund will also hope to build on its work to sustain and expand international solidarity with Ukraine, and more broadly to counter the pernicious international influence of the Russian Federation and its authoritarian allies.
The goals are ambitious. But extraordinary, collective action is what this fight demands—for the future of Ukraine, and to ensure that we all continue to live in a world where rules matter.
Until May 2023, Daniela Schwarzer was the executive director for Open Society–Europe and Central Asia.