Gabriel Abraham is an accomplished architect, urban planner, and service delivery expert with over 25 years of experience managing and designing innovative and complex projects in more than 25 countries. His extensive expertise includes overseeing teams of over 100 staff members in multiple offices, successfully integrating local ownership and training methods. Mr. Abraham has also supported knowledge-sharing within and outside his projects, leading to the successful completion of several large projects, including the restoration of the city of Luxor based on his master plan.
As Chief of Party of the USAID HOVERLA Activity in Ukraine, Mr. Abraham is currently managing the largest US government-funded decentralization and local government strengthening project in the world. He is providing leadership and change management assistance to over 90 municipalities, as well as numerous national institutions, resulting in significant improvements in service delivery. Furthermore, he has developed post-war support strategies, including reconstruction plans, equipment, housing, and shelter, while bolstering civic engagement and digital solutions.
We interviewed him in September 2023 about the role of local governments in Ukraine and beyond.
Q: How do you perceive the role of local governments?
The concept of local governments is important because they are the closest government organ to the people. So, the people can access their local government, they can address them, and they can reach out to them. Local governments are also accountable to their population. They know well the problems of the community, and the strengths and weaknesses of their own local governance. Local governments are also mechanisms by which power is distributed, and allow for less centralization of authority. Ultimately, it’s all about service delivery. Local governments are the most able to provide and deliver needed services. For all of those reasons, local government is the right model for sustainable solutions. Finally on this point, there’s a lot of discussion now about climate change. So local governments are active on the ground, and can actually see the impacts of climate change and thus arrive at the most sustainable solutions.
Q: What challenges do local governments face?
The challenges local governments face are big. They often don’t have enough resources, including financial resources, or capacity. So they might be unable to, for example, collect waste and then also build a landfill site. They might not be able to build airports or big hospitals either, as they might not receive adequate funding. Sometimes, local governments also suffer from political overreach from the central government, and that’s also a problem. These are just some of the challenges that local governments face. Another problem local governments encounter is citizen participation. On the positive side, local governments can and should be able to engage citizens. But citizen engagement is something that requires training and education. Therefore, local governments have to make an effort to train citizens or show citizens that they can engage, and how. However, in many societies it’s still challenging to realize citizen participation.
Q: How does the international community contribute to strengthening local governments?
The international community provides technical assistance, helping directly in specific activities in local governments. The international community also assists with building capacities, which I think is slightly different. By building the capacity of local governments, the international community can serve as an advocacy mechanism for them to appeal to central government. Also, the international community or international partners can assist through knowledge transfer, sharing best practices from other communities. Overall, the international community actually has a big and effective role to play in strengthening local governments.
Q: How important is gender mainstreaming in reforming and strengthening local governments?
Well, considering that 50% of the population are women, gender is essential to address. It’s an issue that hasn’t been properly addressed in many societies, and so a greater effort is needed here. You have to address it in various contexts including financing, planning, climate change policy, leadership, and participation. There are gaps here in many societies that need to be filled. So, yes, gender mainstreaming is very important. However, there are other gaps as well such as youth participation in governance. When you look at many societies, the youth population is very high, but their participation and opportunities for participation are very slim. So, the issue of youth has to be addressed as well, with greater accessibility given to them. In some societies including post-conflict societies, accessibility is a major impediment to participation. Thus, we need to look at all of the deficits in society that have not been suitably addressed in local governments and try to deal with them. Gender mainstreaming is very, very important, and so is youth, as well as accessibility. I think these are the top three issues.
Q: Can you provide an overview of the primary objectives and significance of the USAID Governance and Local Accountability (HOVERLA) program for Ukraine? How has the Russian invasion in February 2022 impacted upon the objectives and implementation of the program, and what modifications have been necessary as a result?
HOVERLA’s primary objective is to advance the decentralization reform agenda in Ukraine, that the Government of Ukraine has committed to. But how do we do this? We accomplish this through legislative reform at national and subnational levels. We achieve this through strengthening local governments, as we are doing in numerous oblasts and almost 90 municipalities. We do this through citizen engagement activities, encouraging their engagement with local governments and also the national government. This is a standard formula and it’s proved fairly effective. Local governments are strengthened by looking at and improving the legislative environment, the capacities of local governments, and then citizen engagement.
When Russia attacked Ukraine and the war began, the challenges were enormous, and they still are. First, populations were and are moving. When populations move, it’s very difficult to plan anything in terms of education. It’s hard to plan for school programs when you cannot predict your school-age population six months from now, or even tomorrow. Second, people have to leave their communities. That includes government workers. So where there was already a capacity gap, but now there’s an even bigger one. Third, businesses leave or move.
When that happens, the tax base of the community decreases in some areas, although in other areas it increases because businesses have to move there from elsewhere. Fourth, infrastructure is destroyed. So all of the resources of local governments go on building roads and bridges, or rather re-building roads and bridges. Unfortunately, they have to go toward digging graveyards too. So the local governments are on the frontline in many ways. They face the soldiers, and clean up after they have left. So we come back to the need to have stronger local governments. They have numerous problems. They’ve lost facilities, many of them have lost their administration building, as well as schools, hospitals, housing, and factories that they’re responsible for reconstructing.