In November/December 2000 I worked in Kiev, Ukraine for the United Nations mission on the strategic re-launch of the mission website as a portal, whilst also advising the UN Resident Coordinator/UNDP Resident Representative Douglas Gardner on communications strategy. It was an extraordinary experience on many levels. It was a time when the Internet was fast evolving and required quick thinking and an ability to innovate; it was also a key moment in Ukraine’s history.
The dangers at the time for communicating on the Internet were starkly clear: on September 16, the Ukrainian journalist Georgy Gongadze was murdered. In 2013 Aleksei Pukach, former head of the surveillance department in the Ministry of Interior, was convicted of the murder.
But despite those dangers and clear threats from the government of the time, there was a flourishing and inventive Internet and digital economy. The magazine Internet UA (whose editor I enjoyed meeting) gave a great overview of the scene in Ukraine and its creativity. Just as now, the creation of Internet stars who can exploit the medium (in this case sexy videos: a very large online market today) was driving viewers and subscribers. But there was also a vibrant online news media, blogging, commerce and gaming presence as well.
According to ain.ua, the Ukrainian digital economy today is ” … ‘local’ only just figuratively speaking. Ukrainian startups are initially focused on international markets. Product companies are included into international industry ratings. Outsourcing works with clients from all over the world. Global players enter Ukrainian market, opening R&D offices, acquiring and investing into local companies. There are no boundaries.”
It is easy to take digital freedoms for granted now but there was great resistance at the time and, unlike today, many governments were openly hostile to digital technology, online communications and e-commerce.
The UN itself was evolving and embracing the communications and design revolution being driven by digital change. This was the first “dot.com” boom, which had begun in 1997. I had played a key role in pioneering online content for Mongolia (1997-1999) and could bring this experience to Ukraine. In particular, I launched an award-winning web portal for the UN Mongolia mission in 1997 (www.un-mongolia.mn) and also the country’s first web magazine, Ger.
The UN Ukraine brief involved creating content that was accessible to users with low bandwidth, dial-up connections (few had mobile phones in 2000). I had been building new media experience throughout the 1990s, tracking the cable and satellite TV and mobile/Internet revolutions for the Financial Times as a journalist, as well as launching websites for various media clients.
Key content created and launched on the UN Ukraine portal included critical information on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Ukraine, UN Ukraine’s first online magazine to explore perceptions of volunteering and NGOs in the post-communist period, and content preparing for the visit of the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, by showing how Ukraine was engaging with global development priorities, for example the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and bringing together UN agencies and entities into a cohesive web and “One UN” experience.
One highlight of this assignment was working with the “UN Chornobyl Programme” to develop its web content. This included visiting Pripyat (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pripyat),an abandoned city because of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster in 1986. I have visited many abandoned and “secret” cities and towns in the course of working with the United Nations but this particular visit had the added dimension of an environmental and human health disaster hanging over it (and as a former healthcare worker at Canada’s top cancer hospital and research institute, I couldn’t forget the impact of high radiation levels on the body).
The power of the Internet and the digital economy to engage people, especially the young, despite living in a country with significant political repression of free speech and even physical intimidation and murder, stuck with me. This work also contributed to laying the foundations for Ukraine’s growing freedoms and greater engagement with Europe.
ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052
© David South Consulting 2021