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A man looks at his house flooded as the result of the Kakhovka dam destruction on June 12 in Afanasiivka village, Mykolaiv region, Ukraine.Roman Pilipey/Getty Images

Oleksandr Senkevych never imagined that his job as mayor would involve building trenches to fend off the Russian army and dodging missile attacks.

Mr. Senkevych, a former IT professional, has been mayor of the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv for almost a decade, and for the past 16 months, he has helped residents cope with the devastation of the war. The port city on the Black Sea has endured 217 days of bombardments, and almost all its civic infrastructure has been destroyed.

“I don’t usually have too much time to think about it,” Mr. Senkevych said last week in an interview in London, where he attended the Ukraine Recovery Conference. “We just do what we have to do. We are just acting without any feelings.”

Now that the Russian army has been pushed farther east, Mykolaiv has slowly begun to rebuild, and Mr. Senkevych is facing a new challenge: how to manage the massive inflow of foreign assistance and avoid widespread corruption.

The sheer scope of the reconstruction is daunting. Hundreds of buildings – homes, schools, hospitals – have been ruined, and most businesses have closed. The water and heating systems barely work, and public transit is non-existent. “Half our buses went to the front line to deliver our troops, and the other half were destroyed,” said the 41-year-old mayor.

Before the war, Mykolaiv had a population of almost 500,000. It now stands at about 350,000, which includes 57,000 people from nearby areas who have been displaced by the fighting.

City officials estimate that reconstruction will cost at least €860-million ($1.23-billion). Foreign governments and international organizations have pledged to fund dozens of projects, but there’s concern that the city may not be able to manage the resources.

Mr. Senkevych is so worried about corruption that he has instructed his officials to keep as far away from the cash as possible. “I don’t trust people. I trust technology,” he said.

The city is modernizing its procurement process to make it as transparent as possible, he added. “We need to make all the processes digital,” he explained. “In that case, we will avoid corruption, because actually corruption is about two people: the one who wants to be corrupted, and the one who wants to corrupt someone.”

Corruption has been a long-standing problem in Ukraine. Transparency International has ranked Ukraine among the most corrupt countries in the world, and there have been a number of high-profile cases in recent months.

In May, the head of the Supreme Court was arrested on allegations that he and a group of lawyers accepted US$2.7-million in bribes to fix cases. Earlier this year, police launched fraud investigations against several senior figures, including the head of Kyiv’s tax inspectorate. And in January, officers arrested the country’s deputy infrastructure minister, Vasyl Lozinskyi, for allegedly stealing US$400,000 that was earmarked for humanitarian aid.

Mykolaiv has not been immune to corruption scandals. The deputy mayor, Serhii Korenev, is facing allegations of embezzlement along with another city official over the refurbishment of the city’s main square in 2019.

Mr. Senkevych defended Mr. Korenev, who is still on city council, and said the case was politically motivated by his opponents. “They don’t have any information about corruption connections, or bribing, or asking for money,” he said. “That was my biggest project before the election, so that’s why they started it, just to make it look dirty.”

He acknowledged that the allegations have tarnished his reputation, but insisted they haven’t affected the city’s partnerships with donor countries.

The European Union Anti-Corruption Initiative in Ukraine has been working with Mr. Senkevych and the city council to improve project management. “Mykolaiv is not a city that had experience in receiving international aid,” said Allan Pagh Kristensen, who heads the initiative. “The task is enormous. And of course the risks of things that can go wrong, they are there, including when it comes to corruption.”

Mr. Kristensen told a panel discussion in London last week that his group was helping the city council develop a list of best practices. “We need to ensure that all the aid coming through a city like Mykolaiv comes through the same channel,” he said. “Someone has an overview, someone takes care of the reporting, someone knows what’s going on – how the money will be spent.”

For example, the Danish government has provided more than $7-million for new water pipes and pumps. Mr. Kristensen said the water agency needed processes in place to “close the gaps that there might be for corruption.”

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There are also plans for the city to use a geographic information system to map the location of damaged buildings and monitor their repair and reconstruction. And Mykolaiv has joined a new Ukrainian government initiative called DREAM – digital restoration ecosystem for accountable management – an online platform that tracks the progress and funding of construction projects.

Mr. Senkevych said he was confident the city will rebuild and protect taxpayers’ money. He has already lived through the worst of the shelling and has been separated for months from his wife and children, who still live outside the city, where it is safer.

“I accept it and I try to learn from this,” he said of his many responsibilities, then added jokingly: “But at least there will be very good things for my CV.”

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