Digging into the data: Ukraine’s pursuit of happiness

Digging into the data: Ukraine’s pursuit of happiness

Ukraine isn’t the happiest place in the world right now, and according to some stats that’ve come out recently it might actually be one of the unhappiest.

Take a look at data released last month in the World Happiness Report 2016, a project that ranks countries by their happiness levels using data from the Gallup World Poll, which 1,000 Ukrainians take part in every year.

The main measure of happiness they use is a zero to 10 scale called the Cantril Ladder, which to get all psychometricky is “a measurement of subjective well-being”:

“Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”

The World Happiness Report then takes an average of these rankings for each country and ranks each country by that average score.

Back in 2007 and 2008, Ukraine didn’t rank too badly, as you can see below in the first chart I’ve done up – about half of countries scored lower than Ukraine, including several other European countries.

But in 2013, almost three-quarters of all countries surveyed had higher happiness scores than Ukraine, though Ukraine’s was still higher than Bulgaria, Georgia and Armenia.

By 2014, around 80 per cent of countries had higher scores than Ukraine and by 2015, Ukraine ranked in 120th place out of 136 countries – the lowest of any European country.


The World Happiness Report also looks at a few other measures, including the freedom to make life choices. To calculate this measure, they take a national average of responses to the question “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?”

This figure’s never been too high in Ukraine to begin with; only in 2011 did Ukraine come close to breaking out of the bottom fifth of countries on this measure.

But it’s the decline from 2013 to 2015 that’s the most jarring, as you can see in the graph below (I’ve cut the y-axis to the 50th percentile to make it more obvious). In 2015, Ukrainians ranked second last out of all countries on this measure, behind only Haiti.


I also took a look at the corruption measure, but I’m not sure the way they calculate the corruption measure is that well-suited for Ukraine. The measure the World Happiness Survey uses is the national average of survey responses to two questions: “Is corruption widespread throughout the government or not?” and “Is corruption widespread within businesses or not?” Splitting the question into a ‘government’ corruption question and a ‘business’ corruption question seems weird to me – aren’t they kind of one and the same thing? – but it’s the only data I’ve got, it’s still worth looking at and, plus, I’m no perceptions-of-corruption expert.

When it comes to corruption, these stats aren’t at all shocking. Ukrainians perceive far more corruption in their own country than people in most other countries, and this perception’s only got worse in the past few years – only Bosnians/Herzegovinians and Romanians felt corruption was worse in their own countries.

There’s other data from the Gallup World Poll 2015, released in January, that paints an even unhappier picture of Ukraine:

  • The percentage of Ukrainians who reported being satisfied with their standard of living dropped from 27% to 17% in 2015
  • 6% of Ukrainians are “suffering” – the highest among all post-Soviet states Gallup surveyed
  • 56% of Ukrainians feel they’re “struggling”
  • Only 9% of Ukrainians feel they’re “thriving”

On top of that, last year I ran some data from the 2012 version of the European Social Survey (for which, despite the name, was done in July 2013 in Ukraine), and found some more unhappy stats.

Aside from being some of the most likely people to feel depressed over the past week (only Hungarians and Albanians were more depressed), Ukrainians also were more likely than anyone from the other 28 countries surveyed to have:

  • Felt anxious in the past week (29% compared to 11% on average)
  • Felt sad in the past week (23% compared to 9% on average)
  • Felt lonely in the past week (21% compared to 8% on average).

None of these stats should be a revelation to anyone even minimally aware of goings-on in Ukraine over the past few years, and they raise more questions than answers.

For one, why are Ukrainians so unhappy? Well, yes, obvious answer is obvious (something like “uh, you know, everything? Like, do you know anything, Michael?”) but I mean more in the sense of whether there’s one or two things that Ukrainians really hit on when they talk about being unhappy. The war? Corruption? The economy? Or is it a not-easily-quantifiable combination of factors, the aforementioned ‘everything’?

What does this unhappiness mean for Ukraine’s already-stretched health and social systems? Does this unhappiness mean we’ll see an increase in mental health issues (e.g., PTSD, depression, even suicide) in Ukraine? Have we already?

What are the implications of all this ballooning unhappiness for Ukraine’s political leaders as they continue to pretend to fight corruption and reduce the power of the oligarchs? Does all this unhappiness mean that Ukrainians will sit back, or will it make them angry enough to make yet another stand?

Rampant corruption tests Ukrainians’ patience

(latest in the Winnipeg Free Press)

This month marks the second anniversary of Ukraine’s bloody revolution on the Maidan, but no one’s in a mood to celebrate.

“People here are in a state of total depression,” a friend told me this week from Kyiv. “People are frustrated. Nobody sees any prospects here.”

The statistics back this up. One poll released in January showed Ukrainians are feeling worse about the future than ever before. The percentage of Ukrainians who reported being satisfied with their standard of living dropped 10 per cent in 2015. More than one-third of Ukrainians reported they felt they were “suffering” — the highest among all post-Soviet countries surveyed — alongside less than 10 per cent who said they were “thriving.”

“I think the main cause of this depression isn’t the war,” my friend said. “It’s the government. We have the same problems as before: corruption and bribery.”

Take a look at what Ukraine’s government has done in the last few weeks and it’s easy to see why Ukrainians are so frustrated.

Earlier this month, the economy minister was the latest in a wave of reformers to resign. He accused President Petro Poroshenko’s right-hand man of standing in the way of anti-corruption reforms and trying to take control of the ministry to oversee sales of lucrative state-owned energy assets.

Last week, Poroshenko looked like he was taking a stand when he called for the resignation of the prosecutor-general, a man who hasn’t pursued a single high-profile, anti-corruption case in his tenure. Problem is, no one is sure right now whether he’s actually resigned, or just gone on vacation — by law, Ukrainian officials can’t be fired if they’re on vacation.

Poroshenko also called for the resignation of unpopular Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a man who’s long been accused of protecting the interests of Ukraine’s wealthy oligarchs and dragging his feet on anti-corruption reforms.

But while Ukraine’s parliament passed a resolution expressing dissatisfaction with Yatsenyuk and his cabinet, the vote to oust him from power failed. Three dozen MPs from Poroshenko’s party curiously decided not to vote in favour of ousting the prime minister, even though they’d voted for the resolution just 15 minutes earlier. A backroom deal had apparently been reached to keep Yatsenyuk in office, and the hands of Ukraine’s wealthy oligarchs were all over it, keen on keeping their exclusive access to the corridors of power.

Ukraine’s government will find itself in deep trouble if it doesn’t take the fight against corruption and the power of the oligarchs more seriously. The International Monetary Fund has told the government its four-year, US$17.5-billion bailout could be withdrawn unless meaningful anti-corruption reforms are put in place. A $1.7-billion tranche of that funding has been withheld since October, waiting for reforms that haven’t happened yet.

Ukraine’s economy is already struggling, and without western assistance, it will crumble. Even with western assistance, Ukraine’s economy contracted by 10 per cent in 2015, and the value of the hryvnya, its currency, keeps plunging. But, as Glib Vyshlinsky of Kyiv’s Centre for Economic Strategy told Agence France-Presse: “There are no other sources of foreign assistance. Turning to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is not an option.”

But without anti-corruption reforms, and without help and pressure from the West, there’s a real risk Ukraine will fall back into the Kremlin’s nihilistic, kleptocratic orbit and the revolution on the Maidan will have been for nothing — exactly what Putin wants.

It’s worrying then many Ukrainians feel like nothing has changed.

“Everything’s starting to be just like it was before,” another friend from western Ukraine said. “Everybody is so tired of all this. People are just trying to survive.”

Russia’s bald-faced lies

Russia’s bald-faced lies

(My latest in the National Post)

We can complain all we want about lying politicians in our own country, but last week Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stepped up and showed us how it’s really done: without batting an eye, he told a press conference that Russia had never violated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the agreement that guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity (including Crimea) in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons.

“If you’re talking about the Budapest Memorandum, we have not violated it,” he told a journalist. “It contains only one obligation — not to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine.”

There’s a few big problems with that statement, least of which is the fact that there are actually six obligations in the Budapest Memorandum, and the first of them is “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”

Even worse was the Russian embassy in the U.K.’s ham-handed attempt to broadcast Lavrov’s bold new interpretation on Twitter. It provided a link to the text of the Budapest Memorandum itself with all six obligations, including the ones Russia has clearly violated — right there for everyone to see.

 Keep in mind that Lavrov wasn’t just Russia’s ambassador to the UN back in 1994; he actually signed the original Budapest Memorandum. He hasn’t been foreign minister for 12 years because he’s an idiot. He was lying, he knew he was lying and he knew everyone knew he was lying — and he didn’t care.

In the words of American diplomat Steven Pifer, who helped negotiate the Budapest Memorandum, “what does it say about the mendacity of Russian diplomacy and its contempt for international opinion when the foreign minister says something that can be proven wrong with less than 30 seconds of Google fact-checking?”

The answer: it says that, when it comes to the Kremlin, we’re dealing with a way of lying we’re not used to seeing. It’s a black-knight-from-Monty-Python-esque style of lying that makes dealing with Putin and company on issues like Ukraine and Syria such a nightmare.

Yes, our politicians lie, but they tend to be a bit more crafty about it. They lie by omission: they’ll answer part of a question; they’ll fudge a number or base a figure on something that doesn’t make any sense. Our politicians don’t often stand up and tell us something we all know is a total lie.

Why? Because, believe it or not, our politicians actually have some respect for us. They know we can go online and check the veracity of something before they’ve even finished their speech. They know we have a media that, for all its faults, will gleefully call them out on it. When they lie, they want us all to believe it.

Russian politicians, on the other hand, aren’t interested in concepts like respect or believability. It doesn’t matter if you actually cut Putin’s arm off. He doesn’t care that you can see it right there on the ground. “’Tis but a scratch,” he’ll say. He won’t budge. And he’ll insist it’s a flesh wound until, like his admission of Russian soldiers in Crimea, he quietly admits that, yeah, you did actually cut it off. But then he’ll go one step further and deny ever denying that you cut it off.

It’s a kind of mental gymnastics that drives Russia-watchers like me up the wall, and it extends to Russia’s echo-chamber state media. Russia’s Channel One fabricated a now-infamous story of a young boy apparently being crucified on a bulletin board in a town square by the Ukrainian army. They also told Germany’s large Russian-speaking diaspora that a young Russian-German girl was kidnapped and raped by migrants in Berlin, even though it’s since come out that she was hiding from her parents. The TV station Zvezda has even made up quotes from Western journalists to lend credibility to fake pro-Kremlin stories.

It’s hard for us to grasp the ridiculousness of all this, but that’s because these lies really aren’t designed to convince anyone. If these lies convince just a few nutters or populist politicians in Europe to mouth off and shift the debate Moscow’s way, then they’ve succeeded. But as we in the West finally begin to pay more attention to the Kremlin’s antics, we’re starting to catch on.

Ukraine struggles with rise in PTSD

A piece I wrote for the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) on the rise in PTSD in Ukraine, and what’s being done to try and stop it.

Marc Lapointe, a Canadian Forces veteran working with Hero’s Companion in Ukraine, assesses a candidate therapy dog near Kyiv. Photo courtesy of Hero's Companion
Marc Lapointe, a Canadian Forces veteran working with Hero’s Companion in Ukraine,
assesses a candidate therapy dog near Kyiv.
(Photo courtesy of Hero’s Companion)

On the Maidan in Kyiv, the site of protests that ended in bloodshed in February 2014, almost every ledge and concrete step is covered with hasty memorials to the fallen. Fresh flowers and red glass candles surround framed pictures of dead soldiers. Next to them, rows of placards depicting photos from the war zone, from tanks on the move to soldiers playing soccer in shelled gymnasiums. In between the placards and pedestrians, volunteers from various organizations walk back and forth with little pails hanging from their necks, asking for donations to help wounded soldiers and their families.

These volunteers know, as does everyone in Ukraine, that there are legions of traumatized soldiers returning from the east. Since the war with Russia started in April 2014, some 70 000 Ukrainian soldiers have fought and approximately 2500 have died. Soldiers have seen friends killed in front of them with high-powered Russian artillery. Some have lost limbs; others have seen entire towns turned to rubble.

…read more in the CMAJ: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/early/2015/10/19/cmaj.109-5160.full.pdf+html?sid=b072a15e-5130-4b5a-83bf-56d8cccc23a8