Date of Award


Degree Name

PhD Leadership Studies

Dissertation Committee

Hans Peter Schmitz, PhD, Chair; Paul J. D’Anieri, PhD, Member; Robert Donmoyer, PhD, Member; Zachary Gabriel Green, PhD, Member


Civil society, informality, Ukraine


Western donors have dominated third sector developments in contemporary Eastern Europe in efforts to replicate their own institutional models as a way of reconstructing the region’s post-totalitarian civil society. These efforts resulted in limited success, frustrating the donor community and puzzling scholars. Civil society in the region has long been labeled as weak based on a general lack of citizen participation in formal organizations. This dissertation argues that such assessment of civil society fails to recognize the role of below-the-radar civic engagement in contexts where informal practices permeate economic, political and social spheres.

Based on 70 in-depth interviews with civil society actors from 14 locations across Ukraine, supplemented by social media data, this dissertation addresses fundamental questions about the nature, drivers and impact of the country’s informal civil society. The study demonstrates that informality constitutes an essential component of civil society and shapes how Ukrainians address social and political issues.

The study documents a range of informal activities in Ukraine’s civil society and questions the distinction between formal and informal sectors. Importantly, the study finds that citizen engagement flourishes in the absence of official registration and financial reporting, and informality allows individuals to engage in a range of service and advocacy-focused activities.

The study examines the motives for informal engagement by relying on normative and rationalist explanations of citizens’ actions. Central to these activities are the fundamental trust built within familial and local networks, as well as the distrust of formal institutions expressing either neglectful or repressive behaviors. Informality fosters citizens’ relative autonomy from the incongruous and antagonistic formal institutions, and serves as a tool for attaining and expanding civic agency. Furthermore, informal associational activity not only preserves spaces free of external intrusion, but also counteracts the negative side-effects of donor-driven institution-building processes that tend to detract citizens from genuine civic engagement.

The study’s findings call for expanded and alternative approaches to assessing and supporting civil society in the region. Future research should consider shifting the unit of analysis from organizational membership to more specific inputs and outputs, as well as to the nature and efficacy of interactions between members of the polity.

Document Type

Dissertation: Open Access


Leadership Studies