The Country of Regions
Over 60 percent of Georgians live in small towns and villages away from big cities. Farming, tourism and natural resources can make regions a bread basket for Georgia and a source of wealth and prosperity. But this vast potential remains untapped. Decentralization and regional development have been an issue for decades, holding the country back in both economic and governance terms.
Gulo Kistauri lives in Kuchecha, a small village in the mountainous region of Mskheta-Mtianeti.
“Our village could have been a nice place to live if not for so many problems,” she says.
Kuchecha is just a couple of kilometres away from a municipal centre, but a ruined bridge make it almost completely cut off from the outside world. To get to the municipal centre and then back home, Gulo Kistauri has to walk six kilometres every day.
“It’s 21st century but we keep talking of bridges and roads. How can you have any development without those simple things?”
Only a third of Georgians are aware of their rights to take part in governing their regions, review and influence local budgets and propose new initiatives in order to improve their lives. No more than four percent of the population attends the meetings of local councils.
In 2013 Georgia launched a wide-ranging reform of local self-governance, aiming to make the regional and local authorities stronger and promote more engagement by citizens in decision-making.
“Local self-governance reform has gone a long way in Georgia in the last two or three years. Legislative changes led to direct election of city mayors, increased involvement of citizens, delimitation of competences and decentralization of financial resources,” says Tengiz Shergelashvili, Deputy Minister of Regional Development and Infrastructure.
Switzerland and Austria, together with UNDP, are helping Georgia to find its own model of regional and local development.
"Switzerland is famous for its decentralized democracy. We have transferred powers to municipalities and we strongly believe that this model that has been developed in Switzerland can be adapted in Georgia as well," explains Rudolf Schoch, Regional Director of Cooperation of the Swiss Cooperation Office for the South Caucasus.
"Georgia has already gone a long way. Some of the powers have been transferred, but this process has to be further strengthened. It is important to decentralize resources, so that municipalities could decide how to use them best for their own benefit. All needs to have a place in a decentralized democracy and the ongoing reform is an opportunity to do that. “
According to the Gunther Zimmer, head of the Austrian Development Cooperation in Georgia, Switzerland and Austria have much to offer Georgia:
“There are a lot of similarities between Georgia, Austria and Switzerland. In all three countries, there are specific areas, such as high mountains or ethnic minority regions. There are a lot of opportunities for know-how transfer, exchange of experience.“
Mapping the Road
Marneuli, a small municipality in south-east Georgia, is famous for its rich soil and great orchards. Over 80 percent of the population is Georgian Azerbaijanis, mostly farmers who prize land and water above all.
Rasheed Gulmamedov lives in a small village of Kasumlo. For him, the idea of local decision-making is new but attractive. He firmly believes that citizens have to be more active and engage in local governance to achieve a better life.
"A decent road to our village has been an unresolved issue. We filed this issue to the government; which has accepted and budgeted for it. Half of the road has been already built. The rest has been included into a plan. The construction starts next month."
All nine regions of Georgia now have development strategies and action plans that are based on consultations with the residents. Up to 60 community meetings were conducted all over Georgia to inform people about the new opportunities they now have to make the work of local authorities more effective.
"We should not make spontaneous decisions," says VazhaChokheli, the Head of Dusheti Municipality. "Municipalities need development strategies to be aware of the long-term impact of today’s activities. We need to know where we end up in 10 or 20 years. Strategic development is very important. And involvement of people is part of it. It is vital to communicate and discuss priorities and budgets for the benefit of our region and municipality.”
Maka Dzerkorashvili is one out of many Tsilkani residents who regularly attends community meetings, discusses and proposes new initiatives for her village –home to more than 200 families displaced after the armed conflict in 2008. Maka's and her co-villagers' new life starts with creating better prospects for their children.
"There’s no kindergarten here. Our children have to go to another village. It is a trouble for everyone: for kids, parents. This takes time and costs money, "she says.
"At the village meeting, we decided that we needed a new kindergarten. This will be good for children as well as for employment. Kindergarten will be opened in September and around 25 or 26 people from Tsilkani will work there. "
Training for Change
According to Vazha Chokheli, Head of the Dusheti Municipality with changes in self-governance and the increased involvement of citizens, Georgia also needs qualified civil servants.
“Local public servants in Georgia face immense challenges. They need regular professional development which is hard to achieve without systemic training,” he goes on. “Local public servants also need to have a sense of stability. Professional staff shall not be dismissed due to the changes in a political landscape.”
For the first time ever, a national system of training has been introduced in Georgia to ensure the regular professional development of local authorities. In the last two years, up to 2,000 representatives of the local self-governance and regional administrations across the countries learnt about financial management, public relations, human resources and legal issues –the areas they need in their work.
“Public servants need new skills to work effectively with different social groups, inform people about the ongoing reform and make regional planning, says OtarKonjaria, one of the trainees.
According to Otar, in the beginning not everyone is fully convinced that regular training is important for local public servants. But when they actually attend training sessions they realise that information they receive helps them to carry out strategic planning and achieve sustainable development of their regions.
“Education and knowledge is what makes a local public servant truly successful” says Keti Aslanishvili from Telavi Municipality. Keti Already participated in several training sessions and believes that skills and knowledge received there will help her bring positive change to Telavi.
Since 2015, all municipalities in Georgia have allocated one percent of their salary funds for training and capacity building, which according to Shombi Sharp, Deputy Head of UNDP in Georgia, shows the real commitment to foster local governance in Georgia.
“Good laws are extremely important. But success of a reform lies on people who are implementing those laws. They have to have a good will and authority but also professionalism, knowledge and skills to rise to the challenge, said Shombi Sharp.
Good governance starts in small villages where people deal with big problems. Effective self-governance reform is Georgia’s opportunity to make democratic transformation smooth and economic growth beneficial for all.