Georgian Highlanders Learn How to Make Development Work

The region of Racha-Lechkhumi — Upper Svaneti, Georgia. Photo: Vladimer Valishvili/UNDP
The region of Racha-Lechkhumi — Upper Svaneti, Georgia. Photo: Vladimer Valishvili/UNDP

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Travelling to Georgia’s countryside tends to leave you with a controversial feeling. Stunning views frame sad little towns where people struggle with rural poverty. The beauty of highlands, a touristic paradise, only emphasizes the growing depopulation of the villages.

The recent research, initiated by UNDP and the governments of Switzerland and Austria in 2015, reveals that rural areas in Georgia are significantly more backwards than the cities in terms of public services.

Central water supply is available to only 41% of rural population and to even less, 32%, of those who live in the mountains, while in the cities the access to central water makes up to 95%. Almost no rural areas have access to cleaning service enjoyed by 84% of people in the cities. 93% of people in the villages lack access to the central sewage system, which is available to the vast majority (95%) of urban population.

84% of people living in the highlands, twice as many than the national average, complain about the quality of roads.

Many rural settlements, in the mountains especially, hope that their life will improve with the development of tourism. But 51% of people think that the quality of infrastructure and services in their home regions does not meet tourists’ expectations. 

The same research shows that Georgians have little experience of engaging in resolving local problems and are less aware of the power they have at hand to address local issues. Only 20% of Georgians in both urban and rural areas have contacted local governments at all in the last two years. Most of the rural residents do not know that they can take part in local planning and are not aware of the municipal development strategies.

“Local residents always speak of the hardships of living in the villages and of the challenges they face in running business. They do not try to find solutions to their problems and tend to be pessimistic about the future,” says Archil Elbakidze, head of a local civil society organization in the mountainous region of Upper Svaneti.

Archil’s organization is one of the 31 civil society groups all over Georgia funded by UNDP and the governments of Switzerland and Austria to promote local and regional development in the country, help citizens make full use of available mechanisms to address local issues, and back priorities listed in the development strategies of Georgia’s regions.

In Upper Svaneti, tourism was named among the top strategic areas of the region and so Archil decided to assist local guesthouse owners to run their businesses more efficiently. Family hotels interested to receive this assistance were selected in agreement with the local self-government and national tourism agencies.  

“We helped the owners of 15 family hotels to improve their entrepreneurial skills and raise income. We also linked them with local farmers and craftsmen to create sustainable net of interest and mutual benefit. In a longer run, this will have a positive impact on the rural economy and will motivate people to stay in their villages rather than move out in search for work,” Archil says.

Khatuna Oniani doing chores in the guesthouse. Photos: Vladimer Valishvili/UNDP
Khatuna Oniani doing chores in the guesthouse. Photos: Vladimer Valishvili/UNDP

Khatuna Oniani, an owner of a small guesthouse in Lentekhi, was among those who were losing hope for any improvements in their village and were about to give up entrepreneurship.

“I lost faith in what I was doing and was about to close my guesthouse”, she recalls.

Khatuna started a family hotel several years ago to support her two children and elderly parents. But her small enterprise was struggling to keep it up without business skills, proper advertisement and support network.

“I saw things differently after the training. I realised what and how I can do better to make my hotel successful. The training gave me practical tips for handling business. I feel more confident about my enterprise and expect to double my income this summer,” Khatuna says.

Over 30 civil initiatives rolled out in Georgia in 2015 and 2016 assisting to resolve local problems and encouraging the citizens to become more active in running their regions. With the total budget US$ 650 thousand, these small projects covered six regions of Georgia and addressed a range of different areas, including for municipal services, education, economic opportunities, environmental and energy issues.

Civil initiatives reached out to up to 30 thousand direct and more than half a million indirect beneficiaries, people like Khatuna who struggle to get out of poverty and make development work. 

December 2016