The last time I was here was in the 1980s, – Erin Elizabeth McKee, Assistant Administrator in the Bureau for Europe and Eurasia at USAID, tells Radio Free Europe. “Georgia should be very proud of how far it’s come. The country feels transformed, there is a vibrancy, more color. And a feeling of hope, despite what we know are very hard times, both economically and from a security perspective. And I have been overwhelmed by the hospitality and the generosity of the Georgian people.
“My message to the people of Georgia is: You should be very proud of what you’ve accomplished in the last 30 years,” she says. “And I am proud also to say that USAID has been a partner with you along this journey to ensure that Georgia has a free, independent, democratic, prosperous and secure future. And what I saw in the two days I was here is that that is fully possible. I’ve been proud to see how much our partnership with the United States and the people of Georgia has supported the remarkable transformation that I’ve seen here.”
While here, you launched some new projects and programs. Can you tell us more about them?
Yes. I drove here from Armenia, and we stopped in Marneuli to launch a new partnership that we have with Geo Hospitals- a skills development program in partnership with the private sector. We’re working with key industries and investors to identify what skills they need to ensure that their business can prosper and so they can hire Georgian citizens, not in Tbilisi, but in the communities where they’re making those investments.
This goes hand in glove with the country’s trajectory towards EU candidacy, to ensure that certifications and standards, in this instance for skilled nurses, are able to meet those standards. I have heard this is a critical gap in Georgia’s healthcare industry. The rest of the world usually staffs about four nurses to one doctor. In Georgia, you have four doctors to one nurse. The skills industry is vital and needs to be able to deliver quality care to people and support an industry that is critical for good governance to be able to demonstrate that healthcare services can be delivered in the communities where they’re most needed.
I also traveled to Gori, where we launched our new, ‘resilient communities’ activity. Let me explain a little bit what we see from our perspective and what we learned from those that live along the administrative boundary line. We think that what they need is a better opportunity to restore their livelihoods, to have an economic opportunity to provide for their families and “Build a Better Life,” under the threat in the shadows. Those living along the administrative boundary line (ABL), which we could see right there, even from the highway, under that shadow, need to be able to improve their lives and provide for their families, for their children. It is critical to be able to ensure a better future and hope for them. The program we launched in partnership with the Ministry of Community Development and Infrastructure, as well as the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Agriculture and Environment, is to identify those key sectors where we, in partnership with the national and local government, can attract the private sector, upskill these communities, and provide better livelihoods as well as access to more markets, and ensure that they can realize that dream of a better tomorrow.
How many will benefit from this project?
We are working in 11 municipalities along the ABL with this project initially, and it’s valued at about $24 million over the next five years. This is not just a USAID contribution, it’s in partnership with the Government of Georgia, their contribution and investment, as well as the private sector. So the order of magnitude, if we’re successful, will be far beyond just $24 million.
This is a turbulent time in Georgia. We have some “defectors” from the ruling party calling into question what motivations the US might have behind their directives. How difficult does it make your everyday work here and your democracy programming project?
It’s a given fact globally that civil society organizations, particularly grassroots and local civil society organizations, truly represent the voices of the people they serve. And they are a vital component to a thriving well-functioning democracy. They participate and alert local government and national government to what the priorities of the people are, whether it’s better education, children’s rights, environmental issues, ensuring that elections are free and fair, and providing that conduit and platform between the people and their government. And so civil society should not be attacked. We don’t always have to agree with the opinions they offer, but that voice, and that engagement, and that partnership between government, civil society and the people, is the hallmark of a well-functioning and thriving democracy.
That closing of Georgia’s civil space is of deep concern to us. But we continue to support civil society organizations throughout the country to ensure that that pillar of democracy remains strong and resilient. Yesterday, we launched a new Local Governance Program worth $20 million. It’s going to work in 22 municipalities, hand in glove with local government, civil society, and the people, to create that platform and demonstrate to other municipalities, who may not be selected to participate in the program, that this partnership ensures that the voices of the people are heard, and that democracy can deliver. And when we say deliver, that results in greater economic opportunity, the attractiveness of the private sector, investment in the citizenry for better skills, better schools, better service delivery, whatever the priority of the community may be. And that is the focus of both that program and our intervention, to try and remedy what we see as the closing of civic space right now in Georgia’s democratic aspirations.
In the not so distant past, Georgia was referred to by the US as a beacon of democracy. Do you still think that’s the case?
I think Georgia has the potential to be a bright spot. A free, prosperous, secure and fully independent democracy. There’s some work to be done. The reform agenda, and particularly the 12 recommendations made by the European Commission to ensure that Georgia’s path towards EU candidacy proceeds, needs to be paid attention to. Georgia, as I said at the outset, has come so far.
I had to remind my team on the ground here in Georgia that, when they raise this question, it’s important to stop and look at just how far Georgia has come.
I’ve served in many regions around the world, and many countries around the world. And I would say that Georgia still has a lot to be proud of. Democracy takes work, not just work on the part of the government; it’s also work on the part of the people, full citizen participation, raising their voices, making sure that civil society is supported, making sure that underrepresented portions of the population or minority, the ethnic communities, are also part of the full participation in a democracy. And that’s work. We’re still working on that in my own country. And so I would say that the potential for Georgia to become a beacon of light is still present, prevalent, and absolutely possible, and we stand ready to support the Georgian people and the Government of Georgia to realize that potential and certainly become fully free, prosperous, independent, and secure.