Today, we celebrate the International Day for Monuments and Sites. This year, the day focuses on Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Tourism, which underlines the important linkage between culture and cities: Culture, identity, and a people-centered approach are central to building the urban future we want and ensuring sustainable urban development.
The recently-launched UNESCO Global Report on Culture for Sustainable Urban Development titled Culture: Urban Future has brought to the forefront of the global discussion the critical role that culture should play in achieving sustainable urbanization, especially over the coming years when one billion people are expected to move to cities by 2030. Culture does not necessarily come in the list of Top 10 issues for sustainable urban development, but it is.
Culture is an essential component of the safe, inclusive, resilient and sustainable urban settlements everybody wants to live in. Culture should be at the core of new approaches for people-centered cities, quality urban environments and integrated policy-making.
Specifically, culture contributes to urban development in four aspects. All of them linked to poverty eradication and shared prosperity in a sustainable manner:
What an experience! It started bright and early on a Thursday morning as we boarded the car in the basement of the Word Bank office in Tbilisi and set off for a two-day visit to the Imereti region in the west of Georgia.
After seventeen months in the South Caucasus, I have learnt a lot from colleagues in the countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia about this day, March 8th. It is considered one of the most grandiose days of the calendar – when women and girls of all ages are acknowledged and showered with flowers and gifts of various kinds. Gifts range from a handmade card or a trinket to a bunch of violets or mimosa flowers. Older women might receive a bottle of French perfume, cosmetics, cutlery, crockery or other household items.
On March 8th, it is a common occurrence to see street vendors selling flowers in abundance, and shops are mainly full of male customers. The most important gift is that, on this day, men are also supposed to do all the house chores, so that on this day at least, women can forget about dishes, cooking and childcare, and enjoy some well-deserved time off! In a nutshell, it is a day of paying tribute to women everywhere – in homes, classrooms, and workplaces.
Educational change is a complex endeavor for any country – especially in the context of social, economic and political transition, not to mention globalization. And Georgia is no exception.
The country’s path toward systematic education reform began in the 1990s and has been long and significant – indeed, it has undergone a paradigm shift since the days of the Soviet system. Today, Georgia’s education curriculum and standards are far more advanced, the allocation of educational resources is more efficient and transparent, and major improvements have been implemented with regard to regulation and management of the education sector overall.
Education reforms have had an especially noticeable impact on the financing and governance of Georgia’s educational institutions. The words “corruption” and “nepotism” are no longer used when describing the education sector – a far cry from the early 1990s when they were considered the most pressing issues facing the sector.
Today, Georgia’s education sector faces different challenges, however – which have largely to do with the quality of education. Important questions revolve around the relevance of the skills, knowledge and attitudes learned at school: are they fully compatible with the needs of the country’s growing economy and with the competitive global economy of the 21st century? And if not, why not?
Jobs are what we earn, what we do, and sometimes even who we are. For the poor and vulnerable of the world, jobs are key to ending poverty and driving development. But not all jobs are equally transformational. Good jobs add value to society, taking into account the benefits they have on the people who hold them, and the potential spillover effects on others. For example, inclusive jobs, such as those that employ women, can change the way families spend money and invest in the education and health of children.
Across the Europe and Central Asia region today, policymakers are confronted daily with a wide range of development challenges and decisions, but the potential impacts of adverse natural events and climate change – such as earthquakes or flooding – may not always be first and foremost in their thoughts.
Admittedly, the region does not face the same daunting disaster risks as some other parts of the world – especially in South Asia, East Asia and Latin America – but nevertheless, it is far from immune to the effects of natural hazards – as the past clearly reminds us.
We walked into the largish conference room in the Baghdati municipality building. This small town of about five thousand people is in western Georgia, in the Caucasus. It was freezing cold, and the recent snowfall had deposited a crisp, beautiful white sheet all around. Not too different from my thoughts at the time; a blank sheet, waiting to hear from a collection of small businesses.
The topic: if and how these businesses use the internet.
I was quite intrigued by the findings of the latest Europe and Central Asia Economic Update, with its special focus on "Polarization and Populism". As Program Leader for the South Caucasus region, covering Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, I was particularly interested in the fact that these three countries report the highest levels of life and job dissatisfaction, despite declining disparities and overall income improvement in the region (in Georgia, for instance). Indeed, using the World Bank’s "twin goal” metrics, the South Caucasus region has been performing reasonably well.
Numbers don’t lie. That’s why, in our day-to-day lives, we rely heavily on numbers from household surveys, from national accounts, and from other traditional sources to describe the world around us: to calculate, to compare, to measure, to understand economic and social trends in the countries where we work.
But do we perhaps rely too much on numbers to gain an understanding of people’s lives and the societies in which they live? Do numbers really tell us the whole story, or give us the full picture?
In the early 1990s and 2008, secessionist conflicts led to the internal displacement of 6 percent of Georgia’s population, making it one of the countries with highest incidences of internal displacement.
We tend to think that the displaced will be able to go home soon, but in reality, they remain displaced for years. A total of 246,974 men, women and children from the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are still unable to return, now living in the capital city of Tbilisi and in smaller urban and rural areas close to their regions of origin.
After more than 25 years since the first wave of displacement, Georgia’s internally displaced are a diverse group. Some live in independent private housing, are employed and have managed to provide good education to their children. Others continue to live in collective centers, are spatially and socially isolated from the rest of the population, and have been chronically poor and unemployed since they became displaced.
While meeting the immediate needs of the displaced is important at the outset, such changes over time suggest that we need to think differently about how better to support them in the long term.
One example is the monthly benefit of 45 Lari (approximately 20 USD) provided to all internally displaced citizens by the Georgian government, regardless of their levels of poverty or employment. Some of the country’s poor, who have not been displaced, have begun to question this benefit.
After all, why should someone who is not poor, receive such support?
Georgia’s displaced and non-displaced are equally likely to be poor. However, the displaced tend to rely on social transfers, remittances, and informal jobs, and are more likely to be unemployed for long periods of time. Those in rural area have significantly less information, opportunities for employment, or access to good quality education and services.
Those who still live in non-renovated, public collective centers experience inadequate living conditions. These households are often socially isolated, separated from friends and family and unable to form ties in uncertain housing conditions. Regardless of income, these households remain extremely vulnerable.
The displacement "status," – i.e., formal recognition of having been displaced from a conflict area – has a strong symbolic and political value among the entire Georgian population. To the displaced it signifies hope of returning to their homeland. To others it signals the state’s commitment to reintegrating the two occupied territories. For many – rich or poor – holding this status is a matter of dignity.
Research confirms the diverse economic and social situations of the displaced. It also recognizes the political difficulties of removing such a symbolically important benefit, or targeting it exclusively to the poor.
But given fiscal constraints in Georgia, providing benefits to those that do not necessarily need them is problematic in the long term. In this regard, the report supports the eventual phasing out of the benefit, already initiated by the Georgian government, while taking steps to help those in need, with the following recommendations:
Livelihoods support is essential especially for households at risk of falling into poverty, with activities that are tailored to the diverse needs of this population, their skills and location. Access to land for those in rural areas with agricultural skills, and access to finance and training for those who are entrepreneurial, are two activities that could work well with these groups.
Addressing housing conditions and supporting access to private housing is important. Currently, 80 percent of government assistance for the internally displaced goes for housing. These resources could gradually be reallocated towards livelihood assistance for the poorest.
The poorest households, eligible for social assistance, should be encouraged to apply to the Targeted Social Assistance program – the regular social assistance program for vulnerable Georgians.
It is perhaps most important to ensure that the population, both displaced and not, understands why these reforms are necessary. The time has come for an adjusted approach, so that scarce resources can be used more effectively to benefit those in need, especially the poor and vulnerable.