- "By 2030, there should be a Georgian product available in every major European city, recognized for its distinctive quality."
- "By 2030, Georgian schools will rank with Western European peers in international comparison tests such as PISA and TIMMS, with an added focus on pupils enjoying their educational experience."
- "By 2030, life expectancy in Georgia will be 80 years on average, increasing by more than 10%, and reaching levels comparable to Slovenia today."
- "By 2030, reduce traffic deaths to zero, or at least to low single figures; all school paths for children should be 100% safe. Ministers send their children to school on foot, or by public transport, by 2025."
- “By 2030, Georgia will be carbon neutral with its energy production.”
- “By 2030, every tourist that visits Georgia will make the country even greener.”
Georgia lacks a political vision for its future, thus the stark diagnosis of Zaal Andronikashvili, a Berlin-based prominent Georgian intellectual and literature critic. Beyond the direction – westward – political parties so far are failing to offer a suggestion of what Georgia should do with itself. As Andronikashvili put it: “In 2003, the revolutionaries and really most of the population knew where they wanted to take the country, out of the pervasive corruption and towards a functioning state. The opposition parties do not really have a comparable suggestion now.”
From that angle, it is not surprising that more than 50% of Georgian voters are undecided, as a December 2019 survey found. There remains a vacuum. The current discussions – election system, appointment of judges – are essential for the further development of democracy, but they don’t appear to inspire voters.
How could this vacuum be filled? Here are six moonshot ideas, with a timeline and a target. These ideas build on existing initiatives as well as ongoing discussions and tie them into a larger framework. Most of the ideas would accelerate existing policies, broadly keeping the country on course. The goals, while ambitious, are feasible, as the links to policy research indicate.
1. Overcoming Poverty – Focusing on Export
“By 2030, there should be a Georgian product available in every major European city, recognized for its distinctive quality.”
If Georgia manages to sell products – wine, nuts, herbs, fruits, some products such as hazelnut spreads – across Europe, it will provide employment across the country. To succeed, Georgia should focus on distinctive products in mid-prized quality segment, such as quevri wine, organic agriculture, characteristic spices and fruits, and items that grow well in Georgia’s specific climate, such as almonds, walnuts and pistachio. Little-known products such as feijoa provide a unique opportunity to present Georgia on international markets, similar to how New Zealand has branded itself with kiwifruit. Working with existing and potential exporters, the government can seek to accelerate their success. A cargo terminal at Kutaisi airport can help bring herbs and berries (and potentially flowers) directly to market. Flagship pop-up stores in attractive locations in key European cities can market Georgia, its hospitality, and its products. Once Georgian products meet European quality standards, they will earn more in other markets, including Russia, the Gulf states and China, too. Starting with agricultural products, Georgia can – as other countries have done – move on towards food processing in dedicated production zones and thus begin a process of re-industrialization, provide more employment, and earn more export revenue.
Problem it solves: successful export could greatly reduce unemployment in Georgia, especially outside Tbilisi; currently, more than 50% of the population lives in the countryside in borderline poverty. The country imports much more (including agricultural products) than it exports. So far, the main economic strategy has been to improve in the World Bank’s Doing Business ranking. This, in the past, was a reasonable indicator for reform. Now is the time to move towards a focus on exports, so as to reduce unemployment.
2. Education – Achieving International Levels
“By 2030, Georgian schools will rank with Western European peers in international comparison tests such as PISA and TIMMS, with an added focus on pupils enjoying their educational experience.”
Improving test scores is one way to focus on better learning, with measurable year-by-year progress. Some of the current measures – more investment, attracting qualified young teachers – likely go in the right direction, but need to be reinforced and focused on a bigger vision. Yet it’s not all about rote learning and testing. The biggest improvements in test scores in other countries seem to come from helping low-performing (and often poor) students, thus this vision is also about helping the many children (one in five, by recent estimates) in Georgia that grow up in poverty. Through strong parental involvement, teacher guidance, active anti-bullying measures and extensive extracurricular engagement, schools should seek to become leaders in providing an engaging learning experience. Enthusiastic and motivated students will learn by themselves, and are attractive to teach, making it easier to recruit and retain qualified teachers. All school graduates should have basic knowledge of one foreign language, preferably two. A focus on language learning will support Georgia’s export-focused strategy. Training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will be encouraged by well-funded regional and national student competitions, building on a system that is widely familiar and easy to administer. Moreover, there will be extensive scholarships for STEM education. Vocational training will be done in close coordination with export-oriented companies, with an emphasis on courses that are shorter than three months, to attract and retain talent.
Problem it solves: currently, Georgia does badly in international comparison tests. Focusing on improving performance provides a continuous and measurable strategic direction, also allowing for adjustment over time. Vocational training only works in a handful of fields, such as gastronomy, but otherwise has little connection to business. While surveys show that parents overall are fairly happy with schools, bullying remains a challenge, which is why an emphasis on pupil well-being – and not just performance and standardized tests – is a key mission for school directors and teachers.
3. Increasing Health and Well-Being
“By 2030, life expectancy in Georgia will be 80 years on average, increasing by more than 10%, and reaching levels comparable to Slovenia today.”
Georgia could and should undertake a great push to improve the health of its population, not just the treatment once people are sick. The emphasis on preventative measures to reduce avoidable health challenges also reduces healthcare costs. Georgia should seek to become one of the leaders in emphasizing prevention. (According to some estimates, more than half of healthcare costs in the United States today are due to avoidable lifestyle diseases.) An ambitious target here would also attract international support, similar to the support Georgia received for its Hepatitis C eradication programme. (Increased lifespans will put stress on the pension system, but this obviously is a price well worth paying.) In medicine, measures should emphasize the quality of care, as health outcomes (including after surgery) depend heavily on consistent attention, not just surgical skills. A major focus of health policy should therefore be on the nursing staff, including greatly increased salaries to ensure retention. International partners can help bring these nursing skills to Georgia, with the aim of providing the best care (beyond surgical skills) in the region. Good palliative care should be easily available, through specialized services. Based on a reputation for comprehensive care, at least 10% of income of advanced medical clinics should come from attracting patients from abroad, providing integrated service for treatment in Georgia.
Problem it solves: currently, Georgia has a life expectancy of approximately 73 years, 78 years for women and 69 for men. Along with several other countries of the former Soviet bloc, Georgia has missed the “cardiovascular revolution”. Many people die much too early. Neighboring countries (life expectancy in Armenia 75 years, Turkey 77, Poland 79) show that significant improvement seems possible. The necessary measures – reducing smoking, excessive drinking, obesity, and various forms of self-harm – are broadly understood. Life expectancy in Italy (82 years) and Greece (81 years) show that better health is achievable in countries that also enjoy food and drink. With regards to the medical system, the problem to solve is that next to cost, the biggest concern is the lack of professionalism of medical personnel, as a July 2019 survey showed, which is why nursing and care is a sensible focus. The bigger commitment allows for various ways of providing healthcare, to adjust to demographics and medical advances.
4. Safe Roads, Safe Children
“By 2030, reduce traffic deaths to zero, or at least to low single figures; all school paths for children should be 100% safe. Ministers send their children to school on foot, or by public transport, by 2025.”
Technical advances over the next year should make it easier to greatly reduce fatalities. Whatever your political views, this is a goal on which it should be easy to agree. Research and anecdotal evidence suggest in Georgia (and in other countries) a small group of aggressive drivers – overwhelmingly young and male – cause a significant percentage of dangerous accidents. Traffic speed in the centers of town, including on the racetrack of Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi, can be decreased. Roads can be smarter and safer, too, through better design. Ministers of Interior will be measured by their performance, year on year. Technology will be used to monitor and slow down repeat offenders, including minibus drivers. Sweden has shown that a radical reduction of traffic fatalities is possible, there are similar aims in other countries, including the US. Traffic accidents remain one of the leading causes of death for people between 5 and 50 in many countries around the world, which is why an ambitious initiative would be well received and likely receive international support, too.
Problem it solves: Georgia still loses more than 500 people in fatal traffic accidents every year. Traffic deaths or injuries have affected almost every bigger family or circle of friends. The roads are not safe for pedestrians or cyclists. A 2016 study found that 96% of minibus drivers in Georgia engaged in at least some form of dangerous driving. There have been gains, but they do not go far enough in reducing rogue driving. Tag line: “If you love speed, wonderful – get on a horse, on a bike, or on the running trail. Get off the streets and stop endangering other citizens and especially children.” Currently, many parents are afraid of sending their children out on the road, because of a failure of enforcement.
5. Clean Energy, Green Economy
“By 2030, Georgia will be carbon neutral with its energy production.”
This goal might be achievable earlier: Georgia already produces 85% of its energy from renewable sources. This should increase to 100% as soon as possible, potentially by 2025. An added solution here are not just big renewable projects, but also solar heaters and solar panels on roofs around the country, to increase energy independence. This will require a complex chain of equipment, installation expertise and financing tools. The Georgian banking sector with its partial integration in other sectors could be well-placed to take the lead, once feed-in tariffs are in place. As soon as possible, Bitcoin mining should be charged full commercial electricity rates, at which point it’s likely to disappear from Georgia, freeing up energy for citizen use. There is little evidence that this crypto-mining has done much for the country. Moreover, Georgia should emphasize sustainable forms of transport. (George Welton, active in business circles and running a policy-focused research company, will soon publish a more detailed outline of such a vision. This thumbnail and the one below drew on some of his ideas, and a suggestion by Levan Tsutskiridze.)
Problem it solves: currently, Georgia is still importing energy from abroad, putting further pressure on its currency. On a global level, sustainability is rapidly becoming a key consideration, for investors and donors, and Georgia is missing a chance if it doesn’t take the lead in the field.
6. Making Georgia a Green Destination
“By 2030, every tourist that visits Georgia will make the country even greener.”
Georgia should have the aim of carbon-negative tourism – every tourist that visits should leave the country greener than it was. This will attract eco-conscious tourists and also emphasize that Georgia is primarily a destination for upmarket quality travel. There will be carbon offsets for air travelers through ambitious reforestation programs, which pay rural communities to maintain and expand their forests. There will continue to be a role for mass tourism, for example at the Black Sea coast, but this, too, will be balanced with building a sustainable infrastructure. A network of trails – such as the nascent Trans-Caucasian Trail – will encourage travelers to experience Georgia on foot and on horseback. A small daily surcharge for visitors will raise tax income for municipalities, to ensure investment and cleanup, as well as local recycling facilities.
Problem it solves: Georgia needs tourism for income, but cannot scale these numbers endlessly. In particular, there is a threat that mass tourism may begin to wear down Georgia’s charms. Already now, destinations such as Ureki struggle to cope with the summer inflow of tourism. In the next years, one of the major challenges to long-distance travel will be the environmental concerns of tourists, which is why Georgia should position itself to address these worries.
These six ideas illustrate how political visions for 2030 could look. Similar ideas could be developed for combating child poverty, for the justice system, urban development, university education and others more. (One way of looking at recent repressive measures against the opposition is as an attempt to keep the opposition from developing such visions.)
In the phrasing of “by 2030”, these visions follow John F. Kennedy’s famous phrase in which he committed the United States to reach beyond this planet: “I believe that this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
Georgia doesn’t have ambitions towards an extraterrestrial Camelot, but Kennedy’s wording may be illuminating for three reasons.
First, the real vacuum is on national goals, not on the promises of parties. The electorate has heard too much of the latter, and not enough of the former. The goal is to frame – and energize – the national debate on where this country wants to go. Similarly, one reason why Kennedy made himself memorable is because he set a goal that was outside his own term limit. It is at least possible some of the disaffected voters would be pulled back into politics if they felt that politicians were trying to engage them with a genuine vision.
Second, big ambitions may help to focus minds. As Kennedy said about his moonshot idea, “that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”. Right now, it is probably fair to say that some of Georgia’s talents are not being put to their best uses. A practical strategic task may help to change that, and would help empower action at various levels of government and society if, as Kennedy put it, the “challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win”.
Third, the Apollo program shows that big goals can be reached in tough times. In Georgia, it often appears that with Russia looming large over the country – and in its national discussions – it will be hard to make progress. Yet the United States, in the 1960s, was enmeshed, too. There were internal divisions, ill-conceived foreign ventures, the quagmire of Vietnam, and the Cold War. And yet, a clear commitment, combined with focus, landed Neil Armstrong on the moon.
To me, the six moonshot ideas appear the right kind – and the right format – for discussing potential visions. They respond to a real need, are based on existing policy research (see the links) and identify a strategic goal. They are a first set of suggestions that one can improve through tweaks and additions. The ideas could be bundled under a four-point framework, roughly of establishing Georgia’s place in the world, caring for its people, enchanting visitors, and earning a good living.
In finding an eventual vision, what matters is that the ideas are workable and memorable, less that they be brilliant and all-inclusive. You can always quibble. The availability of potential better alternatives shouldn’t stand in the way of settling on good ideas by April, well in time for the upcoming election. It would be a mistake to roam in search of a brilliant strategy, instead of taking a good-enough strategy and focus on brilliance of execution.
In a December 2019 survey, only half of Georgian said that there is a party in Georgia that reflects their views. More than a third said that none of the existing political parties reflected their views at all (and another 10% didn’t know, reflecting additional ambivalence.) This, therefore, is the time when bigger ideas should be put forward for where – on earth – to take Georgia in the next decade.
Cover Photo: Gombori Pass, Georgia. By Milena Mitagvaria Photography