At the turn of the century, crumbling road infrastructure was often mentioned as one of the key obstacles to the economic integration of Georgia’s provinces, including those where ethnic minorities are predominant. This article explores what has changed – and what remains to be done.
This is the fourth in a series of articles that explore the underlying incentives and disincentives driving minority integration in Georgia. Also in this series:
- Toward Inclusion: Understanding the Path to Unity in Georgia
- Bridging Divides: Language and Integration in Georgia
- Riding the Airwaves: Minority Integration and Access to Information
In recent years, Georgia has made significant strides in overcoming one of its most pressing infrastructural challenges: roads. The once-isolated regions, including those densely populated by ethnic minorities, now boast improved road networks, fostering better interconnectivity. However, beneath this veneer of progress lies a stark reality: the resolution of roads, while transformative, is only the tip of the iceberg. Other critical infrastructure and access to basic resources, such as social services and financial opportunities, remain elusive in these regions, demanding more targeted and nuanced investment strategies.
Despite the visible improvement in road networks and other basic infrastructure such as gas, electricity, drinking water, and irrigation, the residents of minority regions continue to grapple with an alarming lack of access to fundamental resources. Basic necessities, from adequate healthcare facilities to reliable educational institutions and essential social services, are far from being universally accessible. Moreover, financial opportunities – vital for economic empowerment – often elude ethnic minorities due to systemic barriers such as the language divide that isolates them from mainstream financial services.
Infrastructure Challenges: Progress and Persisting Problems
Historically, in Georgia, geographic isolation due to poor transportation infrastructure kept minority communities cut off from the rest of the nation. However, under the administration of Mikheil Saakashvili in 2004-2012, substantial investments were made, significantly improving transportation networks. The State Strategy for Civic Equality and Integration highlights “the aspiration of the state to drastically improve and invest in these regions and enhance social and economic opportunities for the local population.” It summarizes recent efforts toward this goal, including “gas infrastructure development in villages, road constructions, arrangement of irrigation and drinking water systems, rehabilitation of street lighting, etc.”
However, while some infrastructural challenges have been resolved, issues like the lack of educational institutions, sewage systems, and effective medical facilities persist, especially in regions heavily populated by ethnic minorities like Kvemo Kartli. For example, the critically low number of kindergartens in areas predominantly inhabited by ethnic minorities is considered a major challenge to early childhood education in these areas. The difference in preschool enrollment is stark, with only 25.5% of children in minority regions enrolled in preschool compared to the national average of 65%.
Economic Disparities: Challenges and Opportunities
Regions inhabited by ethnic minorities face major economic hurdles. Income inequality within minority populations is exacerbated by the lack of quality services and employment opportunities in rural areas. The trade and manufacturing sectors are the largest employers in minority-dominated regions. Minorities also have a higher self-employment rate, mainly in agriculture, which has lower earnings than other sectors. The unemployment rates fluctuate across regions, with Kvemo Kartli having a fourth of its labor force unemployed.
The Georgian government has introduced initiatives to bolster entrepreneurship and innovation, stimulating economic growth across the regions. Agencies like the Entrepreneurship Development Agency (Enterprise Georgia) and the Rural Development Agency (RDA) aim to enhance private sector competitiveness, support start-ups, and uplift the agricultural sector. However, these programs lack specific provisions for ethnic minorities, leaving a gap in addressing the unique challenges faced by these communities.
Knowledge of the Georgian language remains a compounding factor. Minority populations often lack proficiency in Georgian, making it difficult to get informed about and access these supportive programs. While awareness campaigns are planned under the State Strategy for Civic Equality and Integration 2021-2030, the lack of tailored support mechanisms hampers equal participation. Sources underscore the inadequacy of current programs, emphasizing the need for more inclusive and targeted initiatives.
The COVID-19 pandemic further exposed the financial vulnerabilities of ethnic minorities. Economic downturns hit these communities harder, widening the wealth gap. Limited access to healthcare and essential services compounded their challenges. While the nation’s economy is in recovery, minorities face the uphill task of rebuilding their lives and businesses, often with limited resources and support.
The Way Forward
While the new roads have metaphorically built bridges to connect isolated communities, these bridges need to lead somewhere meaningful. The journey toward inclusivity and equality demands a focused approach, addressing the multifaceted challenges faced by ethnic minorities beyond mere physical connectivity. Targeted investment in critical infrastructure, education, healthcare, and financial accessibility is urgently needed.
This article is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through its Unity for Diversity Program. The contents are the author’s responsibility and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government, or the Unity for Diversity Program.