Eliminating poverty is a delicate balancing act that requires looking at multiple sectors, but also root causes and side effects.
I recently visited the Racha region in northern Georgia to film how one region’s push for sustainable tourism is improving its economic outlook. There, I saw firsthand how tackling poverty from multiple angles is having an effect.
Racha is one of the most beautiful regions in Georgia. Despite its overwhelming charm – rolling green mountains and picturesque vineyards – the region has suffered from underdevelopment, poverty and isolation for decades. Forty-three percent of the population works in agriculture, but this often translates to just a patch of land for their own subsistence. There is little upward mobility: over the last two decades, half of Racha’s population left to find work elsewhere.
Things have been looking brighter, though. Thanks to a new law passed in 2017, Racha’s highlanders have been receiving increased support from the state. But communities are still in desperate need of better infrastructure, such as accessible water and sewage services. The region is remote and cut off from the rest of the country with its poor roads and challenging mountain passes.
Last year, the local government created a four-year development plan. Together with residents, they identified tourism as one of the key priorities to improve the region.
Georgia is famous for its high-quality wine, and there are many unique grape varieties throughout the country. Racha, with its many micro-climates, is home to a highly flavorful variety – like those that make the renowned Kvanchkhara wine - best suited for local conditions. That is why tourism, in the form of a wine route and accompanying guesthouses, seemed an apt choice for the region’s development.
So, what does it take to carry out a development plan like this one?
First, you need the businesses. Almost everyone has their own small vineyard to make wine, but these need to be developed to draw in visitors. Many local makers only use organic pesticides, which already makes their product more appealing.
Seeing the potential in tourism, small family guesthouses started mushrooming around the region in recent years, as the number of visitors grew steadily. But traditional Georgian hospitality is not enough to meet professional business standards.
To remedy that, proprietors applied for training from UNDP on everything from preparing guestrooms to balancing their financial ledgers to greeting guests. These new skills are already making their businesses more attractive to tourists that know and expect good service.
But even successful businesses can’t attract guests without a clean environment and reliable roads, water and electricity. These public services are crucial investments in the region.
Although one municipality started an efficient and wide-reaching waste management programme, only 37 percent of Racha’s residents get their garbage picked up by the municipality. The water supply, although it has slightly improved in recent years, is still available to only half of the population.
Another problem is access. People can’t visit if it’s hard to get there. Although roads outside of Racha have improved, 61 percent of Rachians rate local ones poorly. The region’s connection has notably improved since the opening of a small airport in 2017, but more needs to be done.
You can see how none of these improvements alone will make a difference; they all depend on one another.
One significant reform in Georgia that can have a great impact on local economic development is its ongoing process of decentralization. This means putting more power and resources into the hands of local self-governments, who know more about what their communities’ needs are.
In Racha, decentralization means local governments becoming vital actors in building their own economies. It means being able to support business development more effectively by making targeted investments into infrastructure and services, and engaging local communities in decision-making.
So if we look at progress from a more integrated approach, not focusing only on income or standard of living, but considering all the areas that actually make a difference, Racha will have a better chance of reaching its goal of eliminating poverty.