By Peter Wiebler, USAID/Georgia Mission Director
Over nearly 30 years, the United States and Georgia have built a partnership based on shared values, common strategic interests, and the mutual benefits of cooperation. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been key to the strong relationship between our countries. We partner with the Georgian people to strengthen democratic institutions, achieve economic growth that benefits families and communities around the country, and build resilience to threats both internal and external, like the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In May, the Government of Georgia lifted the state of emergency and eased restrictions on most business and social activities. The fact that Georgia was able to re-open earlier than many other countries speaks to its effective response to the pandemic. This truly has been a whole-of-society response, with the Government of Georgia, medical professionals, civil society, the private sector, and citizens all doing their part.
Georgia’s ability to respond has been strengthened by the support of its friends, including the United States. USAID assistance to Georgia during the pandemic has emphasized self-reliance, one of our key priorities. Viewing Georgia as a strategic partner, not a passive recipient of assistance, we seek to empower Georgians to lead their own responses to challenges like COVID-19. As we work together to overcome the pandemic and lay the groundwork for a strong economic recovery, we are deepening an even stronger partner-to-partner relationship.
USAID’s Rapid Response to COVID-19
Since March, USAID has responded with a range of support. This includes forthcoming emergency health assistance: testing kits, lab equipment to process tests, and video conferencing equipment to help Georgia’s National Center for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDC) coordinate the nationwide response. Through all of this, we’re supporting doctors so they can safely manage cases while amplifying public health communications so that people have information to keep themselves safe. All of this assistance complements the effective measures that our Georgian partners are already taking, reflecting the increasing self-reliance of Georgian society.
At the same time, we are reaching out to people in need through our partnership with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the Georgia Red Cross. With USAID funding, Red Cross volunteers across Georgia have provided more than 40,000 people with food and hygiene supplies. With our support, they are also sharing crucial public health information and providing psychosocial support.
Our partnership with the Government of Georgia includes helping it provide essential public services during the pandemic. For example, we are working with the Ministry of Education to help teachers adapt to distance learning and providing online resources to keep students engaged. We are supporting rule of law institutions to work online, providing software so that organizations like the Legal Aid Service and the Georgian Bar Association can continue to support the Georgian people during the pandemic. We are partnering with the Civil Service Bureau to help it develop guidelines for working under crisis conditions, guidelines to help Georgia’s Government respond even more effectively if another crisis occurs in the future. All of this supports the self-reliance of Georgia’s public institutions: helping them build capacity, flexibility, and the ability to respond to challenges and crises in the future.
None of this would be possible without our civil society partners, organizations that provide frontline services in Georgia’s most vulnerable communities. We are working with civil society and local media to lead community responses: delivering food and supplies to elderly citizens, helping people with disabilities access social services, training healthcare professionals to respond to cases of the virus, and ensuring that people have access to fact-based information about COVID-19 and the response and recovery efforts that are being undertaken. Across the country, our civil society partners are engaging young people to protect their own communities from the virus.
Looking Toward a Post-Covid Future
In addition to the immediate health risks, COVID-19 has hit Georgia’s economy hard. The Government of Georgia has taken important steps to help businesses and households weather the crisis. Businesses are also finding innovative ways to work during the pandemic. USAID support for the economic recovery focuses on empowering the private sector to get Georgia back on its feet and, moving forward, build a self-reliant economy that delivers for Georgian families and communities.
In March, the Prime Minister’s Office requested technical assistance in developing the national economic recovery plan. We responded quickly, engaging an international team of experts to help develop plans for a rapid recovery that gets the Georgian people back to work and protects the economic gains that Georgia made before the pandemic. In our response, we’re supporting policies that put the private sector at the center of the economic recovery.
Agriculture is at the heart of Georgia’s economy, and food security is understandably a concern today. USAID supports the development of Georgia’s agriculture sector, both to meet domestic needs and to increase exports and incomes for farmers. This year, we launched a new program to help farmers build a stronger potato sector and increase the quality of what we call Georgia’s “second bread.” We also look forward to more positive results of our investments in the hazelnut sector. Partnering with the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture and the National Food Agency, we recently invested $800,000 in new equipment to combat the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug. This new assistance complements the substantial investments that our Georgian counterparts have made, and a successful harvest this fall will further show the effectiveness of partnerships involving the private sector, donors, and Government.
Tourism is one of the most hard hit sectors, and we know the Government of Georgia and tourism operators are working to reopen the country to international travelers. We have a strong partnership with Georgia’s National Tourism Agency; we support them to develop a strategy to attract tourists back to Georgia. Georgia has handled the pandemic well, and we are committed to helping the tourism industry reopen in a way that is safe and responsible, both for tourists and for the people of Georgia.
The post-COVID economy will look different from what we had before. There will be new opportunities to use digital technologies and find new markets and customers, both here and abroad, and we’re helping Georgia’s private sector capitalize on these opportunities. We are partnering with two organizations, the Georgian E-Commerce Association and the Georgian ICT Cluster, to help small and medium-sized businesses build capabilities to reach customers online. We also established a partnership with an internationally recognized e-commerce platform to help Georgian artists reach the global market. USAID support for innovation extends to agriculture as well: our flagship agriculture program is currently accepting applications for innovation grants. Through these grants, we will support new ideas and techniques for improving food production, processing, transportation, and storage, helping Georgian agriculture realize its potential to drive economic growth.
Each of these initiatives is important to Georgia’s economic recovery from COVID-19; it will also contribute to long-term economic growth and self-reliance.
Commitment to Citizen-Centered Democracy
Through the pandemic, USAID remains focused on Georgia’s democratic progress, helping the country ensure citizen-centered political processes. Right now, we’re working with all stakeholders to support electoral reforms and help ensure an electoral system that is responsive to Georgia’s citizens. That includes partnering with the Central Election Commission (CEC) to help it improve cyber security and to minimize the potential for COVID-19 to disrupt its election preparations. Through our partnership with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and a Georgian ICT company, we recently provided the CEC with state-of-the-art equipment so they can continue to protect the integrity of Georgia’s elections.
These are just a few examples of the strong partnership between the United States and Georgia. During COVID-19 and after the pandemic has passed, USAID will continue to partner with the Georgian people to build a more democratic, prosperous, and inclusive society, and to support Georgia’s continued integration with Euro-Atlantic institutions. All USAID assistance will help Georgia become more self-reliant and ensure that citizens are at the center of development efforts.