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A Perilous Transition for Georgia's Displaced

By Samantha Hammer

Since the progressive Georgian Dream coalition swept to power in Georgia’s historic elections last month, a growing number of the country’s almost 260,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have joined a bold campaign to make sure their plight would not be lost amid the stampede of interest groups demanding to be included in the new government’s vision of a peaceful, prosperous Georgia.

According to official estimates, over 1,600 IDPs have occupied apartment buildings, hospitals, and other public buildings in the capital, Tbilisi, and other cities. The IDPs claim that they are homeless or cannot afford rent, which means the government must then fulfill its legal obligation to provide them access to housing while they continue to live in displacement. These IDP occupiers are using Georgia’s political transition to remind Georgian officials that more than two decades after the “first wave” of displacement following its 1992-93 civil war, IDPs continue to have specific needs that the government is obligated to fulfill according to both national policy and international human rights standards.

IDPs have an important role in a country’s development—an insight often overlooked as governments typically focus on addressing critical humanitarian needs even as displacement stretches into years and decades. Continued focus on humanitarian support rather than empowering sustainable self-reliance through access to employment, land and property rights, and political enfranchisement inflates dependency and keeps the country more marginalized and vulnerable. Inhabitants remain dependent on social assistance and continue to be a drain on financial resources crucial to a developing economy.

The Georgian Dream coalition, which assumed power with a mandate to secure human rights as well as reverse the effects of libertarian and anti-democratic policies that mushroomed during the previous administration, now has an opportunity to make empowering IDPs through development central to its overall development and peace-building goals. In so doing, it can provide an example for other countries dealing with simultaneous challenges of protracted internal displacement, conflict resolution, and overall economic and human development.

It is unclear how the government will include IDPs in its overall development program. This latest protest calls attention to Georgia’s struggle to fulfill its policy of privatizing IDP housing, giving IDPs ownership of their homes, and with it a foundation in which to build livelihoods and integrate if they choose. More fundamentally, it illuminates Georgia’s challenge in shifting from providing humanitarian assistance, like an emergency shelter for IDPs to supporting IDPs through development assistance—a leap that countries dealing with protracted displacement struggle with virtually across the board.

Providing IDPs with the means to re-build their lives while in displacement is also a human rights imperative.  A country like Georgia, which is committed to the Millennium Development Goals and other international covenants premised on holistic, human rights-focused definitions of development, are bound to pursue.

Thus far, newly confirmed Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and his team have been vague about how they will support development within IDP communities as well as how they will include IDPs in Georgia’s  overall development agenda. The coalition’s public statements regarding IDPs have primarily addressed IDPs’ role in development as it relates to conflict resolution. Georgian Dream leadership has expressed support for cross-border business ventures involving IDPs and residents of IDPs’ former homelands, Georgia’s two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Such initiatives would aim to support IDP livelihoods and spur economic growth on both sides of the border while doubling as grassroots peace building.

Though the renewed commitment to IDP involvement in conflict resolution is welcome, the more pressing issues for IDPs revolve around the difficulties of integrating into their host communities. While the Georgian Dream’s platform includes plans for addressing the major development concerns of IDPs and the population in general (such as support for small and medium businesses, land reform and support for agriculture, healthcare and pension reform), it does not acknowledge the need to consider how such initiatives will be tailored to further IDP integration and development.

While an overall vision for IDP development has been lacking, positive steps are in progress as government agencies come together to respond to the claims of protesting IDPs. Right now, Georgia’s ministry for IDP affairs had appointed a commission to consider the problems of IDP occupiers and was discussing a plan to provide some of them with new housing. The finance ministry has said it will begin work improving the financial assistance scheme for IDPs in mid-2013. Such inter-agency cooperation is new and suggests the new government is interested in working together to provide more holistic support for IDPs.

But it was Prime Minister Ivanishvili’s statement last month about improving political representation, which inspires the most hope that the government will pursue IDP development beyond these emergency measures. Ivanishvili announced plans to reform the administrative structures (commonly called governments in exile) of the two breakaway regions that were originally meant to provide some measure of political representation for IDPs. This is a bold pledge to take decaying, ineffective structures and revitalize them to give IDPs a sorely needed voice on the national stage, providing legitimate representation for IDPs’ specific interests, as well as helping to administer peacebuilding and integration projects.

Though the plan’s specifics, and therefore its prospects for success remain a mystery, the approach is an encouraging one. It represents an official acknowledgment that IDPs have distinct needs, rights, and interests that require more official attention and more effective representation. It also, in a sense, elevates the standing of IDPs within Georgia's political and social landscape, indicating the belief that IDPs should have agency over their own affairs, and also deserve a more substantial role in policymaking. This implicitly acknowledges that an important part of the development process is involving all relevant social groups as advisers and actors.

A common criticism of countries dealing with protracted displacement is that they do not adequately involve IDPs and refugees in policymaking, or ensure that IDPs have an open route to political representation. While Georgia’s government in exile structures cannot serve as exact models for many other countries because they are born out of Georgia’s specific conflict situation, if successful they may give other states food for thought about how to ensure IDPs have a role in policymaking around development. 

Georgia's new government should be commended for exploring creative, pragmatic solutions to IDP's needs, even as it must be pushed to include IDPs more purposely in its development agenda.

Despite their demonstrated needs, IDPs, who make up about 6 percent of the country's population, may simply not be a high priority for the Georgian Dream coalition, given the enormity of the expectations facing the new government. In the absence of strong pressure from IDPs and their advocates, especially those in the international community, there may not be a strong enough impetus for the government to revise its approach. International donors in particular should use their significant influence to push for IDP needs to be addressed from a development angle, and for IDPs to be involved as agents in the decision-making and implementation process.

All involved should use the political transition to build and re-frame relationships between officials, civil society actors and local populations, to dispel lingering distrust and build good-faith working partnerships to cooperate more effectively going forward.

The evolving Georgian experience is an impetus for international human rights and development advocates to think more about how IDPs and refugees  fit with a country's overall development. It is a link which seems to be rarely made explicit, beyond affirmations that IDPs have a right to participate in and benefit fully from both these processes.

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Samantha Hammer is freelance writer and was a consultant for the Tbilisi-based Women's Political Resource Center.

[Photo courtesy of Marco Fieber]

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