Child welfare reform is well underway in the country of Georgia. Reformists have been busy establishing programs to keep children in their communities rather than shipping them off to institutions. So it was puzzling when USAID announced it would give Georgia $8 million to renovate orphanages and other institutions for children in the country. Many children’s rights advocates were poised for the worst, fearing a regression in the country back to the days of warehousing children.
And then something amazing happened. Something so amazing that in the 15 years I have been doing this work, I have never heard of such a thing. The Minister of Labor, Health and Social Affairs, Andrew Urushadze, approached the U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, John Bass, and said “No.”
Urushadze explained that he wanted the $8 million to be redirected to support the development of services in the community for children, with funding for infrastructure to be invested in small group homes. USAID agreed. What could have been an enormous mistake and a terrible use of resources is now a great opportunity to finally end the segregation of children in institutions and reunite them with the communities to which they have always belonged.
The message here is simple but very significant: where there is real political will and commitment to implementing reform, government leaders can talk to donors and donors will listen and respond. Even major bilateral donors like USAID can be persuaded to do the right thing. And this is fundamentally important—the massive amounts of funding that such donors have to invest can have enormous impact on people’s lives. Unfortunately, that impact is often negative, like it would have been if Georgia’s archaic institutional system was renovated.
What happened in Georgia gives me hope that foreign assistance can be responsive to real needs in a country, and that money doesn’t have to go to the wrong projects. The best case scenario would be for USAID and other donors to implement strict policies stating that their funding cannot be used to perpetuate the segregation of people in institutions. If they don’t do this, funding will continue to be invested in an ad hoc manner, with much of it going the wrong way. And then we can only hope that governments have real political will and commitment to do the right thing. Unfortunately, many do not, and donors must be accountable for the investment of their funds. Once millions of dollars have been invested in the wrong project, it is very difficult to later argue that it needs to be dismantled.
Bravo Minister Urushadze for taking the time to do the right thing for the children of Georgia!