STORY: CARING FOR GURIA -- DESPITE THE ODDS Print this page  |  Email this page   
By John Mackedon

Schools without books or paper and – sometimes -- even chairs. Hospitals without secure electricity or modern medicines. Problems with education and healthcare are legion throughout Georgia, but in the western region of Guria, one of the country’s poorest, the situation is particularly acute. While the government has promised Guria both money and material assistance to rectify some of these problems, the glaring deficiencies that persist could severely test support for the Saakashvili administration.

“We are more impoverished now than we were before the revolution,” said one pensioner in the Gurian town of Chokhatauri who asked to remain anonymous. “People are very disappointed.”

In his 2005 State of the Nation address, President Saakashvili tapped education and healthcare as among the priority sectors for government allocation of funds from Georgia’s ongoing privatization process. As of April, however, the Ministry of Labor, Healthcare and Social Protection had received just five percent of the new revenues available (or some $13.2 million), one of the lowest amounts of any ministry. The Education Ministry’s budget for 2005 stands at 69.3 million lari or about $38 million.

So far, the changes that have been made on the social welfare front focus largely on education – one of the Saakashvili administration’s official policy priorities. Teachers in Guria report that they now receive their salaries regularly, and are hopeful that the government will deliver on promises to increase their monthly pay. Salaries in Ozurgeti reportedly have reportedly already been increased by 40 percent to 140 lari per month (about $77).

Other, more administrative strategies, are also in the works. The education ministry has proposed a law that would let education funding bypass local governments and go directly to the schools themselves. Acting as a point of contact for local schools would be some 100 resource centers, about one center for every 20-25 schools, that will monitor implementation of Tbilisi’s reforms in conjunction with local schools.

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Nonetheless, familiar problems continue. While monthly salary payments are usually made on time, they are also made in steadily decreasing amounts, educators said. In Guria, as elsewhere in Georgia, schoolchildren often sit in schools with no glass in the windows; in winter, to make up for the lack of heat, they bring in firewood for a stove. Or stay at home for months at a time.

The conditions appear particularly stark when compared with one of the most oft-cited regional educational plans, the so-called “Jump of the Deer” program, an initiative, announced by President Saakashvili, to equip every Georgian school with computers.

While regional teachers generally seemed to welcome the idea, some wondered whether the government’s plans were putting the cart before the horse.

Only a handful of Guria’s 155 schools maintain any sort of functioning computer lab, and the vast majority of those that do are located in the region’s capital, Ozurgeti, a city of 23,000. “Computers are an absolute priority for our schools,” said Tariel Kalamadze, the director of Ozurgeti's Fourth School . “Of course,” conceded Kalamadze, “if we receive computers, then we will have to buy a generator.”

Not to mention, install reliable heating and cooling systems. Regional – or central – government plans to beat this situation are sketchy at best. Guria has allocated its entire education budget for 2005 (roughly $3.6 million) to paying teachers’ salaries; no funds remain for school upkeep. Officials from Ozurgeti claim that the office of Guria Deputy Governor Goga Gegachgori supplied wood to each of Ozurgeti’s schools in 2005, but schools outside the regional center appear to have been left to their own devices, however.

Some local towns are trying to take matters into their own hands. “In my opinion,” said Zuar Osepiashvili, the gamgebeli, or administrative head, of the small town of Chokhatauri, 22 kilometers from Ozurgeti, “we need to unite the schools. It would make sense to renovate a few schools and bus the kids in.”

But if Guria’s education system is in dire straights, it is also a notch above the health care system in terms of government priorities. While Tbilisi has set aside funds for paying educators’ back salaries, such is not the case for state-employed healthcare providers.

All of the region’s 10 hospitals suffer, to varying degrees, from problems with water, electricity, sanitation and heat. Monthly salaries for doctors in Guria’s three largest towns -- Ozurgeti, Chokhatauri and Lanchkhuti -- are often no higher than 70-150 lari ($ 38-82). It is not uncommon for a doctor in any of the region’s smaller towns to be responsible for surrounding villages as well; effectively dictating that a medical professional could receive a monthly salary of just 30 lari ($16) for caring for up to 2000 patients.

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And as for teachers, regional doctors report that though they receive their salaries with some regularity now, the pot from which the sums are drawn appears to be shrinking. “We are receiving our salaries more consistently now,” said Dato Mdinaradze, a pediatrician and the director of the Ozurgeti Children’s Hospital, “but the amount we receive is gradually becoming less and less each month. Nothing has been done beyond the initial push [from the Rose Revolution].”

For now, assistance from the central government focuses primarily on material needs. Several ambulances and a large quantity of basic medical supplies are expected for this year. As of May 1, 2005, two ambulances that handle emergency care free-of-charge were reported to be operating in Guria’s capital, Ozurgeti.

The mobile care units are seen as a means to supplement previous healthcare facilities, and have generally been welcomed. But snags do exist. “[T]his proposed emergency assistance is good,” commented Mdinaradze, “but this only covers emergency service. Once the patient is helped initially, then that patient must pay.”

Under a new plan from the Saakashvili administration, funds from the state budget will cover medical costs for those too poor to pay and 75 percent of the healthcare expenses for all children between the ages of 3 and 15.

For a region where monthly salaries averaged just $40 in 2003 (the most recent year for which data is available), that could prove a welcome relief. The cost of having a child in the hospital in the town of Chokhatauri has increased by 21 percent in the past year to 140 lari (about $77), according to Chokhatauri Hospital Director Antoni Khundadze. “The difference is that the central budget now pays for that” for families too poor to foot the bill themselves, Khundadze said.

Dato Mdinaradze, a pediatrician and the director of the Ozurgeti Children’s Hospital, said the payment policy could mean improvements for quality of healthcare, but expressed less optimism about its long-term effects. “This is not enough, “ Mdinaradze said. “Children can’t work so the parents end up paying the [remaining] 25 percent and it is very difficult.”

Difficult but, for now, as is the case with so much else in Guria’s schools and hospitals, self-reliance is the only option.

Editor’s Note: John Mackedon is a Tbilisi-based writer who works for the online publication Civil Georgia.

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