Two years after Georgia’s August 2008 war with Russia, the end of an international food assistance program could put thousands of families displaced by the conflict at risk for hunger, two international aid organizations say.
A lack of donations forced the World Food Programme (WFP), which ran the main free food program for Georgia’s Internally Displaced Families (IDP), to end the handouts in June, roughly a year early, said Mike Huggins, the WFP’s program coordinator in Georgia.
The “WFP is increasingly alarmed that the most vulnerable IDPs . . . will face a very bleak winter,” Huggins said in an email interview with EurasiaNet.org. “Almost all IDPs live below the poverty line and more than 90 percent are dependent on external food aid.”
Approximately 30,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from formerly Georgian-controlled strips of territory in breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been resettled in nearly 40 settlements since the 2008 war.
Seventy percent of that number received food aid from the WFP; the organization’s program was limited to IDP families who opted for government-provided housing.
While many of these houses include small “kitchen gardens,” not all families have access to larger land plots that would allow them to earn money to supplement the 28-lari (about $13) per person monthly allowance they receive from the government. That means money for additional food runs scarce. Outside jobs are often not an option. Georgia faces a huge employment shortage; a problem compounded by the isolation of many IDP settlements from other communities.
Families who have not yet received an official IDP status -- estimated by the government to represent one percent of all IDPs -- have spent the past two years in even greater limbo, with little assistance from either donors or the government.
In an August 5 report on Georgia’s IDPs, Amnesty International called on the government to do more to provide employment opportunities and better land for farming.
The report argues that “there is no coherent state policy to tackle the general unemployment or unemployment among vulnerable groups such as the displaced.”
The government, however, maintains that there is no risk of IDPs starving this winter without international food assistance.
A mixture of government programs -- including salaries for civil servants displaced by the war, garden plots, free seeds -- and assistance from non-governmental organizations has given each IDP family enough resources to survive, asserted Valeri Kopaleishvili, an advisor to the Minister of Refugees and Accommodations.
“IDPs already have some income,” Kopaleishvili said, in reference to the 28-lari-per-month stipend, alleged farming income and civil servant salaries.
“They can invest the income in food or in [personal] development,” he continued. “Of course, that is why we would like to have the food program [from the WFP] -- it will allow the IDPs to invest their money in their future.”
But for IDPs like Lamara Kokoela, a pensioner displaced from the village of Kekvi in South Ossetia, such investments are a distant dream.
Drooping corn stalks, their green stems dried to a pale yellow by the hot sun, surround Kokoela’s tiny cottage in Tserovani, an IDP settlement about 30 minutes outside Tbilisi.
Bad soil quality and a lack of rain have left her family with practically no way to earn money from their garden plot, Kokoela said.
“We don’t even have money for diapers [for our nine-month old granddaughter],” she said.
Along with a chorus of neighbors, Kokoela asked why the government does not give IDPs more assistance.
The Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation’s Kopaleishvili admitted that the ministry has few resources to cover the IDPs’ needs.
“I think the [government IDP] strategy is correct. The policy is correct . . . The only problem is the huge need and the [limited] resources available,” he said. The ministry’s 2010 budget of 27.8-million lari (about $15.1 million) is less than half of last year’s budget.
The Joint Needs Assessment created by major international donors immediately following the 2008 war estimated that $576 million was needed in outside funding for the “return, relocation and resettlement” of IDPs; an additional $420 million was recommended to meet the overall population’s social welfare needs.
Out of a total aid package of $4.5 billion, the government received pledges of $350 million for IDP needs. Most of those pledges – some $250 million – have been honored, but only $90 million has been put to work, according to Ministry of Finance data. The government expects all post-war aid pledges to be met by the end of 2010.
Most of the IDP funding has gone toward building the settlements; remaining funds were spent on free seeds for crops, farming equipment, vocational training and other projects.
A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Tbilisi told EurasiaNet.org that the Georgian government is “finally realizing that the social economic situation of people is just as important as putting a roof over their head.”
While Georgia’s Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation is coping as best it can, more needs to be done, said UNHCR’s Suzanne Murray Jones.
“We would strongly advocate that the social economic situation of these people should be better supported, targeted, focused on by the government,” said Murray Jones.
“They [the IDPs] are in for a tough winter, very tough,” she continued. “The coping mechanism, I would say, is getting thinner and thinner.”
Ninka, a middle-aged IDP from South Ossetia living in Tserovani, can only agree.
“We do not have enough crops from our garden to feed ourselves,” she said. “We are just waiting for food to fall from the sky.”
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Tbilisi.