The first decade of Bulgaria’s transition to a market economy was marked by political, social and economic turmoil. The economy effectively collapsed in 1996 under massive inflation and a failed banking system, and the unemployment rate reached 16.9 percent.
The Beautiful Bulgaria programme was born in 1997 at the height of this turmoil. It addressed several challenges, most notably unemployment. The programme contributed to Bulgaria’s transformation: by 2007, Bulgaria was on its way to a democratic market economy and was admitted to the European Union.
Public works as national therapy
Beautiful Bulgaria started as a joint UNDP and Ministry of Labour and Social Policy project in Sofia, financed by Sofia’s municipal government and UNDP. With funding from the European Union, the programme expanded to five cities. By 2003, it operated throughout the country, with funding from national and municipal budgets.
The programme initially focused on vocational training for the unemployed, targeting reconstruction in urban centres. It also provided training to small and medium enterprises and start-up financing for small businesses. In the early 2000s, the programme expanded to renovating tourism sites, sporting facilities and playgrounds.
From its inception Beautiful Bulgaria worked with municipal authorities, a level of government previously constrained by centralized government policy. Structural reform delegated greater authority to city governments, including the right to raise revenue. As municipalities exercised these powers, they became open to new approaches for addressing prevailing problems.
Beautiful Bulgaria provided thousands of jobs, mostly for the unskilled and long-term unemployed. It led to broader urban revival and boosted tourism development and incentives for hundreds of new businesses. The programme’s most important contribution was the renewed sense of nationhood and hope experienced by Bulgarians as a result of the changes they saw around them.
A national transformation
Beautiful Bulgaria’s impact falls into four categories:
The impact on people: 45,609 temporary jobs were created, 27 percent of which went to minority groups. When these numbers are translated into families, the multiplier effect is much larger.
- Beautiful Bulgaria gave Bulgarians a sense of nationhood, self-confidence and hope for the future.
- 45,609 temporary jobs were created, 27 percent of which went to minority groups.
- 1,688 sites were refurbished, including historical places, schools, hospitals, churches and other public buildings.
The impact on national infrastructure: 1,688 sites were refurbished, including historical places, schools, hospitals, churches and other public buildings. The indirect beneficiaries of these projects comprise most, if not all, Bulgarians.
The impact on institutions: The programme is ongoing, with funding from the national budget. Beautiful Bulgaria has become a nationwide phenomenon, embracing the private and public sectors.
The impact on the national psyche: Although difficult to measure, this is widely regarded as Beautiful Bulgaria’s most important transformational effect. 1997 was a turning point for the country, when — after a tumultuous period — people began to believe that real improvement could occur. Beautiful Bulgaria contributed to this change.
National regeneration is a long-term process and Beautiful Bulgaria remains a work in progress. The project’s impact was particularly strong in its initial years, when the country was recovering from the financial crisis of 1997. Eleven years later, the country again dipped into crisis following the 2008 global downturn. In 2008, the Government reinforced its commitment to the programme with a budget of US$40 million — almost half the total project budget over the preceding years.
The project’s impact is not limited to Bulgaria. During the last several years it was adopted in Kosovo, Romania and Serbia. Armenia, Bolivia and Moldova have also expressed interest.