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.
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Beautiful Bulgaria is an exception to UNDP’s normal programming approach. In accordance with its strategic plans and practice architecture, UNDP characteristically offers a menu of development cooperation from which programme countries can choose.
In Eastern Europe during the immediate post-Soviet period, UNDP adopted a more pragmatic approach, focused on ‘being useful.’ UNDP’s contribution was to create an enabling framework within which a national initiative could take root.
The main lessons are:
Principled opportunism: An opportunistic approach can be effective. Although somewhat outside UNDP’s normal parametres, Beautiful Bulgaria embodied UNDP’s programming values: human development, poverty reduction, decentralized governance, participatory processes and national ownership.
Timing is everything: The programme was the right idea at the right time. In 1997, political leaders were looking for practical, effective ideas and were open to whatever would work. The political will to innovate existed, and the European Union brought the pilot funding required. UNDP’s role was that of broker in the process.
Pragmatic programme design and implementation: The programme was developed to be practical and useful to communities under stress. Vocational training for the construction industry had long since ceased to be a specialized programme area for UNDP. Nevertheless, UNDP programme designers were able to continually adapt the programme to reflect evolving needs.
Decentralized national ownership: The programme relied on municipal ownership. This was
facilitated by the programme’s visible benefit to the people. In this respect it differed from UNDP’s ‘upstream’ policy-driven programmes.
Building absorptive capacity: UNDP effectively performed its traditional role of building national
capacity to absorb larger funding than it could have provided. Funds initially came from the European
Union, as well as other major donors. Later on they came from the Government, including central
and local authorities. UNDP’s capacity development assistance was a prerequisite for the effective
application of these funds.