Following its 1990s transition to free markets, Bulgaria instituted a national restoration program that created tens of thousands of new jobs. Beautiful Bulgaria, a partnership between the United Nations Development Program, central government and municipal authorities, contracted local business to restore infrastructure and heritage projects. The initiative refurbished 1,688 sites including hospitals, schools and heritage buildings, and created more than 45,000 jobs, of which 27% went to minority groups.
Results & Impact
More than 45,600 jobs have been created, 27% of which have gone to minority groups, and more than 1,680 sites have been refurbished. An evaluation carried out in 2000 found that 20 to 23% of the workers who found temporary jobs went on to find stable work.
United Nations Development Program, Ministry of Labour and Social Policy Bulgaria, European Union, National Employment Service
The program was a collaboration between the United Nations Development Program and the national government, created to address an economic crisis. It uses small scale restoration projects in urban areas, which required at least 50% of funds to be spent on workers. The program was carried out by municipal councils, which coordinated contractors on infrastructure works appropriate to the local area. The UNDP developed the capacity of municipal actors to carry out larger scale infrastructure projects than they would otherwise be able to take on. Funding came from the European Union and, later, the Bulgarian central government.
General public, unemployed people
Cost & Value
In 2008, the most recent phase of the program’s expansion, the government committed a further $40 million to extending its work.
Running since 1998
The program specified that labour should constitute at least 70% of each restoration project’s cost. This was a point of contention for some contractors who said that excessive labour costs were being imposed on them, and it was later reduced to 50%. However, after carrying out the projects the vast majority of contractors expressed satisfaction with the requirements and what they offered.
The project has been extended to Kosovo, Azerbaijan, Romania and Serbia, and governments in Moldova and Bolivia have also expressed an interest in participating.
As it transitioned to a free market economy in the 1990s, Bulgaria created tens of thousands of jobs, revitalised national infrastructure and boosted a struggling economy with a nationwide work program focused on restoring buildings.
The Beautiful Bulgaria program, instituted in a period of economic and political tumult, carried out small-scale restoration works and infrastructure development, mostly in urban areas. The projects used labour-intensive methods of construction, with at least 50% of costs going toward workers. More than 27% of the jobs created went to minorities.
But job creation was not the only focus of the project, explained Antonio Vigilante, who oversaw the program as Head of the UNDP in Bulgaria.
“I discovered the power of psychological projects. What had fundamentally changed in the country was the attitude of people, the hope in the future, and the desire to engage,” said Vigilante.
“Noticing the decrepit state of the infrastructure, we put two and two together. We though perhaps if we are able to modify the appearance of the towns and cities, to restore the original beauty, then perhaps everyone will feel that something is changing after all. We could demonstrate there was a future after the transition.”
Until 2011, the project refurbished over 1,680 sites and created more than 45,600 temporary jobs. Of those jobs, 23% went to minority ethnic groups, and 9% to women, who are not traditionally employed in construction roles in Bulgaria. Projects included schools, hospitals and churches, and were carried out in major cities across Bulgaria.
An evaluation carried out in 2000 found that 20 to 23% of the workers who found temporary jobs went on to find stable work, either with the employers they worked with in the Beautiful Bulgaria project, or other organisations.
When the program was introduced in 1997, Bulgaria was facing extreme difficulties following the breakup of the Soviet Union. An economic crisis had resulted in monthly inflation rates of more than 250% and an unemployment level of nearly 17%.
But while dire, the difficulties meant the government was open to innovative new approaches, explained Vigilante. He credits cooperative municipalities and central government with much of the project’s success, as it established temporary job programs first in Sofia, then in other major cities like Plovdiv, Varna, Russe and Verniko Turnovo.
Contractors, and especially small to medium enterprises in the construction sector, identified as a potential growth area, were employed to carry out the work. This meant the returns of the project were kept inside Bulgaria, and increased the capacity of local businesses, as the project enforced EU level standards in, for example, workplace safety and building quality.
Local Labour Offices created training programs, preparing 2,500 people with basic construction skills by 2001. It also introduced Start Your Business courses to potential contractors.
The program also helped increase government capacity. Places like job centres, flailing with no jobs to give and few ways to help those in need, had once been hated by the public. When they were used to allocate the work for the Beautiful Bulgaria program, however, they were shown to be relevant again. “Institutions that had been in crisis throughout the country acquired usefulness and prestige,” Vigilante said. “In government it also started some good habits. Some cities ran surveys through the papers, asking populations for their priorities.”
Decentralisation reforms helped this process by giving greater decision-making and revenue raising powers to local governments, so the UNDP worked closely with municipalities to develop tailored local programs.
The twin goods of providing employment and reviving social and cultural institutions in Bulgaria mean the project has proved popular with ordinary people. Of those who were aware of the project, 87% felt positive about its achievements, according to a UNDP evaluation. Vigilante said that the appeal raised national morale, and was demonstrated by newspaper reports that described Beautiful Bulgaria as a “fairy tale.” That in turn led to more confidence in the economy.
“It seemed impossible that you could beautify the city, create jobs, have long-term unemployed back in the labour market with relatively small amounts of money,” said Vigilante. “People started to see the change as the city started to be attractive again to tourists and to business. It was a virtuous circle. People started to imitate what they were seeing.”
Its initial success made it a tool employed in subsequent times of crisis. After the recession of 2008, which also had a biting effect on Bulgaria’s economy, the government reinforced its commitment to Beautiful Bulgaria. It committed $40 million to the project, an amount that equalled nearly half the total sum that had been committed during previous years.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Juan Antonia F Segal)