For many years, Georgia’s NGOs have been stronger, more vibrant and more relevant than most in the region. Regardless of who is in power, there have been NGOs that have done excellent work reporting, acting as watchdogs and seeking to hold the government accountable. Efforts to suppress civil society in Georgia have never been as successful as in neighboring countries, demonstrating the extent to which these organizations are entrenched and able. Georgian civil society has also long been dominated by English speaking elites, often based in Tbilisi and with close ties to, and often financial dependency upon, western donors. For many this has raised question about the organic nature of civil society in Georgia and concerns about corresponding limitations on its impact on Georgia’s democratic developments.
Donor organizations frequently, perhaps unavoidably, conflate civil society and NGOs, but facilitating the former is not the same as funding the latter. Accordingly, for too many in the development community strong NGOs have become a surrogate measure of civil society. This has occurred for a range of reasons, not least because the former is easier to build than the latter. This has long had bearing on Georgia’s difficult challenge of consolidating democracy. Strong democracies have a civil society that is built upon principles of trust, association and social capital. Foreign funded watchdog NGOs, for example, have played a valuable role in holding Georgian governments accountable, but alone they do not constitute civil society of this kind.
In Georgia, civil society support by foreign donors has generally taken the form of funding and helping develop important watchdog organizations like GYLA, ISFED and TI. These, and in earlier years, organizations like the Liberty Institute, played important roles in keeping governments accountable, particularly when constitutional mechanisms for doing this and been weakened or did not exist. Civil society support has also included programs that seek to create institutions that, in one form or another, are service delivery oriented. These have included projects to, for example, develop schools and training facilities and, in some areas to deliver more basic services. These are all important tasks, but not the same as supporting impactful civil society development.
Georgian civil society, however, showed a new side of itself last week following the terrible flood that damaged Tbilisi killing several people. After the flood, thousands of Georgians, in many cases using little more than hand tools and elbow grease, set about trying to repair the damage and help their city dig out from a massive mudslide. These ordinary people did this not because they were paid or because their government asked them too. They did this difficult and stressful work as volunteers because they cared about their city, country and neighbors.
Georgia has seen mass mobilizations in the past. Large demonstrations are a fact of Georgian political life and have been instrumental in recent Georgian history. Demonstrations in Georgia, however, have generally brought people to the streets either to make a political statement or demand something, often resignation, from their government. The events of last week were different. Georgians mobilized not to make demands or make a statement but to work together to solve a problem.
That was modern Georgian civil society’s finest moment. Moreover, it is evidence that Georgian civil society is indeed strong in a concrete and profound way, not just because it includes a handful of smart well-spoken recipients of foreign grants. The volunteers who came together to help their city last week are proof that Georgia has a civil society. Societies dominated by fear, distrust and characterized by scant social capital do not give rise to substantially spontaneous volunteer action where people work together to solve problems for a common goal. Georgia is not a fully consolidated democracy; and there are no guarantees that the country will eventually get there, but the Georgian civil society that presented itself to the world last week is a good indicator that it will not be easy for anybody to move Georgia backwards to an unfree society.
There is, unfortunately, an element of overstatement here. While this was an extraordinary moment for civil society in Georgia, the challenge for that civil society is to make sure that this was not just a moment. The volunteer activity was concentrated only in Tbilisi, Georgia’s most cosmopolitan city, and also where the flooding occurred. Additionally anecdotal data as well as intraocular trauma tests suggest that the volunteers skewed towards the young and the middle class. It is not yet clear whether this kind of civil society exists more broadly in Georgia, but it is also not unusual that in countries like Georgia for civil society to be strongest in these demographics.
The provenance of this effort by Georgian volunteers in not clear. It is partially due to a very human desire to help out in a time of crisis, but that is only a partial explanation. Modern technology, including smart phones, social media and the like, helped facilitate this, but attributing all positive developments to social media and technology, as if by magic, is a mug’s game. It is also due to a sense among many Georgians that they needed to take action in this time of crisis, and that their actions could have an impact. It was not, however, due to either government order or explicit mobilization by an NGO that was funded by a foreign donor to mobilize volunteers for flood relief.
This last point raises an intriguing policy question about these events. Does this spontaneous seeming action by Georgia civil society, that occurred without any specific role by major NGOs and their foreign donors, demonstrate that the work done by many donors for many years has been tertiary to the development of Georgian civil society, or is the relationship between the two more complex than that. This is not just an academic question as it has tremendous bearing on funding strategies and donor activities in Georgia as well as other countries with an active foreign donor community.
It is also very difficult to answer this question with any certainty absent reliable data on, for example, the backgrounds, attitudes and experiences of the volunteers. Nonetheless, there is reason to think that the latter explanation is more accurate. This is, by no means, an assertion that there is any direct or exclusive causality between donor support for civil society and this volunteer activity, but simply that there is some not insignificant relationship. Moreover, it would be bizarre and offensive for any foreign donor to give themselves credit for this; and none have sought to do that. However, probing this relationship can be helpful for donors and others engaged in civil society work both in Georgia and elsewhere.
It is hard to draw a direct link between, for example, funding research projects on the Georgian economy, public education programs about Europe or supporting domestic election monitors and this outpouring of volunteer activity following the floods, but it is not difficult to see an indirect connection. This has presented itself in at least two clear ways. First, cultivating a culture of volunteerism has been a central component of donor supported civil society work in Georgia for many years. Donor supported NGOs have sought to mobilize volunteers, demonstrate the importance of volunteering and occasionally used large numbers of volunteers for projects like election monitoring. It is possible that there is no connection between this and the recent impressive volunteer activity. However, it is also possible that over time these efforts began to have an impact on at least one segment of the Georgian population.
Second, a cadre of Georgians, particularly those who are younger than 40 or so, have had a great deal of exposure to NGO culture and the civic values donors have sought to develop in Georgia over the decades. While clearly not everybody in this demographic, or even every educated person in this demographic has had this exposure, many have. Not all of the volunteers came from this group, but many did, and brought with them attitudes and a skill set that helped build and support the volunteer movement.
Regardless of its origins, the volunteer movement following the flood has been an important and largely organic development in Georgia, one that has obscured the predictable political bickering that is standard during most natural, and even unnatural, disasters in many places. This example of real civil society, one that is perhaps influenced but also beyond the reach of international donors can be a valuable building block for Georgia’s democratic development. It is evidence of a civil society that can actively participate in the life of the country and that is beyond the reach of any political party, and that more generally is not part of the constant tumult, nastiness and name calling that has long been part of political life in Georgia.
A civil society that can seemingly spontaneously bring thousands of people to participate in the less than glamorous tasks of shoveling mud and clearing the way for heavy equipment is also one that is less likely to see themselves as anything other than active participants, and in the vernacular of the donor community, stakeholders, in their country’s future. This is good news for democracy and for Georgia and something about which political leadership in that country should be aware.
The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email email@example.com.