The entry of a new political force into the Georgian political landscape in the autumn 2001 has focused the spotlight on Georgian civil society organisations (CSO). There is an evident increase in demand for their services nowadays. The Georgian society has become more active in recent times and the CSOs have a potential to play an important role in the process. They also have enough capacity to carry out independent expert assessment of various problems.
At first glance, the CSOs seem to have adequately responded to these new challenges – they formed different alliances and coalitions, and made serious political statements via mass media. But a closer look shows that the current Georgian civil society is not as strong as expected. Moreover, it itself is facing a lot of problems.
Although the CSOs admit that the civil society is in crisis nowadays, they differ widely in explaining the reasons of the problem. It may seem that the decline of the Georgian civil sector began right after the 2003 Rose Revolution, when many activists and leaders of the CSOs took up various positions in government with nobody coming in to replace them. Being staffed predominantly by former NGO people, the government knows well enough how and when, if necessary, to weaken the civil sector and ignore its demands.
Another theory is that the Georgian civil society has never been strong and it looked more active in the past only in contrast to the government’s passiveness and inaction. But efficiency and competence of the Georgian governmental institutions has noticeably increased in recent times, undermining the CSOs’ ability to influence social processes.
Although both views have elements of truth, they are too simplified to be useful. The status of CSOs is not a static thing. Its dynamic reflects ongoing political and social processes in the country.
A new type of CSOs has emerged in Georgia after the country regained its independence in 1991. They were mainly funded and supported by foreign (governmental or private) donors and foundations. In the political and economic turmoil of the 90s they were considered “islands of freedom”, which offered everyone an opportunity to realise their potential in an environment free from material or non-material corruption that was widespread in Georgian governmental bodies and private businesses at that time. It is equally important that during that period wages were much higher in the CSOs than in the public sector.
The development of the CSOs in the post-independence period can be divided into several stages:
- The “embryonic” stage (1992-95) – the emergence of the first CSOs; but they are weak and incapable to influence or play a meaningful role in social processes.
- The “oasis” period (1995-99) – the number of CSOs and their activities increase dramatically. The government abstains from meddling in CSO projects in order to demonstrate to the West that it honours and adheres to democratic values.
- The period of self-sufficiency and sustainability (1999-2003) – the CSOs have acquired effective advocacy skills to defend their interests and interests of the general public. Just during this period the government makes its first attempts to curb activities of the CSOs by using various financial and political means. In response, the CSOs oppose the government and spearhead efforts towards opposition unity.
- The post-revolution euphoria (2003-08) – the CSOs enjoy the “benefits” of the revolution; it is a brief “honeymoon” between the government and the civil sector.
- The “watershed” (2008 – to present) – the government develops “Dragon’s Syndrome” (as an old Chinese proverb says, “To defeat a dragon, you must become a dragon yourself”), stirring the society, and the CSOs in particular, to discontent and protest. The CSOs begin pondering over the possibility of changing their strategies.
The Georgian civil society has come under increasing pressure from the government in recent times (censorship, formal/legislative or informal barriers, etc). Worse still, the CSOs have faced fundraising problems since 2003, as international donors reduced funding for the civil sector and increased support for the “revolutionary” government.
The civil society in Georgia usually gets meagre – and often politicised – financial assistance from the government. The same is the case with private companies, which seem to have little, if any, willingness and motivation to cooperate with the CSOs. At the same time, volunteering is not much popular among the general public due to economic problems and widespread public nihilism and frustration. Under such circumstances, the reduction of donors’ support dealt a severe blow to the CSOs.
In the last 7-8 years many Georgian community organisations and citizens’ initiative groups – mainly small ones from rural areas – have gone out of business. Only pro-government CSOs and those with more or less large material and human resources continue to function at present. Although donor organisations have recently resumed their financial assistance for the CSOs, it does not help much because the capacities and capabilities of the latter have actually dropped to the level last seen in the 90s of the last century. It means that the CSOs have in fact to build their “business” from scratch.
In addition to the above-described weaknesses and drawbacks of the civil sector, there is one particular problem that is much more important than all the rest and, at the same time, is their direct result – over the last two decades the CSOs invested most of their time and effort into establishing and maintaining links with donors and governmental institutions rather than working with local communities and responding to the challenges facing the country.
Although donors were driven by a sincere desire to facilitate the development of civil society in Georgia, their policies resulted, unfortunately, in the emergence of an alliance of CSOs rather than a true civil society. The Georgian CSOs (like their counterparts in many developing or newly democratic countries) have transformed into a closed caste of some sort, an overpoliticised social group characterised by bitter rivalry and infighting among its members for limited resources. They even developed their own slang language (Georgian spelling of the English words “deadlines”, “grantmaking”, etc), which the overwhelming majority of the ordinary “Joneses and Browns” simply does not understand. It is one of the reasons of the growing gap and estrangement between the CSOs and the general public.
In spite of the above described problems, a recent tendency among the CSOs to engage more actively with local communities in order to bridge the existing gap between them and the public provides some grounds for optimism. It remains to be seen, however, whether their efforts are effective and successful.
David Losaberidze is project coordinator at the Caucasus Institute for Peace Democracy and Development.