The Georgian government is to start handing out funds to select players in the whole non-public sector, after a decision in parliament. Power to hand out money will reside with ministries. The effort is not limited to non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but may also include educational institutions and branch offices of foreign think tanks as well as private Georgian citizens.
The bill was prepared by parliamentarians Zviad Kukava and Kakha Anjaparidze, whose stated aim of changing the Law on Grants is to enhance support for the whole non-public sector. But commentators DFWatch spoke to say that while it is important to support the NGOs, they fear that in a country with authoritarian features, such a measure may be used to assert influence.
Whereas the decision about giving grants will lie at the ministry level, according to the new law, the government will have an opportunity to get information about the aim of giving the grant, the amount of funds and consult a preliminary estimate, before it formally commits public money to the NGO.
While giving the central government a final say about releasing money, another important feature of the bill is that the effort covers a very wide section of society. This is because the Law on Grants from 2006 defines who may receive such grants in a broad way. According to that law, grantees may be Georgian-based or foreign-based non-profit legal persons, its office, branch or department, as well as a legal entity under public law. But it goes further than that and accepts into the definition a citizen of Georgia, a person with a neutral identity card or a neutral travel document [i.e. persons with documents issued in the breakaway republics]; as well as an accredited higher education institution. This being left unchanged under the new bill, ministries can give grants also to private Georgian citizens, to foreign organizations and think tanks which have a branch office in Georgia and to higher education, in addition to NGOs strictly speaking.
In a note explaining the thinking behind the bill, its authors argue for favoring the non-governmental sector.
“The ministries have to have a close relationship with civil society while setting theirs strategic aims and objectives. The aim of this relationship is to develop together the specific programs in the fields within the strategic aims and action plans. The overall purpose is the transparency of the public sector and the facilitation of effective development of the ministry’s tasks,” the note reads.
An analyst DFWatch spoke to thinks there are two sides to this decision.
“It’s good if the government will help develop civil society,” legal analyst Levan Kalandadze says. “But on the other side, [the bill] also poses a danger, in that the ministries could give grants according to where their sympathies lie. So there will not be an expectation towards the ministries to be objective.”
“Ministries could give grants according to where their sympathies lie” –Levan Kalandadze, legal analyst
“The ministry does not have an independent income. It has a state policy and is financed from the state budget. So the ministry will finance the NGOs from the government’s budget and it will be subjective,” Kalandadze adds. “We can consider this decision as support and stimulation of the NGOs, but on the other hand, it is quite possible that it will become aligned with politics. The grants will be given due to political sympathies. So I see more of danger than support of the non-governmental sector.”
There already are some regulations in place which will limit the way in which ministries may award such grants, according to him. Mostly it is not allowed for ministries to give grants to NGOs abroad. In this case, the government makes the money available to an independent foundation, and then the foundation choses which NGO will receive the grant.
“A minister is a political actor. He will decide who he will finance. So people will not expect that the ministerially financed NGO will present objective research. After this decision we will get the fact that one part of NGOs will get grants and the other part will not, because their research topics are not in the government’s interests,” Levan Kalandadze explains.
Zakaria Kutsnashvili, chairman of the NGO Law for People, also sees the danger of discrimination against the non-governmental sector and thinks the sector could turn into a kind of “government NGOs”.
According to him, for sake of the forming a civil society, it is really important to support the non-governmental sector, but he thinks it’s problematic that these grants will be available only for a specific group, not for everyone.
The government could get a way to “legally encourage the NGOs supportive of the government and that way nourish a loyal NGO sector” –Zakaria Kutsnashvili, leader of NGO Law for People
“It’s all connected to the subject of [public] purchases, so involving a wide range in this process is a key factor to enable the purchasing of special services as cheap and as good as possible. Such services can be provided by the non-governmental sector as well as the private sector. But two principles are important here: who sits in the special commission, and that grants must be given on a competitive basis,” Kutsnashvili says.
In recent times, part of the non-governmental sector has had a very critical attitude towards the government, according to Kutshnashvili. So he does not exclude that a decision will be made to “legally encourage the NGOs supportive of the government and that way the government will nourish a guaranteed loyal NGO sector.”
“There are many questions about how the government will divide those grants, how subjective it will be. In practice there exist pro-governmental NGOs and NGOs critical towards the government. If these grants will be given directly [by the government], it means that independent NGOs won’t get anything. That kind of support will produce NGOs controlled by the government, and it’s very bad,” Zakaria Kutsnashvili says. “It will not support the non-governmental sector, but will have a negative impact. So when the ministry gives grants they should be made to follow special rules. Giving grants is not the main thing; the government should follow the principle of the public openness.”