TBILISI, DFWatch – Do you know what “NGO” means? If not, look out. You might be targeted by their next campaign to raise awareness.

They have been on the streets of Georgia demonstrating for democratic rights, and their ads are on TV promoting the environment. They are behind much of the charity work here. But why do they need people’s support?

At a recent meeting among the NGO community in Tbilisi, a new survey was presented which showed how low the level of knowledge is among people in Georgia when it comes to NGOs.

26% of around those four thousand who were questioned consider the Labor Party an NGO; 17% think BP is an NGO; and 14% consider NATO an NGO.

Some of the survey was about people’s trust in the groups and willingness to get engaged themselves, either by signing petitions, showing up at demonstrations or joining as volunteers. Pulling in locals as volunteers is seen internationally as one of the strong arguments in favor of NGOs, because it is said to make development work cheaper. Whether this really is the case is disputed, however.

Also people’s willingness to seek help from NGOs was gaged. There are many NGOs that help people in case they approach them: the mental health coalition gives free consultations, the young lawyer’s association does too, and there are social NGOs i Georgia which help refugees or people affected by natural disasters. Some even go from door to door.

When it comes to advocacy NGOs, for example those that work on election issues and democracy, they say they need people’s support to have more power to voice people’s concerns, in cases such as the campaign ‘This Affects You Too’. This is a campaign to repeal a new set of regulations which are meant to create more transparency in party financing, but which may be exploited to harass opponents of the ruling party ahead of the parliamentary election in October.

Making the groups more capable of advocating on behalf of people is one of the aims of the organization behind the survey,  the East West Management Institute, and its project ‘Policy, Advocacy and Civil Society Development in Georgia’ (G-PAC). This is because, the EWMI writes in its project description, after the rose revolution in 2003, there has been a marked drop in civil society activity partly due to many of the people moving into government, and partly due to a polarization of think tanks in a pro-government and anti-government camp.

The East West Management Institute is as a not-for-profit organization founded in 1988 by George Soros. It promotes the rule of law, civil society and free market systems globally. G-PAC runs for four years and is funded by United States Agency for International Development (USAID). One of the EWMI’s aims is to strengthen organizations’ ability to be watchdogs on behalf of ordinary people.

As such the stated aim is to bridge both sides of the divide in the NGO debate. One of the main criticisms of NGOs is that they replace the free organizations among the people in a country. Some also argue that they are a form of imperialism and fulfill a similar role as colonial elites in the past.

No matter viewpoint, the groups are placed between people, aid donors and the governments of the countries they work in and must negotiate and explore their role as best they can.

“NGOs should acknowledge that they not only represent people, but they are the people,” lawyer Tamuna Gurchiani said at the meeting.

She was responding to a remark that often organizations are dependent on their donors and they’re under their influence. She says; in Georgia organizations have no other way but to be dependent on the donors.

That dependency is the reason why NGOs rose to prominence in the first place, because by being constantly subject to scrutiny by their donors, they are more pliable to particular circumstances and responsive to local conditions than direct state intervention, which has tended to be more bureacratic.

Some of the most well-known groups carry out monitoring, and here particularly Transparency International and Georgian Young Lawyer’s Association have become central to the public debate. The latter has carried out a thorough investigation of what happened the night of May 26 2011, when police cleared a demonstration in Tbilisi, resulting in several deaths.

NGOs have a hard task, one of the guests noted; one thing is the lack of support from people, but another problem is the government’s attitude towards them.

“The government doesn’t listen to us. Who stand behind us except the donors, so why should they listen if we don’t have people’s support?”

Returning to the question, what “NGO” means, there is no clear definition of non-governmental organization. It certainly does not mean “not funded by governments”, because most of them rely heavily on government money. But they are not part of government, and neither are they primarily out to make money. This form of advocacy has become essential in modern development work, both in promoting policy and directly helping people.

NGOs have become popular because, compared to development efforts by states, they are better at connecting with the local population and are allowed in by regimes which would be more reluctant to let outside forces intervene directly.

NGOs are distinguished in international and national ones. 14 000 national NGOs have so far been registered in Georgia since 1990, according to official figures, but most of them are not functioning. A database run by the Civic Development Institute has registered 1 500 NGOs that are active today, but the database is not complete.