Georgia’s new government “could still go the way of …… previous ones,” The Economist cautions, noting that the Caucasian republic “needs more effective checks on state power than it has had in previous years, in the form of political opposition and civil society.”
The paper cites a recent paper from Chatham House, the London-based foreign policy think-tank, which finds that Georgia’s civil society is too weak to influence politics “as citizens have little capacity to influence political developments owing to lack of engagement, clientelist networks and corruption.”
Citizens rarely participate in public policy debates and barely recognize, let alone engage with NGOs, which are the least understood of Georgia’s public institutions.
Surveying civil society in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the report notes that many Western-funded NGOs are “not anchored in society and constitute a form of ‘NGO-cracy’: a system where professional NGO leaders use access to domestic policy-makers and Western donors to influence public policies without having a constituency in society.”
“Despite the growing numbers of registered NGOs, very few citizens participate, volunteer their time or make donations to NGOs. The low figures for citizen engagement – 5 per cent of the population in Ukraine, 4 per cent in Moldova and 4.8 per cent in Georgia – have remained unchanged for the last twenty years,” writes Orysia Lutsevych, the report’s author and a consultant for the EU-Russia Centre.
NGOs are populated by Tbilisi-based intellectuals and experts who more often engage “with embassies and Western foundations” than ordinary citizens. Consequently, Georgian NGOs are “passive consumers of democracy development aid instead of the driving force behind democratic change,” she argues:
Much evidence today suggests that in the course of the post-Soviet transitions, a rather elitist non-profit-organization sector emerged, which focused on professional consulting and service provision….Many large Western donors, who invest substantial resources in strengthening civil society, often support NGOs patronage networks and sustain a gap between a few well-established groups and active citizens….In Georgia, 83 per cent of NGOs report that they have never received an individual donation. The low levels of NGO membership are reflected in the volunteering numbers: only a third of NGOs in Georgia report having even one or two volunteers.
Avant-garde NGO elite
The findings of a short online survey of the perceptions of NGO leaders in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine reveal a belief that “they play an avant-garde role in transition, where they know better than the average citizen, and discount the importance of mass movements as a driver of social change,” Lutsevych writes, in How to Finish a Revolution: Civil Society and Democracy in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine:
More than 66 per cent of the NGO leaders surveyed said that the most important function of civil society in a democratic system was to influence public policy; 50 per cent said they aimed to promote accountability in politics; and 52 per cent said that the strength of their NGO was driven by access to decision-makers in government and various administrative agencies. The impact of this effort is weak, however, especially in policy areas that challenge the state’s political and economic power. Over 70 per cent of Georgian NGO leaders said that their policy impact was minimal.
“The fundamental problem with Western assistance to civil society in the post-Soviet space is that it leaves much of society untouched,” Lutsevych argues:
Viewing civil society through the narrow lens of NGOs excludes informal youth groups, intellectuals, faith-based associations, local citizens’ initiative groups and business associations. Despite efforts to improve NGO capacity, create a more enabling legal environment and increase policy impact, local NGOs are not getting stronger.
NGOs need to become more transparent, increase their media outreach and build more domestic and international networks. … Most well-established groups direct their advocacy towards human rights and monitoring state policies, paying no attention to inequality, education, access to public utilities and the poor delivery of public services.
But Lutsevych is perhaps guilty of neglecting the many foreign-funded civil society groups that are engaging more diverse constituencies away from the metropolitan comforts of Tbilisi.
For example, the Caucasus Centre for Civil Hearings has conducted mock public hearings in Lagodekhi, Marnauli, and Akhalikalaki on such issues as youth involvement in civil society and the treatment of ethnic minorities. The center also partnered with the Azerbaijani Alliance of Women for Civil Society to host four hearings in Georgia to promote cross-cultural exchanges between all three South Caucasus countries on regional conflict, religion, unemployment and labor migration, and political apathy.
Similarly, the Sukhumi Cultural-Humanitarian Fund promotes women’s political engagement by training activists in advocacy techniques and lobbying municipal authorities on issues affecting women in the regions.
Western donors aren’t entirely to blame, The Economist notes:
Part of the problem lies with Georgians themselves. If they “want true democracy, transparency and personal freedom, they also need to engage in public debate and build social trust”. Yet few ordinary Georgians feel confident to talk about politics outside of the home, according to public opinion surveys. Changing that will take years. These days, Georgian public life inspires more fear and loathing than love.
In a celebrated 2002 article – ‘The End of the Transition Paradigm’ in the Journal of Democracy, she recalls, Thomas Carothers challenged the assumption that post-Soviet states were ineluctably transitioning from communism to liberal democracy, and counseled donors of the need to retain a capacity to adapt and adjust to the vicissitudes of transition and take account of the underlying, country-specific historical and social constraints.
“Today there are hardly any new approaches to strengthening civil society in the region. …There is little innovation in the ways in which additional funds for civil society are invested,” Lutsevych concludes.
On the plus side, she says:
New civil voices use more mass mobilization strategies and social media, and are visible in public spaces. They are more effective in influencing the state and political society than Western-funded NGOs. Wider civic engagement would help build the power of the middle class to work together for enabling citizens to influence policy and further advance democracy in these countries.
In order to ‘finish’ the colour revolutions, democracy promoters and local activists need to focus on society itself. Active and empowered citizens, not the expertise and capacity of a few NGOs, are the indicator of civil society’s strength.
Orysia Lutsevych was 2012 Robert Bosch Fellow at Chatham House. She is currently a consultant for the EU-Russia Centre to develop the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum and advises the Westminster Foundation for Democracy on citizen engagement in Ukraine.
The Journal of Democracy is published by the National Endowment for Democracy. NDI and the Solidarity Center are core institutes of the NED.