What follows is an account of a round of interviews organized by UNDP and UNV Georgia and held in Tbilisi on 13, 14 and 15 July 2015. The interviews were meant to get Future Makers Global in sync with the way Georgian institutional actors and their main stakeholders think about employment, social cohesion and data for accountability; they also attempted to scope grassroots constructive initiatives in the country, and to forge stronger ties with them. The interviews were run by myself, @Inge and @Khatuna.
Policy priorities and trends
At the time of writing, Georgia has completed the transition from socialism to a market economy. Its main strategic document, Georgia 2020, celebrates success but also acknowledges remaining difficulties: the latter have to do with employment and social inclusion. The unemployment rate is 12.4% (2015); the youth unemployment rate is 30.5% (2015 – source: Georgia Statistics).
• The economic policies of the last decade were successful in terms of investment and correspondingly increasing economic growth rates, but these policies failed in their attempt to support employment and increase the competitiveness of the Georgian economy; and
• Economic growth did not reach a significant part of the Georgian population, among which poverty rates remain high.
New economic policies call for the increased provision of welfare through supporting the creation of employment opportunities rather than the simple provision of social assistance. At the same time, the Government fully intends to fulfil its responsibility to provide targeted social assistance to the poorest layers of society. Given these factors, solving the problems which are impeding efforts to achieve these goals is the main priority of the present Strategy. (emphasis ours)
The transition away from the Soviet era left Georgia with an unusually high level of trust in its youth. It is not unusual for Georgians in their mid-20s to be in relatively senior position. Prime Minister Garibashvili is 33 years old.
Georgia’s main strategic goal seems to be “deep integration” within the international community, both as a path to economic well-being and as a safeguard of its independence from Russia. The Georgian government has a track record of swift, firm commitment to internationals standards (particularly European Union ones). This appears to have allowed it to benefit from the considerable amount of analysis that went into defining those standards, without itself having to repeat that analysis. This is a possible explanation that policy is far better developed than analysis in Georgia.
With respect to our idea of supporting grassroots communities as a possible partner in public goods provision and stewardship, we recommend that the entry point to partner up with the government is the Public Service Development Agency (http://www.sda.gov.ge/?lang=en). The PSDA has an Innovation Lab with a broad mandate to investigate innovation in public service provision; the Lab can draw on very significant in-house legal and administrative expertise to secure projects developed in Georgia; and, importantly, it has an excellent working relationship with UNDP. We have met them, and they seem happy to consider a partnership. The involvement of this partner is viewed very favourably by UNDP senior management in Georgia.
News from the grassroots scene
One year after the Futurespotters event in Tbilisi, we found a much stronger, more confident and better coordinated grassroots scene than the one we had left. At its core lies a cluster of organisations and informal networks of highly motivated young citizens passionate on reclaiming public spaces as a way to reinvent a way to live together in the city. while fiercely independent, they do participate in a culture of collaboration, and regularly participate in each other’s projects. They are:
- Guerrilla Gardeners, the beating heart of the Tbilisi scene; they plant trees and flowers to beautify the city, especially the sidewalks, and mobilise to protect public spaces. Highly knowledgeable on plant growing and gardening, they are among the most radically emergent, as they refuse to incorporate or apply for grants. Very good at social media communication.
- Iare Pekhit, an NGO aiming to win back breathing space for pedestrians. In the last year, their strategy shifted from campaigning to deploying public art installation, as that has the potential to directly change the way in which people inhabit their streets. A new membership-based association has been set up by them to foster cooperation on pedestrian rights activism. (new website to be online any time now)
- Critical Mass Tbilisi.
- Vegan Community Café, an initiative aimed at promoting healthier, more planet-friendly eating at affordable prices. The initial investment was partly contributed by the founders' personal money, partly crowdsourced on Indiegogo.
- JumpStart Georgia and Elva, two open data-oriented collectives invested in mapping, access to information and data journalism.
These initiatives collaborate with each other, as well as with some of the more structured NGOs like Transparency International Georgia and Rural Development for Future Georgia. We see potential for further collaboration.
The capacity for self-mobilisation of Georgian civil society became apparent when a violent flash flood hit Tbilisi on the 13th June. Within 24 hours, using a Facebook group as the main locus of coordination, a group of brilliant community organisers had 12,000 young people out mitigating or repairing the damage, from bringing first aid relief to shoveling mud to lodging and feeding the dogs who had to flee the flooded city kennel. Absolutely everyone we talked to, from engineers in the FabLab to the U.N. Deputy Resident Representative mentioned the flood as a foundational moment, in which the whole country acknowledged the generosity and effectiveness of its youth.
This impressive capacity for mobilisation and effective coordination took many Georgians by surprise. However, we have discovered that such capacity had in fact been built over the years: the initiators of the 13 June Facebook group (and the main organisers) were mostly Guerrilla Gardeners. They had built these skills in previous movements to preserve and keep firmly in the commons some public spaces: Guduashvii Square and Vake Park.
While very independent and occasionally critical of the government, these young Georgians are highly constructive, and have signaled they would consider a structured collaboration with the institutions, as long as their orientation towards building and stewarding public goods and their freedom to take initiatives are upheld.