In Georgia, when people express their discontent about the events taking place in the country, they usually have a pre-designated scapegoat. There are a few of those: the government, Russia, non-governmental organisations…
While the population has relatively clear ideas about the first two and complaints towards those are usually quite understandable (from economic problems to occupation), the ideas about NGOs are still vague for a big part of society.
People only know that NGO’s are mostly financed by grants. But if we ask them who exactly issues these grants, they probably won’t be able to give an answer. The West? The European Union? Soros?
That’s it - people are rarely familiar with the specifics of this or that program or international organisation that issues grants for Georgian NGOs. The ideas about what they do are even more vague.
There’s been a tendency in Georgia going strong for years now - people trying to demonize NGOs by equating them with different minorities. If the NGO activities in the 90’s were assimilated with, say, the witnesses of Jehovah, today it’s the LGBTQI community filling that role. This unfortunate tendency is also noted by civic activists who say that, among other things, such attitudes also reinforce the marginalization of minorities and their alienation from society.
“Sometimes you even encounter attitudes like ‘They’re protecting minorities, but who will protect me? Who will work on the problems that bother me?’”, says Eka Chitanava, director of the “Tolerance and Diversity Institute”.
She also notes that some people feel like working for defending the rights of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities is a work directed against them.
“One of the reasons for this is that people have difficulty internalizing the fact that these problems touch on all of society. Many don’t understand that the rights of minorities are the rights of all of us, that they live in conditions of inequality, have less access to various resources or social links”, says Chitanava.
“According to parts of society, NGOs are anti-national organisations that go against Georgian traditions and values, already under threat from Western influence.”
“This narrative is encouraged by the ultranationalist, hostile groups that spread it in different social groups. Often they also say NGOs are politically engaged and partial.”
NGO representatives note that there might also be some other factors that cause mistrust.
According to Tamar Kintsurashvili, director of the “Media Development Fund”, NGOs have been targeted for years now. Along with the ultra-right groups and the Orthodox church, government officials don’t shy away from discrediting NGOs either. The latter, however, mainly claim that non-governmental organisations actually defend the interests of the “National Movement” .
Representatives of the civil sector have been talking about this problem for a while now.
In October 2018, 14 NGOs issued a collective statement denouncing the government for its “coordinated attack on civil society”. It was also said in the statement that “in parallel to the coordinated attacks on the part of the government representatives, an organized and purposeful campaign of a similar style, based on inaccurate information and serious personal insults, can be noticed on social networks.”
According to Eka Chitanava, a lack of information caused by incorrect communication may in fact be causing the distrust towards NGOs.
“We absolutely need to provide the population with a definition of NGOs, as well as of ‘civic activism’ in general. We also need to talk about why it’s important. Today these issues stay in the background and the main focus is on NGOs existing at the expense of grants. It’s natural that we don’t have resources and we can’t exist without donors. It’s important to provide information about why the existence of such organisations is crucial”, said the director of TDI.
“For example, NGOs in the U.S. often exist at the expense of membership fees. This gives people the feeling that organisations do something personally important for them and that they talk about their problems. We should probably also go in that direction in the future.”
It’s interesting that non-governmental organisations, also known as civil society organisations, didn’t just appear in Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One such organisation was the “Society for Spreading Literacy among Georgians”, for instance, founded in the second half of the 19th century with iconic Georgian writers and activists such as Akaki Tsereteli, Iakob Gogebashvili, Ilia Chavchavadze, Dimitri Kipiani and others as members.
However, a big part of Georgia’s population doesn’t seem to be convinced by this. According to the study, only 16 % of those asked admitted that the “Society for Spreading Literacy” was an NGO, while 45% have never even heard of it.