Association in displacement
As many as 88,542 internally displaced families are registered in Georgia today. Since the 1990s, the state has provided accommodation to only 35,341 families. The remaining 53,201 families are still awaiting accommodation from the state (Source: The Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation and Refugees of Georgia, „Document for the development of refugee allowance reform “, January, 2017, pg. 18.).
The distribution and resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) is carried out in accordance with an assessment score system developed by the state. Scores to internally displaced families are assigned in relation to their social conditions and the length of time they have lived in displacement.
Malalo Malania waited 25 years for accommodation. During that period she lived in a rented apartment on the outskirts of Tbilisi. To get accommodation faster she moved to Kutaisi. Now she owns a 40 square meter apartment on the fourth floor of a former music school. Time and again, the ground floor of the building becomes flooded, but Malalo Malania is more concerned about earning her daily bread.
“Getting used to a new city proved very difficult. My husband worked as a driver in Tbilisi and was able to earn some living. Now we have no other income save an IDP pension which is GEL 45 per person. Although we experience hardship I do not regret moving here. It is a great relief that we do not have to pay rent,” Malalo Malania said.
The Kutaisi IDP community is one of those communities where the civic organization Abkhazeti carries out its activity under a Europe Foundation grant. The aim of Abkhazeti’s project is to facililtate the social and economic integration of IDPs. Within the framework of this project, the organization strives to fulfill this mission by working in 34 communities spread across the four cities of Kutaisi, Tskaltubo, Senaki and Poti. These are the cities where Abkhazeti must facilitate the development of the communities through civic monitoring and advocacy. All this will eventually help improve the life of the IDPs residing in these places.
“We selected the IDP communities containing a majority of vulnerable and socially disadvanatged families. These are the settlements where IDPs were resettled by the state in accordance to the score system. Consequently, the majority of them do not know one another, do not trust one another, and lack a sense of community as well as the experience of cooperation for common interests,” Nukri Milorava, the head of charity-humanitarian center Abkhazeti said.
One can sense this in the Kutaisi community. Every member of the community is concerned about his/her own problems – a ceiling, basement, shortage of space. However, the common problem of the former music school is that the building was poorly rehabilitated years ago. Construction waste was dumped in the basement and after some time, the basement filled with water. One can always feel moisture on the ground floor, while it becomes flooded when it rains. This led to cracks forming in the walls, which turned three apartment on the ground floor into unfit living spaces. The municipality offered to pay rent to the owners of these three apartments. As for the basement clean-out, no progress has yet been seen.
“Making progress requires activity from the community and homeowners’ association themselves. This is precisely where we see our mission. We try to teach these people, step by step, how to defend their interests before the right people,” Nukri Milorava said.
Once the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation and Refugees of Georgia provides accommodation to displaced families, it relieves itself of the responsibility to take care of them. Residential buildings with IDPs - and in this particular case, the former music school too - are on the balance sheet of local municipalities and consequently, these municipalities are directly responsible for resolving the problems.
“It is necessary to have correct, timely and consolidated communication with the local authorities. To this end, a community needs leaders who will have sufficient knowledge and skills to defend the interests of the community,” Nukri Milorava went on.
To achieve this end, the Center has already begun to study the needs of the community and homeowners’ associations, to mobilize the community, to identify leaders and to train them in the necessary skills; consultation committees have been set up, manned with representatives of community and homeowners’ associations and the work has begun to ensure that they are implementing civil monitoring and advocacy initiatives effectively. Meetings were held with local authorities and social media webpages were set up for each committee to ensure an active level of media involvement with regard to advocacy.
“In addition to teaching them how to advocate their interests before the local self-government, we would like to ensure that they have access to all available local resources because we know that income is vital for these people. For example, the state owns unused lands and if these people register cooperatives they will obtain the right to use these lands. Therefore, we offer them some sort of framework plans for income,” Nukri Milorava said.
Apart from the former music school the Kutaisi community has three residential buildings which were constructed for IDPs by KfW, a German development bank, after the 2008 war. There is also an abandoned building which IDPs have turned into their shelter – IDPs are squatting in this building while awaiting more permanent accommodation. Although the resettlement of families into large residential buildings has been completed, a segment of families still feel cheated. They did not receive the space which they were due according to the number of family members. A smaller building across from the large residential buildings was designed as a place for civic gatherings, but now it stands idle with only a plaque on it announcing that it once housed a nongovernmental organization.
Givi Tsalani, a 50-year-old IDP from Abkhazia, is distinguished among the Kutaisi community for his activism. As the leader of the community organization, he participated in the retraining and training of the local population.
“When this building was constructed it was fit with office infrastructure and we began to hold meetings, conduct trainings, teach computer programs and train IDPs for the job market. However, all this was possible only with the German financing and once that project ended and the issuance of salaries subsequently stopped, the center lost its function. No one, especially the youth, has shown any interest in developing projects, volunteering and civic activism. I was not able to lure anyone into the building and consequently, we are functionless today,” Givi Tsalani said.
“The practice shows that when a community is not strong, authorities do not bother themselves to engage in a dialogue with them. We consider a community strong when at least four or five persons out of 200 are active. In such a case one may achieve some results. The government must become convinced that it is dealing with a well-consolidated, trained community that knows what to demand and how to get involved. Ideally, this is what we want to achieve,” Nukri Milorava said.
According to him, the practice of the Abkhazeti center has many successful models of associations. There are cases when associations have become so strong that they start business activities on site, obtain grants and establish social enterprises, or enter into negotiations with the local government to jointly establish a community center where some initiatives are proposed and implemented.
“The aim of the project is to create a system which will operate independently in the future. If we want civic involvement that is not of a merely formal nature and is not limited to the head of a local executive visiting the site or giving the population promises, we must teach citizens how to apply involvement mechanisms in practice,” Natia Meladze, the manager of the Engage and Monitor for Change Program, said.
According to Nukri Milorava, the relationship between a community and the government is smooth when the community is strong enough to mobilize citizens and advocate their interests without the assistance of organizations like Abkhazeti.
“However, much work has to be done before that happens and there are four or five stages that must be gone through to achieve such a level,” Milorava added.
The fact that much time and effort is required to turn citizens into activists was also proven by the 2017 UNDP survey Citizen Satisfaction with Public Services in Georgia. The survey showed that 77% of citizens lack any information on how and in what form they can participate in local self-government whereas only 10% have participated in local self-government in this or that form.
Author: Ketevan Magalashvili
Photos by: Irakli Shalamberidze