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The House of Progress in Guria

 

The Young Scientists’ Club, the largest and oldest nongovernmental organization in Guria, has long outgrown the meaning of its name – the founders of the Young Scientists’ Club are neither young nor scientists any longer. It has been years since they have led the largest and most experienced NGO in Guria in pursuit of transparent and accountable self-governments in the Ozurgeti municipality.

Along with other civil society organizations they have achieved that aim. The Ozrugeti municipality showed the highest results in the 2017 Local Self-Government Index, which means that the local self-government in Guria is one of the the most transparent and accountable self-governments in Georgia.

The development of the Young Scientists’ Club influenced other NGOs in Ozurgeti to a certain degree by making them stronger, which, eventually, brought about practical results such as higher levels of citizen awareness and involvement in the implementation of local self-governance, as well as the accountability of local self-government to citizens.

Mindia Salukvadze is one of the founders of the Young Scientists’ Club. As he recalls, in 1995 he was a postgraduate student at a research institute in Anaseuli when he and his friends established the Center for Technological Advancement and received their first grant from Eurasia Partnership Foundation, the present-day Europe Foundation.

“We had no plans whatsoever to establish a nongovernmental organization. First, we went to a bank to take out a loan for computers. We were advised to approach the Eurasia Partnership Foundation as we could get computers there,” Mindia explained.

To his first meeting with Eurasia Partnership Foundation he went with his friend and supporter, Levan Mzhavanadze.

“The office of Eurasia Partnership Foundation was in Tbilisi, on Sabcho Street. We were greeted by Kakha Lomaia. He listened to our story, advised us to establish a nongovernmental organization and gave us an application form for a project. We went back to Guria, wrote a project proposal and submitted it. While waiting for the response we heard the news that the office had been burgled and it would be closed down. We lost hope of receiving funding, but on 25 May 1996, I remember it clearly, we received a phone call to inform us that the project had received financing,” Levan Mzhavanadze recounted.

Mindia believes that this start had a “snowball effect”. “The first project was followed by other projects and gradually we grew and developed,” the founder of the Young Scientists’ Club said.  

The first project envisaged training public servants in computer skills. “This was the first ever opportunity for people in Guria and Chokhatauri to learn how to use a computer. Then a newspaper was laid out with the assistance of the first computer. The Internet and email, back then, could only be accessed via a Tbilisi phone number. Every evening, after 7 p.m., a Tbilisi phone number was switched on for us in the post office and we could access the Internet. Apart from transforming our office into a training center for public servants, we also invited trainers and experts who helped us develop and strengthen. Gradually, the mission of our NGO became clearly outlined – to support the development of civil society,” Mindia went on.

That local population of Guria, in contrast to those in other regions, also appreciates that the strength of its nongovernmental sector is due to the contribution of the Young Scientists’ Club.

“What we work on now, and are proud of, is the improvement of our self-government. We do this in a joint effort with our citizens. Things such as the live broadcast of municipal council sittings, citizen engagement centers, the SMS system at municipal council sittings, the decrease in the threshold for e-petition signatories are all initiatives which were introduced with our support and serve the aim of strengthening the accountability of self-government. Today, we offer numerous opportunities for active citizens to develop, to control local self-government bodies, to advocate for civic interests, as well as to obtain financial and intellectual resources; we are proud that these resources have been accumulated in the nongovernmental sector,” Mindia Salukvadze said.

The fact that the live broadcast of municipal council sittings has proved to be an effective mechanism in Guria can be judged by the high level of citizens’ involvement. For example, a notorious council sitting which discussed the abolition of Ozurgeti community municipality had 18 000 viewers.

There is a general consensus among the NGO sector in Guria that the self-government reform which abolished seven municipal cities and community municipalities throughout Georgia is an extremely negative development. In the case of Guria, as many as 28 communities run by the community municipalities were transferred to the municipality of Ozurgeti city.

According to Otar Revishvili, a representative of the Guria Youth Resource Center, this reform has actually deprived self-government of its essence.  “The idea of self-government lies in the local government being close to its population. However, something contrary happened and the government has moved further away from the people.  Take the example of Guria: while before the reform a municipality was responsible for 18 000 citizens, today this responsibility extends to 100 000 citizens. Moreover, a city is an urban settlement with needs that differ from those of rural settlements; hence, the needs of rural settlements will again be viewed as inferior in importance to priorities of urban settlements,” Otar said.

Mindia is even tougher in his criticism of the reform. He believes that, despite the consolidation of the nongovernmental sector, the government resorted to arm-twisting in implementing the reform and by doing so harmed the population, on the one hand, and on the other, undermined the sector’s efforts to strengthen self-government practices

“Our predictions concerning the reform proved to be true. The government justified the reform with the need to save money and to simplify administration. Of course, it turned out to be the opposite – because of administrative changes the costs, instead of decreasing, increased,” Mindia said.

With the grant from Europe Foundation, the Young Scientists’ Club planned to replicate the engagement mechanism implemented in the community municipality in Ozurgeti; however, during the first month of the project the municipal city, as Mindia Salukvadze put it, “died before their eyes.”    

“We planned to replicate the mechanism which we had successfully introduced in the community municipality – live broadcasts of municipal council sittings, SMS and online messaging systems at municipal council sittings, et cetera - in the municipality of the city of Ozurgeti. The reform thwarted our plan, but thanks to our experience we easily managed to refocus - we launched a study of post-reform processes and found out that the level of the population’s dissatisfaction with administrative services provided by the self-government had worsened,” Levan Mzhavanadze noted.

The Young Scientists’ Club, jointly with the Guria Youth Center, conducted a study of the provision of municipal services and the level of the population’s satisfaction with these services. The study was conducted in two waves – before and after the reform.

The study covered 115 streets evaluating them based on the assessments of observers and on a survey of residents. The schedule of garbage pickup, the cleanliness of streets, water drainage systems, street lights, the water supply – all these factors were examined, revealing that, after the reform, the dissatisfaction of population with, for example, garbage pickup services increased by 11%.

“With this study we did not simply set out to prove that our predictions were correct; we wanted to show the local government the real picture and how their every initiative changes the lives of the citizens. We do not try to weaken the local government but rather to help them work effectively,” Mindia said.

Based on the study findings, the Young Scientists’ Club has already drawn up recommendations for the municipal council to add garbage cans, to fix the drainage system and pavements, to solve the problem of stray dogs, to provide internal transport in several districts, et cetera.

According to Nana Tavdumadze, the head of the office of the city council, the survey measuring the level of satisfaction with municipal services proved to be a very useful tool and the city council incorporated it in the open government action plan. “The Young Scientists’ Club has assisted us in achieving our objectives; it helped us implement initiatives that are necessary to ensure openness, such as SMS systems and e-petitions, the live broadcast of municipal council sittings  and many other things,” Nana Tavdumadze said.

In parallel with advocating concrete initiatives, the Young Scientists’ Club is also a source of information for the population.  www.guria.ge is a resource which serves the establishment of open governance and provides citizens with all the necessary information on the processes that are underway on the local level.  

One of the projects the Young Scientists’ Club took on, and succeeded in realizing, was the lowering of the threshold of e-petition signatories from 1% to 0.5%, thereby making it much more possible to mobilize citizens to support certain initiatives. “We try to achieve such a set-up of every self-government unit that it becomes impossible for them to ignore citizens. For example, we forced the government to decrease the threshold for e-petition signatories so as to enable citizens to mobilize more easily. Thus we turned an electronic petition into a more effective mechanism which a municipal council is obligated to consider at a council sitting which, for its part, is broadcast live.  This completes an entire chain of openness which, in the end, has an impact on citizens’ welfare,” Otar Revishvili said.

The Europe Foundation now assists the Young Scientists’ Club in improving standards and organizational management. The assessment of the organization has already been completed, and it identified a need for rebranding. The Young Scientists’ Club will soon continue its activities under the banner of its new name: The House of Progress.  

 

Author:  Ketevan Magalashvili

Photos by:  Irakli Shalamberidze

 

 

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