Issue 3, 2014. June-July

   

MOVING ON UP

When City Hall rejected Coop Georgia's request to put 100 collection bins around Tbilisi, Coop Georgia focused on targeting the private sector instead.

Heather Yundt

Tamuna Gabisonia's Little Giraffe blog and activities have encouraged parents to become more engaged with their children

Wooden swings dangle from tree branches in a small park tucked between buildings in central Tbilisi. Seats made out of tires encircle a tire table topped with a chess board. A wooden bookshelf — now empty — stands nearby. Bottles and plastic bags are strewn on the ground.

The swings, tires, and bookshelf are all new sights in the park, the efforts of local activists to revitalize the space — the trash is not.

"People should take care of this park. You cannot wait for the municipality to clean it every week," says Nini Palavandishvili of GeoAIR, an artists' organization whose Vacant Tbilisi project aims to map and find new uses for abandoned urban properties.

"Of course you cannot. But if they clean the streets they should be able to," her colleague Sophia Lapiashvili responds.

"Yes, but this is exactly what I am against," Palavandishvili says. "People wait for municipalities and governments to do something for them. People should take action."

Palavandishvili is not alone in her frustration. Members of Georgia's civil society have long struggled to encourage people to become active in their communities. An Asian Development Bank 2011 briefing traces this lack of involvement back to the Soviet period when grassroots citizens' initiatives were seen as a threat to the state's control over society. Though civic engagement increased in the years following the Soviet Union's collapse, the euphoria of the Rose Revolution quickly gave way to widespread disillusionment.

But there are signs of change. In 2013, the CRRC's Caucasus Barometer survey found that 68% of respondents said volunteer work was important to being a good citizen, compared with just 41% in 2011. And despite low levels of formal civic engagement, research funded by IREX has shown that Georgians do help one another out informally and have respect for community activists.

Nicolas Guibert, an expat from France, decided not to wait for the government to lead change. After moving to Georgia two and a half years ago, Guibert became concerned about the lack of recycling, so he and two other expats formed Coop Georgia, a social enterprise that collects glass, paper, cardboard, and plastic bottles to sell to local factories.

When City Hall rejected Coop Georgia's request to put 100 collection bins around Tbilisi, Coop Georgia focused on targeting the private sector instead.

Local support for the project has grown quickly. With the owner's permission, Coop Georgia set up public bins for recyclables in the parking lot of the old hippodrome, and since the beginning of the year, more than 50 restaurants — mostly managed by Georgians — and even the Sheraton Hotel have agreed to sort their waste. Coop Georgia now has three Georgian staff members and plans to expand its service to schools. Though 25 schools have already signed up, the team is currently looking for a sponsor to cover the cost of the waste containers.

Guibert describes Coop Georgia's activities as somewhere between business and activism.

"It's not only about separating waste," he says. "It has a much wider impact on respect for our public places. When you learn about separating your paper and glass at home, for sure you will not be the person leaving your waste on the ground after a picnic."

"If we manage to change the mindset of the city, and they decide to go for waste separation, our business would be dead, but it would be a success."

Georgians do seem to be taking civic activism more seriously.

Tamuna Gabisonia had her first child while studying in the United States six years ago. Without family to go to for information about childrearing, she turned to the internet. When she returned to Georgia, she realized she knew more about the topic than most of her friends and family.

"I realized that parents don't have any information here, and many of course don't know English and cannot access what is available in English on the internet."

To respond to this need, Gabisonia created a blog called Little Giraffe where she posts articles in Georgian tackling tough subjects from gender stereotypes in fairytales to psychological abuse. She quickly saw the impact of her work. Thank-you letters, questions from parents, and Facebook "likes" soon turned into media requests. Then, recently, she was invited to help develop Georgia's kindergarten curriculum.

Still, she says the older generation often doesn't understand why she's putting effort into Little Giraffe when she doesn't get anything in return.

"They say, 'Are you going to get money from this?' I say, 'No, but my child will have a better society to live in.' "

Boris Kiknadze has a theory about how to motivate people to get involved: achieve something.

Just 23 years old, Kiknadze recently started up an organization called We Help, which uses crowdfunding to help Georgians pay for prohibitively expensive medical treatments.

Kiknadze and his fellow volunteers post photos, videos, and the medical documents of those in need to encourage people to donate. Of the 20 people placed on the site so far, four have now fully recovered.

Kiknadze is now using his experience to inspire other youth.

"I think the motivation [to create change] comes from the individuals who have already achieved some results. They see that I and my friends started with nothing, but we achieved results."

As word of We Help spreads, the organization is gaining support. A group of staff members at the Radisson Hotel have even committed to contributing 1% of their paychecks to the cause.

"It's a small donation, but it gives the feeling of contribution, the feeling of involvement, and that's what's most important," Kiknadze says.

He's convinced that attitudes toward volunteerism, charity, and activism in Georgia are changing.

"I see many motivated, very passionate people who want to change things. I truly believe that those who are doing amazing stuff now can change the approach to volunteerism," he says.

"If [We Help] can save one person, that's already a huge achievement. Not only for me, for our team, but for society itself, because the culture will change as society learns that people can save someone's life."