Issue 6, 2015. December-January

   

Looking For a Chance to Help

Following the death and destruction of the June 13-14 floods in Tbilisi, thousands grabbed shovels, brought food, and volunteered to help the cleanup efforts. The mass outpouring of volunteers inspired Investor.ge to ask the question: has Georgia produced a generation of volunteers? Could that be an indicator of future activism, in politics or in the face of other tragedies?

Flood cleanup efforts in Tbilisi (marshalpress.ge)


The outpouring of volunteers in the immediate aftermath of the June 13-14 floods in Tbilisi was inspiring - especially for a nation where volunteering is not widespread.

Sociologists and those involved in the flood cleanup believe the tragedy gave Georgians the chance to put into practice a value they hold sacred: helping out when others are suffering.

A Mobile Movement

The desperation of families caught in the flood inspired a major outpouring of support, mainly in the face of volunteers bearing shovels to clear the mud and debris.

Irina Egadze was one of the first to recognize the need to organize.

Responding to calls for help at the height of the flood, Egadze knew she wanted to do something, but she was physically unable to pull people from the rising water.

The next day, however, she found a niche where she could help. "I realized that there was a lot of work to do and no one to organize it. The people who arrived there did not understand where to start," she said.

Egadze, her sister and friends used Facebook to start to mobilize and manage the volunteers.

In the span of 24 hours, the Facebook group grew from 150 people to over 26,000.

The impact of their work was felt far beyond the disaster zone and inspired debate in media and in society of what this wave of volunteers could mean for civil society.

But sociologists are wary of rushing to conclusions.

The "Luxury" of Volunteering

The outpouring of support after the flood was a natural response for Georgians, but that is different than the classic culture of everyday volunteering, sociologists said.

The support citizens showed for victims of the flood and the ravaged parts of their city was a response to an "extraordinary situation," according to sociologist Iago Kachkachishvili.

When we talk about volunteering, he said, it "should be part of an everyday pattern."

"Volunteering is, I feel, a kind of luxury. You have this need to become a volunteer when all your basic needs are met. In a country where people are fighting for their existence and there are high rates of poverty, people first of all care for their existence and survival,"Kachkachishvili said.

"Volunteering needs a special reality, it has to be developed in a person, it doesn't create itself...it requires education." Surveys and interviews by the Caucasus Resource Research Center (CRRC) also indicate that volunteering as a regular act of giving back by giving of one's time is appreciated but rarely practiced. "Based on pre-flood data, we do not have high levels of volunteering and the flood was an exception, which we can call an exception based on the everyday data—but not evidence," noted CRRC's Tinatin Zurabishvili.

She added that previous surveys indicate Georgians overwhelmingly value the act of volunteering but report they rarely actually volunteer.

There are several theories for the discrepancy, including even the word "volunteer."

In interviews with the CRRC, Georgians immediately associated the word "volunteering" with enlisting to fight in the Great Patriotic War. The interviews were part of an effort to understand how "volunteering" is understood in Georgian society.

CRRC opted to refer to "volunteering" as "helping without compensation" in its surveys.

Another possible issue is the lack of role models, noted Zurabishvili. Projects conducted by CRRC have shown people are unaware of how to volunteer and what opportunities exist.

The CRRC's Tamuna Khoshtaria noted there also appears to be a disconnect between what people do and what they report — in part because of the informal nature of Georgian society.

People, she said, do not support being formally active in the community. But, at the same time, they are involved in many informal organizations, like activities in their communities.

It basically boils down to helping people, an act that sociologists say Georgians do regularly—but but do not perceive as volunteering.

"Maybe, in the surveys, they do not remember— or they cannot really state—that they have done something because they do not perceive it as a formal thing," Khoshtaria said.

There is no indication, however, that Georgians' willingness to help extends to politics. Zurabishvili noted that while respondents value the idea of volunteering, they "hate political activism in the sense of being part of a particular movement."

"A Trait of Our Country"

What happened after the flood, Khostaria said, could be a reflection of previous research that showed young people are willing to volunteer when there is "the chance for it."

"There were people who needed help and there were people who wanted to help them," Egadze said, adding "it was an example for me that, without any unnecessary obstacles or fuss, it was really easy for people who wanted to help to do so."

But she stopped short of saying the outpouring of support was surprising, or that it represented a major shift in how Georgians view their role in society.

"That is a trait of our country," she said. "When someone is suffering, we join together. On a small scale—and also on a large scale."