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Why Georgia struggles with volunteerism
18 November 2004
by Misha Kechaqmadze

Since the Rose Revolution, Georgia continues to experience substantial social, political and economic change. In this transitional period it is critical to ensure the equal participation of all members in society. Although Georgia's population is having difficulty adapting, every citizen should find his/her place and role and become actively involved in establishing a prosperous country with a developed free and democratic society.

As world practice shows, these goals can be achieved through promoting volunteerism. Volunteering is a fundamental building block of civil society. It brings to life the noblest aspirations of humankind: the pursuit of peace, freedom, opportunity, safety, and justice for all people. It should therefore become a top priority in Georgia to develop a volunteering culture and promote and develop a free, citizen-participation oriented society in the country.

Unfortunately in Georgia volunteerism is not guided by a clear vision and consequently its presence remains low. In comparison with developed democratic countries there are far fewer people involved in volunteerism in Georgia. Volunteer work does not currently receive the social acknowledgement and prestige that it receives abroad, and at the present time the demand for volunteers far out-weighs the supply.

Surveys on the general situation of volunteerism in the country lead me to the following important conclusions. One, volunteering to some extent has been wrongly identified only as an issue of the communist regime. Facts show that volunteering is much more ancient than communism. But still to some extent working for the community in general reminds Georgians of the annoyance and even the repulsive feeling of the repeated 'volunteer' actions of the totalitarian, socialist regime.

Two, local organizations in general make little efforts to create a broader, modern vision of volunteerism. Organizations need to generalize the experience of volunteering and use it rationally to solve numerous problems of Georgian society in transition.

Next, to promote volunteerism, Georgians must confront several challenges. Volunteerism is not as highly valued and appreciated as it is in Western countries. The main reasons given for not volunteering are the economic situation that makes people respond to only paid work, the lack of leisure time and the lack of motivation. In addition, the recruitment of volunteers is based primarily on personal contacts - thus NGOs are not used to work with individuals they do not know. Currently volunteers are working almost exclusively in NGOs - there is a hesitance from state-run social institutions like hospitals, senior houses and others to accept volunteers. One of the biggest challenges is the fact that a relatively high percentage of people are ready to do voluntary work "if they are asked" - a challenge to organizations to promote the idea of volunteering and publicly to distribute information about volunteer activities.

It would be highly advantageous for organizations to conduct regular information campaigns to raise the awareness of the public about the importance, aims, tasks and benefits of volunteerism. This should promote individual volunteerism as well as that is carried out within the framework NGOs. Such campaigns should be focused on Georgia's regions, where the level of public awareness is the lowest. Volunteer activity by educational institutions also could be one means of enhancing the employability of youth and giving them alternatives to deviant forms of behavior.

One of the main reasons for the poor conditions for volunteer activity in Georgia is the lack of sufficient financial support and preferential conditions for volunteers, NGOs and volunteer organizations. These issues can be considered the most important problems inhibiting the development of volunteer activity in Georgia. State structures, donor organizations/sponsors and the private sector should provide financial assistance and grants to develop social assistance programs, which utilize volunteers as part of the implementation strategy. The private sector in particular needs to be educated and inspired about the need to provide charitable support to voluntary organizations that carry out socially beneficial activities.

The lack of sufficient support from the State and its implementing organs, as well as the lack of a legislative base and legal protection for volunteerism could be identified as further issues inhibiting the development of volunteerism in Georgia. Therefore, there is the need to develop, approve and implement a law on volunteerism, as it would be an important instrument for supporting the volunteer sector and for defining its legal status.

Though the situation with volunteerism in Georgia is very bleak there some positive signs that give us the hope that the situation is improving. A good example is the annual celebration of the Global Youth Service Day held every April. For instance in 2004 approximately 36,000 young people participated in Global Youth Service Day celebrations in Georgia. More than 15 cities were involved in the celebrations. The participants carried out a total of 250 projects. These projects include clothing, medicine and book drives for orphans and the elderly; tree plantings in central parks; painting public art murals; free medical services and seminars and workshops on youth volunteerism. Georgian TV stations and local radio stations covered the activities. High-ranking state officials and foreign diplomats attended events.

Of particular importance was the role played by youth volunteers during recent public processes in Georgia, when thousands of young people volunteered as independent election observers at the Parliament and Presidential Elections. This participation considerably undermined plans of the old regime to tamper with the election results.

Currently our country is in a unique position to benefit from its people who are willing to play active part in the process of making Georgia a much better place to live. But before this it is necessary that all major players of the process of promoting volunteerism join efforts and through close cooperation with each other set out an effective strategy for promoting this noble cause in our country.

Misha Kechaqmadze is a volunteer country guide Editor for OneWorld International.