Without Citizen Involvement, There is No Self-Government

The whole idea behind local self-governance can be boiled down to one simple stance: that people should be given a share in decisions that concern their communities. In other words, the participation of citizens who take up part of the responsibility for their villages, towns and regions is the very essence of local self-governance.

Even though the Georgian government has been carrying out local self-governance reforms for more than a decade, both local authorities and citizens are still getting used to the fact that they can and they should get actively involved with each other. According to a recent survey conducted by United Nations Development Program (UNDP), only 1 in 5 citizens approached local authorities over the past two years. This, experts say, needs to change in order for Georgia to complete its transformation from post-Soviet, centralized rule into a full-time democracy.

Shombi Sharp, Deputy Resident Representative of UNDP in Georgia, is, however, optimistic about the process. “More and more, people are becoming true owners of the regional and local governance reform in Georgia, with the country’s vibrant and active civil society helping to increasingly bridge this gap and bring local authorities and citizens closer together,” he said.

Obviously, this sort of transformation requires huge efforts and doesn’t happen overnight. Together with changing the existing mentality and attitudes, thorough changes need to be made at all levels of state institutions, and in parallel with the introduction of new laws and regulations.

These issues were addressed in the amendments to the Local Self-Governance Code, introduced in 2015. New regulations allowed the allocation of specific funds to local budgets to support citizen participation and introduced legal mechanisms enabling general community meetings and petitions. Based on those regulations, it is now possible for citizens to file a petition on any issue which falls under the local self-government’s competence and attend assembly meetings without prior arrangement. Governors, mayors and sakrebulo (assembly) members are obligated to present their annual reports to the community and answer the citizen’s questions.

Zviad Devdariani, Head of the Civil Development Agency (CiDA), noted that while there are definitely positive trends to see, there is still vast room for improvement for the governance system in general.

“The role of self-governing bodies is to foster and initiate long-term partnerships with local communities instead of providing them with one-time assistance, and the role of NGOs and of international organizations is to ensure such links are established,” Devdariani told us.

Support to the reform of the local self-governance system has come from numerous donor organizations. The governments of Switzerland and Austria, respectively, provide financial assistance to ‘Fostering Regional and Local Government in Georgia,’ a comprehensive program supporting the reform, facilitated by the UNDP with the Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure of Georgia as a main partner institution. The program was launched back in 2012 and is set to continue until the end of 2017.

“The ‘Fostering Regional and Local Government in Georgia’ program consists of several major components. One is policy and legislative support primarily to the MRDI and of course to the local municipal and regional governance bodies,” Marika Shioshvili, Project Manager, UNDP told GEORGIA TODAY. “Another component of the project focuses on strategic planning at central, municipal and regional levels, seeing the implementation of regional development strategies together with local and regional municipalities, and that’s exactly the space where citizen participation is crucial; identifying and naming their priorities”.

To provide that link, the program introduced a small grant scheme: a competition for local non-governmental organizations on projects corresponding to the needs and priorities identified by the regional development strategies. The scheme resulted in 31 local projects implemented across the six regions of Georgia in 2016-2017. Now, as Marika Shioshvili says, it’s time for municipalities to step up to the new reality and use all possible tools to reach out to communities.

“We always try to communicate that the municipality budget is for the needs of local citizens and communities and they are eligible to demand, attend the sakrebulo meetings, or apply with petitions,” David Jikia, Mayor of Rustavi and President of the National Association of Local Authorities (NALAG) told GEORGIA TODAY.

He argues though that the relationship has to be mutual. “The majority of requests that we receive are about construction of recreational areas or football playgrounds, restoring roofs or building entrances. Though often it is difficult to make people comprehend that once the work is done, the care and maintenance should be largely the community’s responsibility,” the Mayor said.

Merab Topchishvili, the Gamgebeli (Governor) of Marneuli, sees the independence of local authorities as a main factor of the successful implementation of the reform. He argues that giving greater opportunities for mayors and governors to make decisions independently, together with involvement of citizens in local budget planning, has resulted in countless grass-root activities and projects, such as pre-school and care centers or initiatives supporting women’s activity.

In Marneuli, the so-called civic budget is one of the tools being introduced to ensure that local funds are distributed in a fair and inclusive manner. One of the projects financed through this budget was Women’s Room: a consultancy and training center where people are offered assistance in drafting and submitting their projects. This, Topchishvili says, has significantly increased the activity of citizens, women in particular.

“It is still a common attitude that local authorities are responsible for everything, an idea coming from a Soviet past. It needs time and awareness-raising, but eventually it will change. We still need to understand that our town, city, country belongs to us and we are all responsible for it,” Topchishvili said.

Looking back, it seems that a huge step forward has indeed been made since the times of the centralized planning pursued by Soviet authorities. But as the road takes Georgia further, new challenges emerge and the question as to whether Georgia reaches the destination of a full decentralization of powers and resources still remains open.

Nino Gugunishvili

10 August 2017 18:35