Georgian Volunteerism

As an American, I had always thought the spirit of volunteerism was universal across cultures. In my travels, I have seen acts of charity from the Middle East, to Southeast Asia, and back home. Yet, I have never spent a significant period of time in a former soviet state. The legacy of communism has left a long shadow hanging over the Georgian people. Under the old regime, only state sanctioned associations were permitted. Moreover, the state compelled citizens to participate in state sanctioned clubs. Years later, the generations that grew up under communist rule look on group associations with distrust; they taught their children to be skeptical of joining clubs or informal groups. Compared to western states, participation in group activities has been remarkably low in former communist countries. Instead, long standing associations of family and close friends take priority, another byproduct communism where family and close knit friendships enabled individuals to work around the strict rationing system imposed by the state. Some academics refer to these associations as clan-like. In the west, we tend to favor the relationships we choose for ourselves instead of long standing associations from previous generations. To this day, the average Georgian may not be the member of a social club, but they likely have a cousin who can fix your car or another who can help you renovate a flat. Vast networks dating back for generations provide a community safety net unlike any other. However, there is an unfortunate side effect of this social phenomena. Civil Service Organizations and Non-government Organizations have a hard time gaining traction with everyday people. Since family provides solidarity and support, the idea of volunteering at a soup kitchen or moving boxes for a local charity doesn’t always cross people’s minds. The Georgian Orthodox church is a lightning rod for charitable contributions. As I walk down the street, I see countless people stop to give older men and women, single mothers, and shawled gypsies change. The Georgian people are remarkably kind and giving, but their generosity lacks structure unless it is supported by family or the church. From an outsider’s perspective, it creates a challenge to any effort to transpose a western structure of giving that depends on group-based volunteering. My office has tasked me with making suggestions on how to foster a spirit of volunteerism. The difficulty is not just with everyday citizens. Non-government Organizations have become accustomed to working on their own. A cadre of professional advocates operate largely outside the public eye to deliver results directly to the government for consumption. Bridging the gap between everyday citizens and civil society experts may be difficult. Both cultures have to change significantly and the path to change may not be one that fits with the Georgian identity. I can’t help feeling that emulating Europe or the United States is not necessarily the best fit for the republic. People here have found a way to come together and provide support for one another. If Civil Society Organizations can tap into the power of family relationships or the church, they may be able to create something unique and potentially better.