CAT Alumni Idea Forum – ‘Economic Instability’

This Essay was developed by Esma Gumberidze for the Centre for Training and Consultancy (CTC).

I can identify, perhaps, as a volunteer, peer educator, human, civic journalist, and an activist for people with disabilities and women’s rights. I write articles and social media posts about social inequality, the rights of employees, issues faced by young people and students, women, people with disabilities, and a little bit about international affairs. I also conduct public lectures and discussions about future planning, public speaking, and the rights of people with disabilities.

My sphere of activism is a bit scattered. I have to say that I was surer of how I could contribute to my community after I graduated from high school. Back then I knew that I needed to volunteer, intern, participate in exchange programs and trainings, enroll in a university, and to study well. But now, after having experienced all of that, I’m not exactly sure what is to come next.

I have an on-line radio show — Beyond the Horizon. I’m also involved in the consultative council monitoring the rights of people with disabilities with the Ombudsman’s Office in Georgia. I am a Young European Ambassador in the EU Neighbors East project of the European Commission, as a part of which I meet school and university students and other young people both in Tbilisi and the regions to talk with them about the EU, its values, our partnership, and the opportunities it offers to Georgia’s youth. And, of course, I’m a new member of EDYN.

I would say that one of the biggest issues and concerns of almost all Georgian citizens is economic instability. Even those in what can be called “the middle class” in Georgia are not financially secure, as they never know when they could lose their jobs, how much more the national currency could depreciate, and, therefore, how much they will have to pay for their bank loans (and almost everyone in the country has loans with very high interest rates).

People want to live well, to travel, to furnish their homes nicely, as they see this in social media, on TV, and when they travel (thanks to the visa-free regime with the EU) to more prosperous countries and see the higher standards and quality of living there. However, their incomes are not sufficient, thus they end up in debt even though many of them are working overtime, which in many cases, is not even rewarded and is considered as a matter of fact by employers.

Economic instability is not only about loans and job security; it is also about medical expenses. I have heard of many cases in which people were forced to sell their homes and remain without housing because they or a family member had contracted some serious disease.

It is also about the fact that you invest in your education you are paying university tuition fees, living expenses, and still live in deplorable conditions because the rent for such housing is lower and you can’t afford any better. You must fight with your living conditions while wasting time getting from the far-away districts you live to university. After all of that, you can still not be sure that after graduation you will get a job that will pay for all the misery mentioned above and some possible loans taken to pay for some of the student expenses.

Many young people are overqualified and underpaid for their workplace, which is very discouraging and demotivating. Imagine, you have graduated from university, you have volunteered, you have worked, you have done internships, you’ve participated in exchange programs, and your salary is equal to 200 USD, while you still have to pay the rent, food, transportation, clothing expenses, utilities, and as a young person, you also want some entertainment.

And what happens if you suddenly have a burn-out, you fall sick and can’t work for, say, half a year? Due to these social issues many both highly qualified and not so sophisticated young people and citizens in general dream of emigrating.

The brain-drain is an important issue for Georgia; around a million people have left the country since independence (a fifth of Georgia’s population back then). Those working migrants are the ones supporting their families, which also puts them in a very hard position abroad. The diaspora is not strong enough to effectively lobby Georgian interests and needs internationally, because they simply do not have the money and time, as they are working 18 hours per day.

Some of these hardships can be attributed to the political instability of our region — the fact that one-fifth of Georgia is under Russian occupation means some international investors and employers might be hesitant to enter Georgia. Others are a result of the Georgian government’s lack of vision and strategy in ensuring that our economic development, Georgia’s increasing GDP per capita and other similar economic indicators, is at least to some degree reflected in the lives of every Georgian citizen — that there is inclusive growth that everyone can feel in their daily lives.

Social movements and NGOs are definitely well developed in Georgia. They are working on many issues starting from the rights of people with disabilities, children, and women, to media freedom, to good governance, transparency, to the fight against corruption and criminal thinking, to judicial freedom, to the inclusion of ethnic minorities and internally displaced persons, social justice, labor rights, to fighting fake news, propaganda and hate speech, to youth empowerment.

Young people, especially university students, are actively involved in these NGOs and movements as they have more free time than adults with family obligations and in full-time employment. Some of these movements were started by young people. However, a culture of volunteerism is pretty new.

Many families do not approve of their children’s unpaid activities. They would prefer it if these young people instead spent their time learning something on top of the formal curriculum (for example how to play a musical instrument), preparing for exams, or getting a paid job. Many young people simply do not have time for civic engagement, as they have to work to sustain their lives away from their parents’ homes, as they had to migrate to Tbilisi or another bigger city for their studies. So, civic engagement is still a kind of luxury.

Here, I would have to point out that about a third of Georgia’s population lives in the capital. People are searching for employment, education, and medical treatment opportunities, which are considered to be better in the capital. Therefore, it is sort of natural that most civic activity falls on Tbilisi and that most organizations operate in the capital, as they can serve more people there.

However, this leaves two-thirds of the population who still live in the regions with very few opportunities to engage socially, which in turn, causes more young people to come to Tbilisi in a search of motivation. On a positive note, moving to the capital for study or work gives young people the opportunity to start their own lives, independently from their families.

Another big issue for NGOs and social movements is funding. Most of them depend on international donors, as corporate social responsibility is just an emerging culture here. Crowd-funding for activist causes is very challenging here as well. Numerous causes are fighting for funding, for instance, urgent medical treatment for children. Some governmental support is available for youth organizations and initiatives as well as for services for people with disabilities (for instance day centers, wheel-chairs, canes for the blind). However, those who depend on public funding do not seem to be critical or pushy enough towards the government in advocating for more rights, as they are afraid of losing funding.

Besides these financial constraints that restrict civic movements and individual activists, there are no legal limitations on civic activism per se. However, people working for the government, for instance, are often afraid of openly joining protests and demonstrations or making public statements criticizing the government. Outside of Tbilisi, many of them are afraid of even voting against the party in government, as they are pressured and sometimes even threatened with dismissal.

Just recently, a friend of mine who works at one ministry told me that their supervisor openly told them not to attend the protests still taking place demanding the resignation of the minister of internal affairs. Their boss had told them: “do not even walk close to the demonstration area”.

We had a case in which two employees of the Ministry of Justice working for the Crime Prevention Center were fired because of posts they made on Facebook criticizing the minister of justice. One of them filed a lawsuit and after years of litigation, after winning the case twice in all three court instances in Georgia, the court rulings were not executed. Only after he went on a hunger strike was he reinstated to his position at the Crime Prevention Center.

To conclude, while talking about the limitations of civic activism I would remember the very recent case of the 20th of June 2019, when the police and special forces injured hundreds of people. Some of those injured went into a coma and others sustained serious injuries including losing an eye when police attempted to disperse a gathering on Rustaveli Avenue in the Tbilisi’s city center. People are protesting the visit by Russian Member of Parliament Sergei Gavrilov, who was allowed to address Georgia’s Parliament from the Speaker’s chair.

Georgian society is a fiercely diverse and individualistic one, to my mind. This is why it is sometimes a challenge for us to work as a team. Maybe it is a result of our mountainous past, when every single Georgian could own their own mountain peak. That’s why it is a challenge to name the three biggest Georgian dreams. But I would still try to frame them broadly enough so that they can fit and embrace the whole population:

  1. A better and more stable life. Meaning not only having more money and stable incomes; not only having a place to live — but also living in the comfort of clean and accessible cities with access to transportation, good healthcare, education, and entertainment; living without noise at nights, without garbage, in a clean environment, being safe, and not being afraid of criminals, abuse, and violence; Living with good services for the elderly, children, working parents, people with disabilities; having their labor rights protected including the  right to and time for leisure.
  2. The return of Abkhazia and so-called “South Ossetia” and the de-occupation of those regions. A possibility for the internally displaced to return to their homeland and for other Georgians to freely travel there.
  3. To be included in society. This can mean different things for different groups or even individuals. For people with disabilities, this might mean an accessible physical environment, freedom from stigma, availability of modern assistive devices that increase independence, and support services (personal assistants, sign language interpreters, sighted guides for the blind, orientation and independent living, self-care skills teachers).

For people from ethnic minorities, this might mean knowledge of the state language, which would enable them to be employed in the public and private sectors without discrimination.

For women, this might mean not having to face gender-based violence in their families and if faced with it, having some legal remedies/means of redress, psychological and other professional support, and an alternative place to live and opportunities to financially sustain themselves.

But for other less visible vulnerable groups, such as new-comers from the regions, socially unprotected people, the elderly, public/civil servants, those living in the villages, who we often do not think of as vulnerable, it might mean the freedom to express themselves, the freedom to be judged only on their personality, not by where they are from, the freedom from negative assumptions just because they are from a village or because they are elderly and, therefore, “do not need” travel, entertainment, to work or volunteer.

It can mean freedom of being accepted, not looked down upon, even if they are not natives of the capital; Freedom to criticize the government or the political views of their employers, even in private business, without being afraid of being fired; a possibility to contribute to the public discourse; a chance for their views and opinions to be reflected in public policies; freedom from being afraid of saying that one is poor.

This list of potentially unheard underprivileged groups and the freedoms they need can go on.