Democracy is a form of government that invests supreme power in the people that is exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation. The need for mass participation in governing is becoming increasingly important.
If in the 19th and 20th centuries non-white citizens of U.S., men without property and women were fighting to obtain voting rights, today solely having the right to vote is not enough for most people and increasingly they want to be engaged in direct governance. For example, 4727 candidates registered for majoritarian races in the 2017 Sakrebulo and local government elections in Georgia. In addition, 444 candidates were candidates for majoritarian MP in the 2012 parliamentary elections, while 816 did so for the 2016 parliamentary elections. The number of people wanting to directly take part in governing is increasing.
Today participation in politics does not solely imply activities related to governmental structures. Politics has also become a public process that involves civil society. Media and non-governmental organizations are probably the major elements that form this civil society. Journalism and reporting are long-standing professions, but the term ‘NGO’ was only officially recognized in 1950 by Resolution 288 (X) of the United Nations Economic and Social Council. This referred to officially recognized organizations without governmental affiliations but with consultative status within the United Nations.
In Georgia, independent media and NGOs surfaced only in late 1980s when Mr. Gorbachev launched Perestroyka. Several newspapers and magazines started publishing alternative stories to those that we had in the state controlled media and civic environmental movements started questioning the government’s decisions and plans for major infrastructure projects and policies.
Later on some leaders of the environmental NGO movement created the Green party and entered politics. The same happened in the media. Several Georgian journalists used the media as a stage to participate in active politics and there was even political party comprised only of journalists (!) that exceeded the 5% threshold in the 2008 parliamentary elections. Well, at least with a little help from the then ruling party.
Nevertheless, both institutions had their own path for development and the West played an immense role in the process. As a result, today we have a very strong and professional NGO community compared to other developing democracies in the region such as Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Moldova (though some countries in the region are highly restrictive).
As for the media, despite recent positive changes in the USA, Australia and UK in newspaper and magazine circulation, the print media is slowly dying in Georgia and unfortunately has very little support to develop. Television is the largest industry when it comes of attracting advertisement money, however overall the ad market is in a poor state and unfortunately up to 85% of it is split between two major TV groups. This leaves regional and small TV channels at the mercy of politicians, government and to some extent the donor community. Radio is also declining.
However, things are not so hopeless if we factor social media into this equation. It is on rise in parallel with internet penetration; in addition, smartphone ownership among several cohorts of our society is near universal and recently established local players in digital marketing may well become more successful than their “analog ancestors.” After all, we are talking about a market that has an annual growth of at least 35% and a consistent demand for smart players.
Several studies have been conducted to assess aspects of media including a media literacy survey carried out by GORBI in 2014, an ongoing television audience measurement project and previously several readership surveys. On the other hand, hundreds of surveys were conducted to measure people’s attitudes towards governmental institutions such as political parties, Parliament, the Presidency and judiciary. In terms of NGOs, I don’t remember any truly comprehensive study in Georgia, but there is occasional coverage of public opinion regarding NGOs in nationwide surveys. Nevertheless, since NGOs have become big players in forming Georgian political and social landscape, and Georgia counts well over 8 thousand registered NGOs currently, nationwide surveys focused on NGOs are also in need.
Graph1. These organizations are currently working well in Georgia (%)
Source: IPSOS France, GORBI, Georgia Nationwide Survey, 2018 (n=2013 respondents)
One of the questions that GORBI asked in its recent study carried out in the fall of 2018 concerned people’s opinion of how well different institutions function in Georgia. Nearly half or 48% of people in Georgia think that NGOs currently are working well. This statistic puts NGOs in the middle of the list of public opinion regarding national institutions – far below the performance of the church, army and police and well above the performance of political parties and trade unions. It is also interesting to note that public satisfaction with the job performed by NGOs decreases with age. If 58% of those aged 18-24 think that NGOs are doing their work well, only 36% of those aged 65 and more think the same way. Such a mediocre, yet not too pessimistic opinion might be predisposed by several factors; yet another reason to more comprehensively understand existing knowledge and attitudes towards the institution in our society.
It is common to define NGOs as those organizations which pursue some sort of public interest or public good, rather than an individual or private interest. In some countries NGOs are very engaged in politics as opposition activists or work closely with the government and sometimes are seen as tool in international politics as well. For example, more than a decade ago, Russia passed restrictive laws for NGOs, where everything about their work should be transparent and, as Mr. Putin noted, efforts to control them by “foreign puppeteers” would not be tolerated. NGOs continue to be often perceived as a political tool in international relations and sometimes are even expelled from countries.
The relatively low satisfaction with NGOs’ work in Georgia can also be explained by the fact that Georgian society often perceives political NGOs not as independent organizations but as creations of political parties which serve their political interests by activities that they perform under the claim of neutral public interest. It is probably true that in some cases organizations often represent the side of one or another political party. Since only 25% of the Georgian public approves of the job that their political parties are doing, this negative perception is transferred to NGOs through these transparently partisan institutions.
I think that media, and in particular digital media, and the NGO sector will progress along with the quality of democracy in Georgia. A new generation is joining these institutions, many of them with American or European university degrees, a good work ethic and ambitious goals. As some of these people move to state institutions to work this will result in significant improvement in the performance of governmental bodies’. We all understand that neither digital media nor the NGO sector can replace legislative or executive institutions, but new blood and more active recruitment to the government from civil society will not harm the situation.
GORBI is an exclusive member of the Gallup International research network and has more than two decades of experience in survey research (gorbi.com)