COVID-19 puts local governance to the test

In Georgia’s pandemic response, civic activists are vital partners for local authorities

May 1, 2020

Photo: UNDP

The COVID-19 pandemic poses potent medical challenges, but one tried and tested antidote to the insecurity it brings is civic activism, which can help communities and countries weather the crisis and keep alive hope for better times to come. The coronavirus has shown that even the best policies cannot succeed without active engagement by citizens, particularly at the level of local self-governance.

Counteracting the COVID-19 gloom, Georgia is seeing numerous stories of volunteers working hand in hand with local authorities and aid organisations to raise funds and deliver much-needed assistance to the most vulnerable members of their communities.

Lusine Dostibegiani is one of them. Under normal circumstances, she leads the Youth Centre in her native town of Tetritskaro in Eastern Georgia, working to educate and create better opportunities for young people. Although the pandemic forced her to suspend the operation, she carried on helping her community. She organized the marking of social distancing in public spaces of her town and raised COVID-19 awareness among the citizens. She also used her bilingual skills to help the authorities reach out to those speaking ethnic minority languages.

“In my municipality, there are a few villages where ethnic Armenians live. I know both Georgian and Armenian languages well, so UNDP asked me to help with the creation of the Armenian version of the official government website on the pandemic,” Lusine says. “The time was tight, but the teachers from the local school helped me and we managed to transcribe the whole website in just a few days.”

Photo: UNDP

The ancient town of Mtskheta, a former capital of Georgia, was one of the top tourist destinations before the outbreak of the coronavirus. Now local authorities and activists strive to keep the citizens off the once busy streets and deliver critical information and basic supplies.

“We do our best to fulfil the recommendations of the health authorities and help people stay safe and keep social distancing,” said Mtskheta Mayor Giorgi Kapanadze. “We also have a group of dedicated volunteers – local citizens who help us in this mission. The authorities are mobilizing all possible resources to fight the pandemic and the engagement of citizens is very important.”

Tetritskaro and Mtskheta were among nine municipalities where UNDP distributed some 65,000 leaflets and posters on COVID-19 prevention as well as outdoor stickers for marking social distancing. The materials were produced with support from the Governments of Switzerland, Austria and Denmark. Printed in Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani languages, the materials provided answers to frequently asked questions about the code of conduct for citizens and the rules in force for quarantine and lockdown during the state of emergency that was declared in Georgia on 21 March 2020.

Sergi Petriashvili, one of the volunteers in Mtskheta municipality, thinks that the experience of fighting the pandemic has proven again that active engagement of citizens and cooperation with local authorities is crucial to tackling problems at the local level.

“The global threat has now reached every doorstep,” says Petriashvili. “Each citizen has to contribute to limit the spread of the pandemic. The government, local civil servants and doctors are doing a great job, but without each and every individual taking responsibility we won’t manage to weather the crisis.”

Indeed, the scale of solidarity and citizen engagement is as unparalleled as the circumstances themselves. The question is whether this trend will carry on beyond the crisis, translating into greater civic activism and improvement of governance standards at the local level. In Georgia, low engagement with self-government has been a persistent challenge, with only 16 percent of citizens interacting with local authorities, according to a UNDP study conducted in 2017.

“The pandemic is testing the efficiency of institutions and our resilience as a society,” said UNDP Head Louisa Vinton. “Cooperation between citizens, civil society and local governments is key to limiting the spread of the virus, particularly in rural areas, and ensuring that all citizens, including vulnerable and marginalised groups, receive timely assistance and accurate information.”

UNDP, with funds from Switzerland, Austria and Denmark, has been supporting Georgia’s efforts in strengthening local governance and promoting decentralization for the past decade. This assistance has been reoriented since the first days of the COVID-19 crisis to help identify and address pandemic-driven needs at the local level. Working closely with the municipal authorities, donors and partners, UNDP is helping to provide protective equipment and spread the message about the pandemic to vulnerable and marginalised groups, communities in remote mountainous regions, persons with disabilities and national and ethnic minorities.

For more information on UNDP response to the COVID-19 crisis visit our press centre