11/06/2012 03:41 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2013

Georgian CSOs at the Crossroads

Tbilisi. On October 1st, following a hotly contested election campaign, Georgia witnessed a peaceful transition of power for the first time in its history. The result of the election, along with the preceding demonstrations against the mistreatment of prisoners, clearly showed strong public support for a government that is transparent, accountable, and responsive to its citizens.

The elections showcased the ability of Georgian citizens to come together and effect change. Citizens led nonpartisan peaceful demonstrations against prisoner abuse that gave voice to the public's demand for social justice. Following these demonstrations, citizens exercised their basic civic right, the right to vote, and sent a clear message to the government and civil society organizations that justice and accountability are key principles of Georgian society. The new government, which is comprised of many former CSO leaders, has responded by reaching out to representatives of the civil society sector, think tanks, and advocacy groups.

This new political landscape presents a unique opportunity to the Georgian CSO community. While the major social issues in Georgia remain the same (e.g., healthcare, education, economic development, agriculture, and good governance), the possibilities for change have increased. Many CSOs have worked on the key issues in Georgian society for many years, making them experts in their respective fields. As such, both the public and the new government are looking to the CSO sector to help them prioritize social issues and provide concrete strategies for solving them.

To learn more about what CSOs are planning to do with this opportunity, international donors recently organized a series of discussions with NGOs and students throughout Georgia. While the participants recognized that the key social issues in the country are still the same, they agreed that much remains to be done in terms of developing practical solutions.

The new government has given CSOs a window of opportunity to propose changes to the governing system and to key policies. This is a chance for CSOs to demonstrate to the government that they can be critical partners in the country's development, while also proving to the general public they are much more than "grant eaters." CSOs are perceived as an opportunity for making money rather than organizations with a civic responsibility.

The current political landscape provides both opportunities and risks for CSOs. If CSOs fail to effectively bring the public's concerns to the government, it may decrease public confidence in CSOs as agents of change. On the other hand, a good working relationship with the government would improve CSOs' public image.

All the while, CSOs must balance between being a partner to the government and maintaining their independence and watchdog status. It is vital that CSOs maintain their role as critics; however, providing criticism without solutions does not resolve problems. With ample opportunities for funding, an approximate $20 million per annum in grants from international donors, combined with more than twenty years of experience, Georgian CSOs are well positioned to affect political agendas and foster social change.