Peter WIEBLER of USAID Georgia: "Georgian organizations can and will cope with challenges"

28.03.2019 (Caucasian Journal). Today, Caucasian Journal’s special guest is Peter A. WIEBLER, Mission Director of USAID Georgia, who kindly agreed to answer our questions. (Read the Georgian translation here).

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ: We highly appreciate your attention towards our journal’s readership. Caucasian Journal is a new project, which emerged in the aftermath of regional political developments of critical importance, such as presidential elections in Georgia and change of leadership in neighboring Armenia. In fact, when we read your Elections and Political Processes project description (read more here), we were pleased to find paragraphs almost identical to our mission statement. But let me start with a cautious question. USAID planning to spend $4-5 million in direct awards to Georgian civil society organizations sounds like an important piece of news, but we have found very little media coverage on it, so far. Perhaps USAID is not interested in wider dissemination of such information as a matter of policy?

Peter A. WIEBLER: First, congratulations on your new project! We wish you the best of luck in this endeavor. I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to speak with you today.

Regarding the announcement of USAID’s funding opportunity for $4-5 million in grants to Georgian civil society organizations, this grant competition announcement represents a continuation of our longstanding election and political process (EPP) support, which the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been providing to Georgia since 1995.

We definitely wanted this funding opportunity to be widely disseminated, because we want to expand our base of local partners, and USAID’s general policy is to award grants competitively. While the grants are part of a new “generation” of EPP programming, we did not want to create confusion by suggesting USAID support for EPP, or civil society, was a new initiative.

What is new is the scale of support. In this new iteration of programming, the size and share of funding set aside for Georgian civil society organizations (CSOs) has more than doubled. Across the globe, USAID is committed to supporting its partner countries on their Journey to Self-Reliance -- or, to put it another way, we want to help our partners develop the capability to solve their own development challenges. This means supporting local actors as they develop solutions to their country’s development needs. Thus, this grant announcement is a reflection of our belief in the capacity of Georgian organizations to address local needs in the EPP sector.

AK: Thank you very much for good wishes to Caucasian Journal! After last year’s presidential election, even the outgoing president himself expressed concern about a “sharp drop of the democratic standards” during the runoff. Following the election, USAID quoted the OSCE that “one side enjoyed an undue advantage” due to the misuse of administrative resources. This is a very serious challenge to civil society. Do you think Georgian organizations can cope with it, even with generous USAID support?

PW: Yes, we do believe Georgian organizations can and will cope with these challenges. Following the presidential election, there has undoubtedly been a very important conversation taking place within Georgian civil society, as well as within the Georgian government and the society as a whole, about the trajectory of Georgia’s democratic development. Let’s remind ourselves: that conversation is a good thing. There are plenty of countries where such public dialogue is unimaginable.

Political pluralism and a level playing field are essential to a healthy democracy. As we have often said, Parliament and the Georgian government should work together with civil society to address these concerns and create the conditions for competitive political processes. We urge the Georgian Parliament and others to consider and implement the election reforms recommended by the OSCE, domestic observer groups, and others, and to care for and protect Georgia’s democratic development and reputation -- Georgia’s greatest assets.

AK: My next question is related to the previous one. A strong civil society can face any challenge, but building a civil society is a long and complicated process. Are you aiming to help well-established organizations only, or offer any support for new initiatives as well?

PW: That is a very important question. USAID is committed to expanding its partner base to organizations, including social and citizen movements, beyond what one may consider well-established or traditional civil society groups. In fact, USAID has a program entirely committed to building the capacity of formative civil society organizations, particularly those outside Tbilisi, to mobilize their communities, address community needs and engage elected officials in policy discussions at all levels of government. This program is meant to prepare organizations to foster a “new generation” of well-established civil society organizations (CSO).

A number of Georgian election and political process watchdog organizations have proven their ability to operate at a very high level. Donors, including USAID and many others, have recognized the importance of these independent institutions with technical and financial support. Their, and others’, continued efforts are critical to helping ensure the transparency and credibility of Georgia’s electoral and political affairs.

USAID also recognizes the value of new, additional voices in this space as a means to strengthen Georgia’s civil society. I hope we see other, dynamic organizations come forward with terrific ideas and energy. For this reason, USAID is prioritizing more resources for civil society as a means of supporting Georgia’s civil society on the country’s journey to self-reliance.

AK: Let’s get back to your Elections and Political Processes project. It is a long-term program planned for 2019-2023. If you would like to tell us more about your overall vision of it, or any specific details, the floor is yours.

PW: We conducted a great deal of analysis and outreach. At the end, we recognized the need for Georgian politics to be more responsive to the interests of regular people. For years, the principal beneficiaries of EPP programming have been political parties and the bodies administering Georgia’s elections.

In our new project, USAID wants to engage ordinary citizens as our main beneficiaries, by assisting political parties to transform to be more constituent-oriented. This also means equipping citizens and community and issue groups with the tools – including most importantly, information and knowledge – that they need to more effectively engage political parties and demand better representation. The project also aims to support reform and oversight efforts needed to level the electoral playing field, so that elections are free and fair competitions about policy agendas and values which reflect the needs and aspirations of Georgians. In this context, we are also seeking to increase the participation and representation of politically underrepresented groups, such as women, youth, minorities, and persons with disabilities.

AK: According to your program description, you focus on “absent or inadequate conditions for political pluralism in Georgian society” and “Georgia’s weak political parties, unengaged electorate, uneven electoral playing field, and lack of inclusion of underrepresented groups including women, youth, minorities...” This is a huge agenda. Could you elaborate on it? How do you prioritize between so many equally important problems?

PW: In preparation for the new project design, USAID conducted numerous assessments to examine all facets of the EPP sector. We also drew upon a number of reports and studies from others, including international organizations and independent experts. As a result, we see the main problems as those you just mentioned. Other partners of Georgia have noted these problems as well.

While we recognize that tackling these problems is a huge agenda, we believe these are the main political process barriers to further consolidating Georgia’s democracy. And as Georgia’s ally and development partner, the United States Government is committed to helping Georgia to overcome these challenges.

It is important to note, however, that the civil society grants represent just one component of USAID’s new EPP project. The CSOs supported under this initiative will work together with longstanding international partners of USAID, including the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), International Republican Institute (IRI), and National Democratic Institute (NDI). It will take time to address these challenges. Over the next four years, USAID aims to build the capacity of Georgian stakeholders to recognize and address the challenges themselves.

AK: I assume you are receiving a large number of applications from organizations that feel dissatisfied, especially given rather emotional wording used in your program description. Also, you are planning to award $4-5 million in a fairly small number of grants, so each grantee would get a very considerable budget. How would you characterize the overall quality of applications received?

PW: The wording in the funding announcement was informed by extensive outreach and analysis. We describe, for example, the substantial progress Georgia has made on many fronts, including for example electoral administration.

Our procurement process is based on the principle of fair competition, which means we have very strict rules in place to ensure that grants are awarded based on pre-defined, objective criteria and quality measures. One of those rules governing the process is that only the application review team gets to see the applications. For that reason, I am afraid I cannot speak to the quality of any application received. As I said earlier, based on past experience and broad program objectives, we expect to receive many, high-quality proposals from a wide variety of Georgian organizations.

AK: Is there anything you want to say to the current and future applicants for USAID’s grants?

PW: USAID is a learning organization. We hope our applicants will think creatively about solutions to the challenges facing Georgia. We are looking for new, innovative programs that build self-reliance. We encourage our applicants to take measured risks and try new approaches – including, for example, possible new partnerships and engagement with the private sector. We also want to know, how will our applicants measure, evaluate, and learn from successes and failures? Today’s crazy new idea in Georgia may be exactly the innovative solution that can be adapted and successful in Zambia.

AK: How are you planning to monitor and assess the efficiency of the Agency’s grants? Here I cannot help mentioning the negative effect of so-called “grant-eating”. Besides causing direct losses, it can severely spoil the whole image of effective civil society, especially when it is still in its early stage. From your perspective as a giver, what are the ways to avoid such practice? If you have any examples to share, that would be quite interesting to learn – from your experience in other countries as well.

PW: USAID refers to our award recipients as implementing partners, rather than grantees. This is because USAID is actively involved in all its programs. We do not merely hand over funding and ask for a report at the end of the project.

As I just noted, we do take project monitoring and evaluation very seriously; we want to hear about new approaches to achieve program successes, and to monitor and evaluate them effectively. Each project and program has a team of USAID specialists who work closely with the partner to plan, implement, and monitor all the activities we support. Our systems require extensive reporting of program activities and finances, including independent evaluation mechanisms and audits. Ultimately, the goal of this engagement is not only to protect the U.S. taxpayer’s investment in development, but also to ensure that programs are working efficiently and effectively together to achieve higher level outcomes.

AK: Do you think the whole pattern of new organizations formation and their operation needs attention? I am talking about a favorable environment, including a legal framework, which allows for easy fundraising, for example, or fiscal privileges to encourage donations to charity.

PW: Each year, USAID releases a Civil Society Sustainability Index. This index reveals that Georgia performs well in most categories of civil society organization sustainability. Further, Georgia’s Journey to Self-Reliance Country Roadmap indicates that Georgian civil society and media effectiveness is excelling, with a score of .91 on a scale from 0-1. This is the highest score Georgia received on the roadmap. However, recent trends of government-led verbal attacks on civil society organizations and leaders is a concern, and we are watching that space closely. Overall, the environment for charitable donations is favorable; however, weak public awareness of and confidence in civil society’s contributions is a challenge. It would be great to see more positive leadership in developing local Georgian philanthropy. It would also be terrific to see more strong organizations and activists developing in the regions. 

"Georgian civil society and media effectiveness is excelling, with a score of .91 on a scale from 0-1"

AK: Speaking about favorable conditions for civil society formation, I wanted to touch upon the role of mass media. Is there a place for mass media in the complicated structure of the Elections and Political Processes project? If yes, we would be glad to contribute to your project, as long as we fully share its mission and values. 

PW: Democratic development is a constant and evolving process; there is still much work to be done in Georgia as there is anywhere. In Georgia, key democracy priorities include strengthening the rule of law and judicial independence; deepening further electoral reform and political pluralism, and ensuring media freedom and space for independent voices. Diverse opinions, including at times critical ones, need to be heard, not silenced, in democratic societies, particularly in the lead-up to national elections like those planned here in 2020. When we voice, and/or have voiced our concerns about free and independent media in previous years, these have been the concerns of a “friend” who wants to see Georgia realize its future as a vibrant democracy in the Euro-Atlantic community. The United States remains committed to its strategic partner, Georgia, as it continues to strengthen its democratic institutions, which certainly include the media and other independent institutions.

To answer your question more specifically, USAID supports an initiative called “MTAG” which exclusively focuses on developing the media sector. MTAG works together with USAID’s EPP, rule of law, and good governance initiatives collectively as a unit to enhance accountable governance and democratic checks and balances in Georgia.

AK: We know you have led Agency’s activities in democracy and governance fields in some of the most challenging locations including Afghanistan, West Bank/Gaza, Serbia, and Ukraine. Could you share some of the brightest success stories? What was the most difficult (or funny?) situation you found yourself in?

PW: There are too many to count. I have been fortunate to work in some very important places at fascinating times – for example, I had the honor of serving as former President Jimmy Carter’s control officer twice when he led election delegations for various Palestinian elections in West Bank and Gaza. I also served in Afghanistan during the year of the ‘civilian surge,’ when we made a concentrated effort to support Afghanistan’s young democratic institutions. That work was quite difficult, and remains so today – but as we discussed earlier, democratic development is always in process; never quite an end-state!

AK: Millions of people worldwide benefit from the USAID projects worldwide, including in Georgia and South Caucasus in general. Our readers – as we see them – want to play a more active role in changing the world that surrounds them, they want to form the civil society, and be a part of it. If you want to address our readers directly, the floor is yours.

PW: In a democracy, your country is what you make of it. People choose their leaders, define their priorities, and determine the political agenda. However, like so many things in life, you get out of it what you put into it.

It is up to the people to make their voice heard -- vote, donate to a civil society organization, join a social movement, attend a municipal council meeting, write letters to your representatives and opinion pieces in your newspapers, and call into radio shows to join a political discussion. This is how people can change their country; this is how they make it theirs.

AK:  Thank you very much!  

Read the Georgian translation here

This article was re-published by:
- The Financial, April 1, 2019

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