I prepared to read the World Bank’s report on Georgia’s anti-corruption reforms with some cynicism. As a long-time government employee in the U.S., I read many self-aggrandizing reports designed to make the administrations du jour look good. Hell, I wrote some of them myself!
Yes, I knew that Georgia had transformed itself from a society living in fear and (literal) darkness to one of relative freedom and light, where families with young children could walk outside til late at night, on walkways illuminated by working street lights, without worrying about physical assault outside or the discovery of a burglary when they returned home. I knew this from what I learned in TLG’s volunteer orientation and from stories told by my hosts and their neighbors.
But still …. I was surprised to find myself reading a report, not about reforms, but about a true revolution in Georgia. I emphasize these words deliberately. To reform is to effect change to improve an existing system. To revolutionize is to overthrow a system and replace it with something new. What Georgia has accomplished! Thieves-in-law: Imprisoned or chased out of Georgia (for now). High-level, corrupt officials: Imprisoned or allowed to pay restitution for their freedom. Police: Thousands fired in one fell swoop, replaced with new officers, hired on merit, and trained as professionals. Universities: Sham schools shut down; placement exams overhauled and taken out of the hands of corrupt faculty. Power and water: In most areas in Georgia, predictable access, where the opposite used to be true. Technology and processes: The application of technology and new processes to prevent corruption and to provide better service to Georgians.
The World Bank listed the variables it believed to be key factors in Georgia’s revolution, such as a sense of urgency, an unblinking frontal assault, a clear mission, unconventional methods or approaches, consistency in enforcement, and strategic communications. What the Saakashvili administration achieved is stunning, really.
But a political truism is “what have you done for me lately“? The talk I hear from Georgians is that maybe the exciting sense of urgency is gone. Maybe the once-revolutionary team has become complacent; interested in settling into power permanently or amassing private fortunes.
As a TLG volunteer, I am proud to be a part of Georgia’s historic evolution. TLG is a good investment for Georgia, not just for the cultural and educational exchange, but for the redistribution of wealth from the government coffers to the local communities via the TLG volunteers’ stipends. TLG volunteers also attract their friends and family to Georgia as tourists, who will spend money here and attract more tourists. (I have two friends coming in April, as a matter of fact.)
Yet I feel impatient for reforms in the public schools. Basic public health amenities such as running water and soap in the school washrooms to prevent the illnesses that rampage through schools, families, and communities, costing untold lari for medical care and hours in lost productivity. A living wage for teachers. Safe school buildings. Concern about the mission creep of mandatori from child protectors to teacher watchers. Where is the sense of urgency for public school reform at the rudimentary level?
Georgia has pushed its way out of the darkness and into the light. I hope it doesn’t falter.