Up to the Georgian Mountains and Down to the Countryside

Up to the Georgian Mountains and Down to the Countryside

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Sachkhere-style investment in infrastructure and 50 foreign teacher volunteers won't change the equation for Georgia's small towns and villages. Couldn’t we be a little bit more innovative and ambitious when it comes to equalizing opportunities in education for almost 50% of our population? Why not use technology? Why not engage Georgian volunteers?

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In an attempt to promote the technological, medical and cultural development of China's countryside, the Chinese Communist Party's Youth League plans to dispatch 10 million students to impoverished villages across the country, CNN reports. Students will be volunteering their summer vacation time in order to participate in a "rural rejuvenation" campaign championed by President Xi Jinping.

Exactly 50 years ago, in 1969, Xi himself was sent to work in Liangjiahe village, more than 800km from his native Beijing. A son of a high ranking communist party official, Xi was among approximately 17 million (supposedly) privileged urban youth forcefully recruited into Mao Zedong's Down to the Countryside Movement. Although far from voluntary, Xi remembers this chapter in his biography as "a rewarding, life-changing experience that toughened his body and mind."

China's rise from the ashes of colonial plunder to global prominence has much to do with the country's success in educating its rural population, raising agricultural productivity, and shifting a very large share of traditional farmers to employment in the modern sector of the economy. Yet, how likely is it that China's voluntary or involuntary development prescriptions would work in societies that cherish individual freedoms, such as Georgia or Armenia? Georgian and Armenian villages are as much in need of "technological, medical and cultural development" as their Chinese equivalents. However, it is hard to discern anything resembling a coordinated, China-style "rural rejuvenation" campaign in either of the South Caucasus countries.

GEORGIA PILOTS RURAL DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS: CHORVILA

Georgia's most prominent politician and philanthropist, Mr. Ivanishvili did not need to be sent to the countryside in order to "toughen his body and mind". The youngest among five siblings, he grew up in very modest circumstances, in the family of a manganese factory worker in Chorvila, a small village in the Sachkhere municipality.

Having amassed a formidable fortune in the murky waters of post-Soviet capitalism, Mr. Ivanishvili was eager to give back. Yet, instead of incentivizing Georgian youth to settle in the countryside, he used his personal wealth to improve the lot of villagers in one particular village, Chorvila, and in one particular Georgian municipality, Sachkhere.

The story of this peculiarly Georgian "rural rejuvenation" project, implemented by Mr. Ivanishvili before he became active in politics, is beautifully described in a recent Jam News story. Mr. Ivanishvili built a school (featuring an Olympic-size indoor swimming pool and state-of-the-art sports facilities), a modern hospital, and even a ‘palace of rituals' – freely available (until 2012) for local residents to hold wedding parties and funeral ceremonies. He renovated all Chorvila houses, supplied families with gas heaters, televisions, and refrigerators, and even paid their gas bills.

So, what did Mr. Ivanishvili do, and what didn't he do?

He invested in very expensive infrastructure, the hardware of development, and did so in a very limited geographic domain. He did not do much about the software of development – the quality of human capital in Sachkhere. As a result of Mr. Ivanishvili's intervention, the Sachkhere of 2019 has better housing conditions, but is still a fairly backward agrarian community, with no innovation capacity, and few, if any, modern businesses. The kids of Chorvila's school have access to better infrastructure but are not exposed to young role models or inspiring teachers. Instead of learning, they are being lectured or yelled at. Their future education and employment prospects are as bleak as those of other kids in Georgia's small towns and villages.

TEACH AND LEARN WITH GEORGIA: THE PAST

In 2010, Georgia saw the launch of yet another rural development initiative, Teach and Learn with Georgia (TLG). TLG is somewhat similar to China's "Down to the Countryside Movement" in that it sends young teachers to Georgia's remote communities. Yet, unlike its Chinese equivalent, TLG does not concern itself with young Georgians. Instead, it seeks to recruit foreign youth "on a quest for a volunteer teaching experience in a stunning Eurasian country," as advertised, for example, on reachtoteachrecruiting.com.

The brainchild of Georgia's ("staunchly pro-Western") former president Mikheil Saakashvili, TLG initially sought to recruit 1,000 native English speakers "to help Georgian students learn the English language." At its peak, in 2010-2012, the program had an annual budget of 8 million GEL, spent mostly on recruitment campaigns and return flight tickets (two per volunteer, to allow some vacation time).

TLG was very light on the selection, training, and orientation of teachers, resulting in uneven performance and less-than-optimal use of the volunteers' time. But it did have an impact.

Emma Pratt, an Ohio girl, learned about TLG while interning with the US embassy in Tbilisi in between the first and second years in Ohio State University Master's Program in Slavic and East European studies. When Emma graduated in summer 2011, the US economy was still recovering from a recession. "I'd rather be underemployed in Georgia," Emma thought, and applied.

Six months later, having passed an FBI criminal background check, Emma landed in Sagarejo, a town of 10,000 people about 60km east of Tbilisi. Since it wasn't her first time in the country, Emma could communicate in Georgian, which was very unusual for a typical TLG volunteer.

The principal of Sagarejo's school #3, to which she was assigned, gave Emma a very warm welcome. Her two co-teachers, Nino and Zaira, had some "Soviet habits", as Emma puts it politely, but both were willing to learn. Emma co-taught 1-6 grades, two hours per grade, for 12 hours per week. The small English classroom had a library and a computer with speakers, helping to manage her classes. Emma had an impact on almost 100 kids, for most of whom she was one of the first native speakers they have encountered in their life.

Above anything else, however, TLG had a tremendous impact on Emma's own life. She still lives in Georgia, where she teaches English at the Georgian Police Academy and the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University (ISET). Just a couple of months ago, she got married to Giga, a graduate of Tbilisi State University's Mathematics Department and the prestigious Komarovi school.

TEACH AND LEARN WITH GEORGIA: A NEW CONCEPT?

Even at its peak, TLG was not able to achieve its goal of bringing a thousand of foreign volunteer teachers to Georgia. Today, TLG is well past its heyday, appearing to have run out of steam – literally (budget-wise) and figuratively (in terms of drive). In recent years, the program has been financed at the level of 0.5mln GEL per year, a fraction of its 2010-2012 budget. This is not sufficient to run an effective recruitment campaign as well as select, orientate, train, support and monitor the performance of TLG volunteers.

The TLG website has not been updated in years, negatively affecting the program's international visibility and marketing. Fewer than 50 TLG volunteers are currently placed in Georgian schools, well short of Georgia's needs.

There are several things a redesigned TLG could do in order to achieve greater scale and impact.

First, it should engage not only a few dozens of foreigners "on a quest for a volunteer teaching experience in a stunning Eurasian country," but also focus on their Georgian peers. Thousands of Georgian village communities could benefit from the presence of Georgian volunteers – better educated and entrepreneurial, able to innovate, teach school subjects, serve as role models and community organizers.

Secondly, TLG could increase the program's geographic coverage and impact by expanding the scope of volunteering activities. In addition to employing teachers living in remote communities, TLG could engage a much more qualified set of volunteers in the role of individual or group coaches. Coaching can be done remotely, over the internet. And one hour a week – a typical time commitment for a coach – is something within reach for many more people: foreigners and members of the Georgian diaspora who are not able to relocate to Georgia for a long period of time; members of the Georgian expat community; established Georgian professionals, teachers, and academics. Coaching comes with another advantage: it does not have to be limited to school disciplines. With the help of an experienced coach, Georgian kids could engage in a wide range of extracurricular activities – from guided reading or movie watching to entrepreneurial and social projects.

Finally, TLG could do much more to systematically connect its teachers and coaches to other organizations working to develop Georgia's rural communities, and to each other. If less isolated and supported, TLG volunteers would have more impact, giving them a sense of greater satisfaction and professional fulfillment.

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Georgia is not China. Georgians are a freedom loving people. But freedom without solidarity, without a sense of responsibility for the society's weaker members, is difficult to guard and sustain. Most Georgians are strongly attached to their ancestral village communities. With a bit of coordination and relatively modest funding, Georgia's visionary policymakers and philanthropists could start a significant social movement of homecoming and giving back. And this would be the best thing Georgia could do to reach its goal of Euro-Atlantic integration.

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