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February 25, 2009

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February 25, 2009

Can NGO advocacy influence states? Social Protection in Georgia

February 25, 2009
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Here’s an example from Georgia of how well designed advocacy gets results: in this case helping 34,000 poor families gain access to state benefits and winning the introduction of an appeals procedure for those who feel unfairly excluded. It’s not glamorous, but it made a real difference, so bear with me.

Like other post-Soviet Eastern European governments, the Georgian government takes decisions unilaterally and without any civic engagement. However it is in some respects an ‘effective state’: it has successfully rooted out administrative or petty corruption, improved revenue collection and embarked on sweeping (albeit controversial) reforms. If development-oriented international and local agencies want to influence the government, they have to talk the language of efficiency and evidence.

Following the ‘Rose Revolution’ of 2003 the new government made an attempt at revamping the country’s cumbersome and ineffective social protection scheme, inherited from the Soviet Union. In 2005, it set up the SSA (Social Subsidies Agency) to manage its new social assistance programme. Eligibility was to be determined by a points-based system that used a database to identify the poorest, most disadvantaged and vulnerable population (approximately 150 000 families).

The government and the donors declared victory, but monitoring by Oxfam and a local partner NGO – the Association of Young Economists of Georgia (AYEG) -showed that the system was not working. A combination of bad methodology and lack of capacity meant that a lot of families that did not qualify for the assistance were often in similar or worse conditions compared to those that did.

What to do? We held a number of closed door seminars with the representatives of the SSA (without involving the media so as to build trust) and backed them up with lobbying meetings. Nothing happened – we built up good relationships with young and motivated civil servants, but there was no appetite from their bosses for overhauling what was generally portrayed as a success.

That all changed with the civil unrest of 2007, a political shock born of public disenchantment with government policy and reforms. The government was desperate to refurbish its image, so the time was ripe and AYEG approached it with two main demands – to raise the threshold to include more poor households and to introduce a clear monitoring mechanism for verifying the primary data gathered whilst giving people the right of appeal against decisions made by the SSA.

Step forward a new and sympathetic Minister for Healthcare, with a background of working with NGOs, who gave his political backing and in the summer of 2007, the SSA raised its extreme poverty threshold and introduced a complaints procedure. Oxfam and AYEG helped them design a monitoring mechanism to verify the data that formed the basis for decisions (and appeals).

Looking back, our Georgia team put success down to three factors: the shift in the political environment; the rigorous use of evidence and the cultivation of contacts with a range of decision makers and officials. To which I would add the same combination of official preference for rational argument and a clunky inheritance from the Soviet era that the earlier case study on this blog on disability in Russia revealed.


  1. Please take this comment in the concerned but constructive spirit that it is meant. In light of the process you describe above – which of course is necessarily simplified – there are three questions that I’d like to put up for consideration:

    1. How much of the new policy adoption was due to the external political environment? Without wanting to belittle the efforts of the team in Georgia, when we are heavily invested in a process we often have a tendency to exaggerate our own agency.

    2. Did the Georgian government have any other policy options on the table, or were they just looking for anything that might help rebuild their political capital? If they did not consider a range of options, I’m not sure that their eventual “choice” can be judged either good or bad, regardless of outcome.

    3. What does the monitoring since the implementation of the policy tell us about how it has addressed the initial problem that was identified?

  2. Good questions Paul, let’s see if our Georgia team want to respond… (1) and (3) make more sense to me. Question 2 seems less relevant – the motivation of the Government is surely less important than the result, no?

  3. Paul and Duncan,

    I contacted Dato in the Tbilisi Office and he has responded as follows:
    On question 1:
    In fact I would argue for the contrary, this an example of a very specific and demonstrable achievement. This is in contrast to a tendency amongst development actors to depict somewhat blurred achievements in which impact is difficult to identify. As for the external environment – there was political will to make things happen, without it this success story would have been unlikely.

    On question 2.
    As I said there was political will to make things happen and there is nothing wrong in seizing an opportunity for partnership and change.

    On question 3.
    As far as I know the change was effected/implemented and people do get their money. But we can contact the Georgia team to check on this.

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