Advancing CSO Capacities and Engaging Society for Sustainability (ACCESS)
Advancing CSO Capacities and Engaging Society for Sustainability (ACCESS) was a seven-year project funded by USAID and implemented by the East-West Management Institute (EWMI) in partnership with the Center for Training and Consultancy (CTC) and the Civil Development Agency (CiDA) to enhance the effectiveness of civil society organizations (CSOs) in Georgia. ACCESS worked to enable a more constituent-connected, organizationally mature, and financially sustainable cadre of CSOs to be more capable of managing direct USAID funding.
ACCESS stimulated diversity and innovation across civil society by working with both formal and informal civic actors. ACCESS elevated community problem-solving through co-creation and grassroots efforts and moved civil society activism from formal settings and CSO offices into the streets, parks, bus stops, and other informal settings to change how CSOs engage with citizens. In addition, ACCESS worked with its implementing partners to engage citizens in decision-making in all stages of the activity cycle (identification, implementation, and monitoring).
ACCESS’s own definition of meaningful citizen engagement has evolved over its period of performance, in a direction of enabling active citizens for joint action at various levels, especially communities outside Tbilisi. From 2017 onwards, ACCESS’s modified its approach ‘to meet citizens where they are’ and supported bottom-up civic action, including by informal, newly established groups, with active contribution from the citizens, and formal CSOs creating space for this engagement. ACCESS supported innovative projects addressing the needs closely related to the wellbeing of Georgian citizens that lacked the support of other donors, among them internet access, metro infrastructure, tunnel access, quality of air and water, preservation of cultural heritage (Batumi), intercity transport safety, access to educational resources in rural areas, development of mountainous regions. By working with informal and newly registered groups, ACCESS was supporting those whose projects are more grounded in citizen priorities and delivering results to citizens. ACCESS encouraged regional and local CSOs to engage diverse groups (outside the usual suspects of the civil society sector), including local teachers, students, entrepreneurs, journalists, artists, civic activists, pensioners, etc. in identifying the target problems and developing their solutions. In 2018, ACCESS introduced Social Labs discussion format that facilitated the co-creation process and helped CSOs to identify the most important problems facing Georgia’s regions, tailor their projects to citizens’ priority issues, and define solutions through citizens’ input.
While working on increasing citizen engagement, ACCESS also worked on monitoring and influencing key government policies and processes. The emphasis of ACCESS policy work was on grass roots level policy initiatives and emerging policy issues. Initiatives supported by ACCESS were directed at influencing public opinion, researching policy problems and initiating and lobbying for policy/legislative changes. In addition to funding the policy related initiatives of CSOs ACCESS was also directly involved in organizing public discussions via Bus Tours in which representatives of ACCESS and partner organizations met citizens in rural areas and discussed important policy problems with them. Bus Tours were an innovative way to reach beyond Tbilisi and promote civic activism. ACCESS organized 13 Bus Tours from July 2015 – September 2020 across villages in Ajara, Guria, Kvemo Kartli, Kakheti, Samtskhe-Javakheti, Shida Kartli, Upper Svaneti, Lower Svaneti, and Racha-Lechkhumi. Most policy initiatives supported by ACCESS fell into four main thematic categories, including: 1) Countering disinformation; 2) Environmental issues; 3) Cultural heritage and urban development; and 4) Road safety. In addition, there were projects on teaching policy analysis, improving labor standards as well as issues such as supporting media reform environment, and explaining principles of European agricultural policy to relevant stakeholder groups. In 2016, ACCESS became the first donor to support intensive anti-disinformation and resilience-building activities in Georgia, work that helped secure a historic level of public support for Georgia’s NATO and EU membership.
ACCESS also made important progress in creating a platform to facilitate more direct engagement and collaboration between private sector and civil society. ACCESS primarily encouraged private sector engagement with civil society through the promotion of CSR in Georgia. The CSR club had notable success in strengthening linkages between the two sectors, mainly through organization of CSO fairs and compiling a database of the CSR priorities of the CSR club members to match CSO and citizen priorities and map opportunities for partnerships.
Finally, ACCESS fundamentally changed the way the Network of 10 regional Centers for Civic Engagement (CCEs) operated by introducing competitive fee-based services and initiating national and local civic campaigns. Under ACCESS, CCEs have continued their previous role as neutral spaces for public discourse but also expanded their role and visibility as a catalyst and enabler of civic engagement outside of Tbilisi. In February 2020, CCE staff opted to register each CCE individually while maintaining the Network’s structures for internal management and communication developed under ACCESS. Individual registration will allow CCEs to pursue independent development paths with differentiated local donors and businesses, apply for municipal and regional grants, and qualify for a value added tax exemption, further reducing their expenses.