In December 2014, I arrived in Georgia to start a European Voluntary Service (EVS) project with a local peacebuilding NGO in Gori, near the breakaway region of South Ossetia/Tskhinvali. The notion that volunteers are trying to ‘do good’ or ‘make a difference’ is often accompanied by the belief that they are at best well-meaning but not very useful, and at worst a liability. So people in my situation often feel the need to justify what they are doing.
EVS is a European Commission project that allows young people (aged 17-30) to volunteer abroad, within or outside the European Union. EVS projects cover a diverse range of topics, from human rights and citizenship to arts and culture. Many of the organisations that host volunteers are involved in peacebuilding and post-conflict work in countries such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Georgia. The organisation I am volunteering with is called the Public Union Bridge of Friendship ‘Kartlosi’ (‘Kartl’ means ‘Georgian’, and ‘Osi’ means ‘Ossetian’).
Its mission is to contribute to the peace process and resolve the conflict with South Ossetia, to conduct dialogue between communities divided by the conflict, and to support the sustainable development of local communities in the Shida Kartli region (an area that borders South Ossetia). Kartlosi have hosted many EVS volunteers who have engaged in a wide range of activities in support of the organisation.
I think there are clear benefits that come from the involvement of international volunteers in an organisation like Kartlosi. This is especially so if peacebuilding is understood to encompass civil society activism and strengthening communities in ways that go beyond the immediate political issues relating to the conflict. International volunteers enable local NGOs to carry out a more diverse range of activities than would otherwise be the case. Foreign language training is one of the most tangible examples, and the region’s young people are often interested in receiving this training.
And of course, I benefit a great deal from my involvement with Kartlosi and EVS. There is the personal satisfaction of being involved in something of immediate and substantial importance. And the knowledge and understanding that come from working first-hand with local peacebuilding NGO would be impossible develop through other means. As a researcher and student of conflict and peacebuilding, this has been of immeasurable importance for me.
But it is important to be realistic about what volunteers can accomplish. Even the longest EVS projects will only begin to scratch the surface of the issues they deal with, and in many cases international volunteers will lack the language skills and deep local knowledge and expertise required to carry out the most important work that peacebuilding organisations do. But this is not their role.
The challenge is to find the right standard by which to judge the contribution that volunteers make. EVS focuses on the training of young European citizens and the development of the volunteer, as well as the benefits that volunteers bring to their organisations and communities. It would be inappropriate to hold a volunteer’s contribution to the standard of a professional, whether local or international. The impact EVS volunteers and international volunteers more generally, make on local peacebuilding may be marginal in the grand scheme of things, but sometimes what happens at the margins is what matters.
I suspect that I will gain more from my time in Georgia with Kartlosi than they will gain from my contributions. Nonetheless, I believe that the collaborative nature of EVS exchanges has the potential to result in real benefits. The most immediate and direct of these will come from teaching English to the local volunteers, activists and journalists who will make a real difference in the future of peacebuilding and conflict resolution in Georgia, from the direct personal exchanges of ideas and experiences, and from writing for an international audience who otherwise might not get to know about the work of organisations such as Kartlosi.
I believe there will also be more intangible and long term positive effects. In addition to the depth and breadth of my own experience here, I am also part of an ongoing process of exchanges between European citizens in EU countries and beyond, and between organisations that are working towards peace, stronger communities and an active, socially engaged population. This process is not self-sustaining and cannot be taken for granted. It requires ongoing involvement from volunteers, NGOs, and governments and international organisations.
The Public Union Bridge of Friendship 'Kartlosi'
Kartlosi is a local peacebuilding NGO that operates in Gori, Georgia. Its aims are to contribute to the peace process and resolve the conflict with South Ossetia, to conduct dialogue between communities divided by the conflict, and to support the sustainable development of local communities in the Shida Kartli region.