John A. Pennell arrived in Tbilisi not so long ago and is directing the USAID/Caucasus Mission. He is a career diplomat and served as the Mission Director for USAID/Libya from 2019 to 2022, as well as USAID’s Deputy Mission Director for Ukraine and Belarus in 2015-19. Mr. Pennel kindly agreed to speak with Civil.ge about USAID programs and priorities in Georgia.
The text has been edited from the audio original for brevity and clarity.
Due disclosure: UNA-Georgia, which publishes this magazine, is financially supported, in part, through a generous contribution from USAID.
Civil.ge: We are speaking at a moment in time when the U.S. role in Georgia is being challenged through a persistent media campaign. For the first time in Georgia, such criticism is originating from the ruling majority, and it is also rehashing some of the usual lines of Russian and other authoritarian states’ propaganda. Why do think this is happening and what is your response?
Mr. Pennell: We have had 30 years of very strong cooperation between the people of the United States and the people of Georgia. And we are here to support the people of Georgia and their aspirations toward Euro-Atlantic integration.
In my short time here, I met a number of people here in Tbilisi, and also outside the capital, in different regions. From these meetings, as well as from my meetings with the Speaker of Parliament, with ministers, and deputy ministers, including the vice-prime minister, with the business community, and with civil society organizations, there has been a very strong interest in continuing a very good partnership between the United States and Georgia.
We are here to support the people of Georgia and our understanding is they also want our partnership.
Our Ambassador has been traveling the country to mark the thirty-year anniversary of cooperation between the United States and Georgia, and she continues to hear statements directly from the Georgian population that they want to continue on the trajectory toward the West.
All of this contradicts the statements which you have mentioned, unfortunately leading to more polarization in society. We have had excellent cooperation between USAID and a range of different institutions in Georgia and we look forward to continuing that cooperation.
I have been highly impressed by the capacity of the Georgian people, the business sector, young entrepreneurs, civil society activists, and the government as well.
To give you the impression of the scope, but also of the impact of what we have been doing: through our cooperation we have helped establish a new curriculum for elementary schools, train judges, create better-paying jobs, helped farmers and other entrepreneurs meet standards for exporting to the European Union. And this is something that we do in very close cooperation with the Government of Georgia.
Information about all our assistance is publicly available, we do it in a very transparent and very competitive way. Really, it is unfortunate that our work is attacked continuously. Because we are here to support the people of Georgia and our understanding is they also want our partnership.
USAID has been supporting Georgia’s civil society both directly and indirectly through its projects for years now. What has been the USAID objective and what have been the results? Most importantly, how do you think the donor community should react if the attempts to limit civic space continue?
Obviously, this is something that we are tracking very closely. In the United States and in USAID we believe very strongly that a vibrant civil society is a necessary foundation of a robust, transparent, and inclusive democracy.
We work to support civil society in every country, not only in Georgia. In the United States, we have our own civil society organizations, all of whom advocate for the rights of people, and the rights of citizens, are holding the governments accountable, and responding to citizens’ needs.
We believe very strongly that a vibrant civil society is a necessary foundation of a robust, transparent, and inclusive democracy.
Just in the last year alone, we worked with over a hundred different civil society organizations [in Georgia] to ensure that children with special needs are given the support that they need from the government, we worked in local communities in terms of trash collection, potable water, problems that affect the environment.
Also, in the last several years, we have been able to support fee legal consultations for Georgians who may not be able to afford legal services. Over 90 thousand Georgians benefited and had legal representation in fourteen thousand of court cases. This is what civil society does, and that is why they are so important.
Let me share a story: there was a child who lost his mother, a Georgian national. His father was a Russian national and could not be located. The grandmother wanted to take custody of the child but initially was not able to do so, for legal reasons. A civil society organization that we are supporting, was advocating for the rights of that child and was able to help overturn a decision to bar the child from attending school. Now the child can live with his grandmother and attend school. Civil society does these types of things, and for that reason, it is important, not just in Georgia but all over the world. And this is something that we’re going to continue to support.
Let’s turn now to media freedom and disinformation, two topics that are interrelated. Many observers have written about Georgia’s extremely polarized TV media landscape, while also pointing out that quite different, quite vibrant independent public interest journalism is alive and well both in the regions and among online media outlets. USAID has its own anti-disinformation program which has been running for quite a while now and a new USAID media program has just launched as well. What is USAID’s strategy, what are you trying to support in this field, and how?
Unfortunately, polarization and disinformation are issues that affect the entire globe, including in my own country, the United States. We are very eager to help Georgia to protect the information space from disinformation and from propaganda, just as we do in many other countries.
The way we approach this problem is to support independent journalists and media outlets, who are providing fact-based information that is produced through ethical means. This is particularly important outside the capital, in the regions, where some people may not speak the Georgian language, so we also help the media to provide information in their native languages.
There also are those regions near the administrative boundary line, they should be able to get fact-based, ethically produced information that is otherwise unavailable due to the volume of Russian media and disinformation.
Just in the last couple of weeks, I participated in a disinformation innovation competition, the second one in the past two years. This event highlights the incredible entrepreneurship of the young Georgians, who showcase information technology skills they have, that can be used not just to counter disinformation and improve media literacy here in Georgia, but also may be exported internationally. It can also provide a potential income generation opportunity for them. We see tremendous potential among the Georgians in this direction.
For those who know USAID programming well, I think it’s obvious that in these past years a lot of attention has been given to fostering synergies. The classical civil society support projects integrate market elements, youth activism goes hand in hand with employment, and so on. Why this approach? What have you managed to achieve already, and does it mean that USAID is also changing internally?
Certainly, our approach towards the private sector has evolved over time. We see that there is a lot of interest in the private sector to partner with us globally and here in Georgia of course. Engaging with the private sector provides opportunities to promote greater innovation, and greater sustainability of our work, and supports more inclusive economic growth.
Engaging with the private sector provides opportunities to promote greater innovation, and greater sustainability of our work, and supports more inclusive economic growth.
Just in the last week, with the head of the national skills agency of Georgia, the Deputy Minister of Education and Science, and the regional and country director for UN Women, we launched a new program working in 17 different areas: in information and communication technology, tourism and hospitality, nursing, automotive industry, construction port development, etc. We brought in the private sector to help identify the skills that are needed to help modernize the workforce further here in Georgia.
It is important to note that at least in the nursing industry the qualifications and certifications we have been working with Georgian hospitals to provide, are also a requirement related to EU membership, so that is something very critical.
In addition to that, we recently signed a new 30 million USD loan portfolio guarantee with TBC-Bank, which will provide loans to micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly those owned or managed by women and those outside major cities, in rural areas.
Our expectation is that this program will help lead to 10 thousand new jobs and over hundred million in new sales. It is another great economic opportunity that we can do through private-sector cooperation. We also have good agreements with British Petroleum, and Adjara Group, among others, that help, identify needs and leverage the expertise that they provide.
Many of the developments we spoke of today, speak of the importance of Georgia’s independent agencies, such as the public defender’s office and the state audit office. How are USAID’s programs promoting the independence and effectiveness of these agencies?
Just like we are helping civil society as an independent actor, in the political space we continue to support the Public Defender’s Office also and the State Audit Office. We are very proud of our work with both.
I have had some very good engagements with the public defender and with their team, they are really an important independent organization that helps ensure that the government is being responsive to the rights of citizens. Their work has been critical in responding to different cases, and they’re trying to be more responsive and quicker.
It is very important that the selection process of the new public defender is done in an impartial and transparent way, and that the selected person is highly qualified and accepted by all parties, not just representing the interests of one. We are tracking this closely, also as one of the twelve recommendations for the European Union membership status.
It is very important that the selection process of the new public defender is done in an impartial and transparent way, and that the selected person is highly qualified and accepted by all parties, not just representing the interests of one.
In terms of the state audit office as well, we understand that they have a new leader who we will be meeting with very shortly. I’m very happy with the work we’ve done with the state audit office in the last ten or eleven years. Just like the Public Defender’s Office, their job is to play an independent watchdog role and to ensure that government money is being managed and spent in a transparent way. We will continue to engage with them as another independent institution of government. And we’re happy that our own US government accountability office, the GAO, has been our partner in this work.