COLUMBIA — Columbia has enjoyed strong ties with the Republic of Georgia since the early 1990s through the work of the local aid organization, A Call to Serve.
In 1997, Columbia was paired as a sister city with Kutaisi, the second largest city in Georgia.
Through this relationship, Columbia has been selected to host the upcoming Open World Program delegation, through which four government officials and a facilitator from the Republic of Georgia will visit from Nov. 7 to 15.
Funded by Congress, the Open World Program is administered by the Open World Leadership Center, an independent entity in the legislative branch. It was founded in 1999 by James H. Billington, the current librarian of Congress, to foster U.S./Russia leadership exchange. It has since expanded to 11 post-Soviet states.
The program mainly targets young government and civic leaders, bringing them on short trips to America to exchange ideas about democratic government and civil society. The aim is to build mutual understanding and to foster long-term partnerships. More than 15,000 delegates have participated since its inception, said Maura Shelden, a spokeswoman for the program.
“Basically they sought us and we decided to apply for consideration,” city spokeswoman Renee Graham said.
Graham has been working with a volunteer host planning committee, which is composed of members who have experience working with Georgia, including ACTS president Trish Blair.
According to the latest information from Open World, the delegation will include a facilitator, an interpreter and four government officials from cities spread across Georgia. They are Konstantine Kavtaradze, deputy of the financial department of Kutaisi; Davit Shaburishvili, chief specialist of budget planning of Dusheti; George Petruzashvili, deputy city manager of Gurjaani; and Ioseb Buadze, head of the economic and infrastructure development department of Khashuri. The facilitator is Bakur Kvaratskhelia, who also is deputy director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tbilisi.
The focus of this event is decentralization and accountable governance. The delegates will explore ways to deliver services to their citizens through public and private collaborations and partnerships.
Dolores Shearon, a member of the planning committee and ACTS board member, thinks Columbia is an outstanding model for that topic.
“Good things happen here because we have so many groups from the government and private sector and nonprofit working together,” Shearon said.
Five local households will serve as host families to the delegates. Most have hosted Georgians in the past, Shearon said. Among the hosts are John and Judy Baker. John Baker is the pastor at First Baptist Church of Columbia, of which Trish Blair is a member.
Many church members work closely with ACTS, and Judy Baker used to assist them in organization development and grant writing.
First Baptist Church also has a sister church in Kutaisi, and members have stayed with the Bakers in the past.
“It was always very eye-opening to hear of their experiences in the transition of governance from the former USSR to a budding democracy,” Judy Baker said.
The Bakers have added touches to make the delegates feel at home. In addition to Georgian wines, they have Georgian spices in their pantry, and they hope the delegates will use them to make some traditional cuisine.
The committee plans a balanced schedule of educational programming with social and networking opportunities. It also must keep in mind that the delegates might not be proficient in English.
“We have to allow plenty of time in the sessions, so what the speakers say will be interpreted,” Shearon said.
The committee is arranging for the delegates to learn the basics of American government structure through meetings with administrators and officials at the city, county and state government levels. Professors, experts and government workers will give overviews in economic and financial development.
David Javakhadze, an MU student seeking a doctorate in finance, is from Kutaisi and will assist in preparing the session on economics and business, as well as other community activities. Javakhadze believes Georgians need to learn about every aspect of the workings of democratic society to aid their transition from a communist to a capitalist market, especially after the recent war.
"Georgia needs encouragement from the democratic world," Javakhadze said.
A weeklong workshop in action planning will give the delegates practical knowledge and resources to implement new ideas in their home country. It will be led by Stephen Jeanetta, state specialist in community development for MU Extension.
Breakout sessions will allow the delegates to split up and work in their individual areas of interest.
“We left time blocks so we could give them quality time to learn something that wasn’t covered or something they wanted to get more in-depth,” Graham said.
They will also tour the Columbia Public Library and Grant Elementary School, visit MU departments of interest and travel to the State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Social activities might include Rotary Club lunches, a picnic at Stephens Lake Park with Mayor Darwin Hindman and a Georgian wine tasting.
Graham believes the event will benefit both the city and the delegates.
“We can see our community from others' eyes and say, ‘we could improve this,’” Graham said. She also hopes the exchange continues after the event is over.
“Since ACTS has a network in Georgia, it can help the delegates remain plugged into people in Columbia.”
This event will add to the history of interaction with Georgia, which includes academic, medical and cultural exchanges. These include salt drives to combat iodine deficiencies in the Georgian population and the creation of a camp for diabetic children.