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SAIS Europe Students Make Study Trip to Georgia

Student Trip to Georgia

Over spring break 2023, students in Professor Arntraud Hartmann’s class on Rural Development, Gender and Social Inclusion joined her on a five-day study trip to Georgia. Hartmann used her experiences as a development practitioner to create a trip that immersed students in issues involving the Nenskra Dam Hydropower Plant, a controversial project under preparation in the Svaneti Valley in the mountains of northwest Georgia.

Prior to the study trip, the students undertook in class an assessment of the environmental and social impacts of this project and simulated a decision-making process on whether a multilateral development bank should approve this project for financing. The class simulation and subsequent study trip focused on the question of whether the benefits of this proposed dam project outweigh the negative environmental and social impacts in a country heavily dependent on imported gas and striving for energy independence.
The study trip gave the students the opportunity to visit project sites, talk to people who would be directly impacted by the dam and meet with representatives of multilateral financing institutions. The visit also provided the opportunity for engaged discussions with civil society representatives who took positions on this contentious project.

Student Trip to Georgia

Images from Audrey Lodes, David Mena, Rebecca Ash, from there Student Trip to Georgia.

The highlight of the visit was the stay in scenic Svaneti valley, where the dam would be constructed. Local families in Khaishi, a small village in the valley region, hosted the students, who got to meet with community activists opposed to the project. The activists maintain that construction of the dam would fundamentally change the way of life in their communities. The students also met with the highest council of the Svanetis, a group with its own cultural identity, language, and decision-making processes, who fear that the construction of such a large dam would fundamentally damage Svaneti culture.
“The kindness and hospitality of the Svaneti people was key in enriching the academic and cultural experience and the overall success of this study trip,” MAIA student Vanina Morrison said.
“It was fascinating to drive through the hills and dips of the Svaneti Valley, looking at a dam site, a powerhouse, walking through the roads and staying at homes that would be irrevocably changed, and really understanding what it means to invest in an infrastructure project from an on-the-ground perspective,” said Rebecca Ash-Cervantes.
Dato Chipashvili, a senior project officer of Green Alternatives, a Georgian NGO, accompanied the group during the visit to the Svaneti valley.
In Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, the students met representatives of multilateral development banks, who have already approved or are considering financing for the dam and learned how these institutions consider the costs and benefits of such large scale hydropower projects. They also met with representatives of the World Bank regional office in Georgia to gain insights into Georgia’s energy and environmental sectors.

Student Trip to Georgia

Image from Audrey Lodes. Students meet with Turkish ambassador to Georgia, Kaan Orbay. A SAIS Europe alum

The study group received a warm welcome in Tbilisi from SAIS Europe alum Kaan Orbay, who now serves as the Turkish ambassador to Georgia. These meetings in Tbilisi provided a valuable complement to the group’s visit to the Svaneti valley, enabling the students to compare the negative impacts of the project with the needs of Georgia’s energy sector.
Participating students shared posts on social media on what the study trip meant to them.
“In balancing both the potential immense benefits and risks of grave damage, these first-hand accounts detailing the challenges of executing a development project at this scale have been one of the most fruitful and unforgettable experiences of my graduate degree at Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe,” said second-year MAIA student Camille Farradas.

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