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Central Asia: NGOs Helping To Develop Civil Society (Part 1)

Working with refugees is one of the many areas NGOs focus on in the region In free societies, individuals and groups often pursue their interests -- and safeguard them -- in ways that are independent of the state. Collectively, their private actions belong to what is termed "civil society" -- and are the foundation of any democracy. Yet while vital to helping repressed peoples achieve greater political freedom, civil society is not born overnight. It takes time -- and hard work -- to develop. And that's where nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are playing a key role in Central Asia and Afghanistan as they seek to overcome decades of authoritarianism and war. This is the first of a two-part series on NGOs in Central Asia. To see Part 2, click here --> /featuresarticle/2004/09/4ad7f4c1-8aad-481a-a6b3-d7d3201dc023.html .

Prague, 17 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Soviet Union collapsed more than 10 years ago, but the peoples of Central Asia are still struggling to build effective civil societies to help them achieve greater freedom and democracy.

Many Central Asians feel shut out of the political process. Initial hopes for democracy have faded since 1991.

But NGOs are working to change that, says David Lewis, who runs the Central Asia project for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh.

Lewis says NGOs in Central Asia are mainly geared toward developing social and political activism.

"[In Central Asia] you have fairly authoritarian political systems and NGOs provide a space for civil society to develop and also provide a forum for discussion and for projects that would otherwise not be allowed by state organizations. So they do play a very important role," Lewis said.
"All the time, we are surprised by the initiatives that the local communities come up with. It really is the local people who talk [among] themselves and come up with projects, whether it be the rehabilitation of schools or building health clinics."

NGOs are nonprofit, politically unaffiliated organizations that advance a particular cause or set of causes in the public interest. Causes vary from humanitarian aid to environmental protection, or from HIV/AIDS prevention to civic education.

George Deikun heads the Central Asian mission of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a major grant provider for NGOs in Central Asia.

"NGOs help to build participation and give the voice to people in how resources are managed and allocated. NGOs also can help build transparency and public accountability of governments for decisions. It gives people a vehicle to express their views corporately at the community or national levels on important issues like the independence of the media, on education or health needs," Deikun said.

Erkinbek Kasybekov heads the Kyrgyz branch of the U.S.-based NGO Counterpart International. He says NGOs challenge governments by monitoring their policies. They also provide analysis and expertise and by disseminating information, help encourage political participation.

"[In Kyrgyzstan] it's already maybe 10 years of intensive NGO development and we see now very well advanced NGOs dealing with very sophisticated works. Some women NGOs are very professional in the field of women rights abuses. They also drafted some laws to regulate such very sensitive [issues] in our country," Kasybekov said.

In contrast with Central Asia, the role of NGOs is somewhat different in Afghanistan. Robin Greenwood is manager for Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe for Christian Aid, a United Kingdom-based development agency.

"In Afghanistan, there is a history of weak central government. Therefore, there's naturally been quite a strong indigenous civil society. In Central Asia, indigenous civil society was stunted in its development by the Soviet system. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the government structures started to disintegrate, but also the centralized welfare model of the Soviet system fell apart. So it was necessary for a civil society to develop quite rapidly to fill the gap. That's not to say that there's no work going on with civil society in Afghanistan," Greenwood said.

Much of that work focuses on humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, which remains mired in a prolonged humanitarian crisis as it struggles to emerge from more than two decades of war and natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and drought.

Christian Aid is working with local NGOs in western Afghanistan to develop their ability, as community representatives, to speak out at both the local and national level.

With headquarters in the United States and Scotland, Mercy Corps is another group that implements civil society projects. Piritta Rikkonen, program officer for Asia, says the people of Kabul are very receptive to a current project on people's participation in community decision-making.

"All the time, we are surprised by the initiatives that the local communities come up with. It really is the local people who talk [among] themselves and come up with projects, whether it be the rehabilitation of schools or building health clinics. Initiatives definitely are there," Rikkonen said.

But what is needed, Rikkonen says, is time and resources. Both are increasingly scarce.

Meanwhile, NGOs in Central Asia face governments often hostile to them -- a subject RFE/RL looks at in the second part of this series.