Under the Freedom Support Act, the United States supplies millions of dollars each year to help build civil society and democracy in Uzbekistan. But an American anthropologist alleges that the way the aid programs are designed -- importing American institutions and creating new bureaucracies -- tends to undermine their effectiveness. RFE/RL correspondent Beatrice Hogan takes a closer look at the dynamics of foreign assistance.
New York, 14 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Since 1991, the United States has spent $106 million in Uzbekistan to fund aid programs ranging from macroeconomic reforms to micro-level enterprises.
Whether funding independent television stations, local farming initiatives or small tourism businesses, all projects aim to plant seeds of democracy in the Central Asian country and to increase citizen participation in the political process.
But Uzbekistan has proved a challenge for aid workers. Speaking to RFE/RL in a telephone interview, George Ingram of the Europe and Eurasian Bureau of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), says his organization has seen only "modest results" from its investment. He attributes the problem to Uzbekistan's government-controlled environment.
"It's difficult for NGOs to register, it's difficult for companies to exercise the independence that they need in order to be successful, its difficult to get the government to open up its decision-making process and to carry out some of the reforms that are needed if you are going to have a truly market-driven economy."
But bureaucracy may not be the fundamental problem. David Abramson, an American anthropologist at Brown University, says that foreign aid is inherently problematic -- and inherently political. He says such aid involves a significant power imbalance between the donor -- wealthy and enlightened United States -- and the recipient -- poor and lesser developed Uzbekistan.
Abramson presented a paper last week titled "Civil Society and the Politics of Foreign Aid in Uzbekistan" at Brown University in the state of Rhode Island. In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, Abramson explained that Western donors often fail to understand the critical role that social networks play in Uzbek society.
"What is political about it is when aid is designed and talked about by donors in the West, in Washington, here in the United States, we tend to characterize social networking in terms of nepotism or exclusionism."
Uzbeks use their social networks -- extended families, mahallahs, or neighborhoods, and their occupations -- to get things done, whether finding scarce food items and medical supplies or securing university admission for their children.
Given the way the society works, Abramson says it is natural that Uzbeks who work for foreign aid organizations would offer the use of office computers and fax machines to friends and relatives or give preference to grant applications that people within their social networks submit.
Foreign aid administrators, he says, tend to see such acts as a corruption of the initial aid project and take measures to eliminate the practice.
But Joel Levin, who works for Counterpart International, an aid organization that funds Uzbek NGOs, says grants need to be reviewed to make sure the money is not improperly used.
"Our experience has been that when you give out a grant to an organization in Uzbekistan, for lots of different reasons you can't just give out a grant and walk away from it. For starters, you're risking that the grant would be abused. And second, you're sort of setting the group up for failure in terms of implementing their grant because typically they encounter all kinds of problems in the process of implementation. So they really need a lot of hand holding and advice and consultation and training."
Levin says Counterpart spreads out payments over a fixed period. Every three months, the NGO grantee needs to submit financial and programmatic reports and provide full documentation with receipts before it receives the next installment.
But installing Western systems, says Abramson, may be counterproductive in the long term. The regulations required in development work, he asserts in his paper, may strengthen bureaucratic interactions in Uzbekistan at the expense of familiar, social networks.
Because the money comes from the government -- the United States Congress allocated $2.5 million for the year 2000 for its Democracy Program in Uzbekistan -- USAID and its intermediary organizations must provide proof that the taxpayer's money is being used properly. USAID recipients, such as Counterpart International, the Eurasia Foundation, and Internews, undergo stringent audits.
While aid programs aim to teach "civil society" as it known in the West, Abramson asserts that Uzbekistan has its own brand of civility that is often overlooked. He finds fault with the way aid programs are structured because they do not treat Uzbekistan and other countries as viable partners.
"The way that aid programs are designed here implies that people really have to build from scratch because these democratic institutions don't exist there then there's this idea that they [countries who receive foreign assistance] don't have anything. And that there's no or very weak civil society and that everything in order to build civil society and democratize Uzbekistan, we need to export our own institutions. But what I'm arguing is that there are other ways in which civility is manifested there. And that is through these social networks, where people do learn to trust one another."
However, Ingram of USAID says that while foreign assistance programs no doubt aim to introduce Western concepts like civil society and democracy, the programs are customized to the Uzbek environment, with much thought given to the local customs and indigenous structures.
"We doing it in the environment of Uzbekistan, working with Uzbek
organizations, with those people, trying to meld those Western concepts into the cultural environment that we find there. And I have seen it on the ground level, with specific NGOs, where we are playing a supportive role to those NGOs, not a directing role."
When foreign organizations first began implementing aid programs in Uzbekistan, they largely shunned mahallahs, a quasi-neighborhood, quasi-governmental institutions, because the local leaders received state salaries.
Abramson says that many groups, including Counterpart and the World Bank, now realize the vital role that mahallahs play in Uzbek society. But even as aid programs become more efficient and aid workers more culturally astute, the underlying problems in the relationship between an aid donor and an aid recipient remain.