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Spēcīgas sabiedriskās organizācijas var kļūt par profesionālu un prasīgu valdības sadarbības partneri. Kamēr Centrālāzijā starptautiskie donori visai negribīgi tērē savus finanšu līdzekļus šādu nevalstisko organizāciju-domnīcu atbalstam, sabiedrība cieš no valdības īstenotajām - neefektīvajām reformām.

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Brainy is the new sexy? Dilemmas of empowering civil society in Central Asia

International donors are having a hard time in Central Asia, especially when they wish to go beyond the relatively safe (if occasionally ineffective) fields of poverty reduction and environmental protection and delve into the intricate labyrinth of governance reforms. This, perhaps, is the main reason behind the tendency to play it safe: work with government rather than civil society, and make sure that those governance reforms that are of more interest to the international community are dealt with first. Ideally, those should be linked to regional security, fighting drug trafficking and the future of water supply and extracting industries. Softer and fluffier issues like civil society capacity building and education reforms are addressed seldom or not at all, and if they are – as in the EU-Central Asia strategy and in its rather modest annex, the EU – Central Asia Education Initiative, the level of investment is rather minimalist, and the outcomes questionable.

Meanwhile, the absence of strong and politically apt civil society partners is especially obvious in the governance sector. Even in those countries where governments are relatively democratic (Kyrgyzstan) or ‘benignly’ authoritarian (Tajikistan) and allow for some policy debate, few strong policy proposals or reform monitoring attempts come from the civil society. Governments implementing reforms have few professional and competent civil society partners or critics, and they know it.

While Central Asia has become, over the last twenty years, a vast laboratory for poverty reduction projects, self-help movements and local women’s groups, and in some sectors its civil society is strong and vibrant, analytical capacity is conspicuously missing in its civil society organisations, as is the know-how of policy advocacy and professional engagement in public policy dialogue. The attitude of public administration figures is often condescending when it comes to civil society involvement. As noted by a high-ranking presidential advisor at a conference in Bishkek last year, ‘when you bring me policy analysis that is timely, professional and answers the questions that policy makers are grappling with exactly at this time, I will listen to your conclusions and your advocacy message’. An excuse perhaps, yet not without a grain of truth in it.

Policy makers planning and implementing reforms, and even international donors paying for the reforms, are not likely to listen to civil society voices unless those are prepared to talk the policy talk and provide some reliable evidence, in other words – people with professional expertise on par with that demonstrated by major international NGOs. In the absence of independent think-tanks or strong social science departments, no policy analysis of required quality usually reaches the desks of those few public administrators who would be perhaps inclined to listen. Today, civil society in Central Asia cannot compete with the analysis provided by government analytical centres and by international consultants (the later often insufficiently aware of the local context and institutional culture).

Given these circumstances, further steps for donors seeking to promote democracy and good governance may appear obvious – fund capacity building for policy NGOs. Yet those willing to do so are few and far between.

First, there is the obvious and understandable reluctance to irritate government by building the capacity of potential critics. Governments, as it is, are not always happy with international donors working with NGOs on policy reform issues – this was recently attested by the education minister of Afghanistan at the EU High-Level conference on Education and Development making the point that EU aid money for education reform should go directly to government, not to NGOs.

Second, there is the delicate issue of giving scarce resources to build the capacity of local NGOs, which is a time-consuming process with many potential disappointments, while we could spend the same money directly to help the poor and unprotected parts of the population. Capable and professional NGOs ready to do the good work are always waiting – Western ones, of course. It is not uncommon for EuropeAid funding for civil society projects in the fields of education or social policy to go entirely to large European NGOs (this is often the case not only in Central Asia, but also in South Caucasus). Although working with a local partner organisation is a requirement, the partners are usually accorded the role of technical implementers, rather than the strategic driving force – this may raise their professionalism in implementing projects, but not their policy capacity.


The landscape is not entirely grey, however. A recent UNDEF-funded project demonstrated that when supported by targeted training and capacity building activities, civil society representatives from the region can quickly build their analytical and policy capacity[ 1 ],and some local representations of non-government donors took notice (OSI Tajikistan, for instance, has bravely followed the example of UNDEF by creating a Public Policy Fellows programme). Some Western civil society actors have also shown commitment to building the capacity of local NGOs – in this field, the record of INTRAC, a British development NGO with its own regional office in Bishkek, is probably hard to beat.

Unfortunately, these examples are few and far between, and no forthcoming funding for the establishment of independent think-tanks or for ongoing programmes to raise the policy capacity of local NGOs is in view. Investing in high-level policy expertise is expensive, and in the absence of strong academic institutions and policy NGOs, it is unlikely that civil society will retain the best trained professionals. Many of them have already made their way into the offices of international organisations and presidential administrations.

Yet if funding independent policy expertise is expensive, what is the alternative? While donors are unwilling to pay the price of empowering civil society to become a demanding and professional partner to governments, societies are paying for inefficient reforms. Public education sector is only one of many where reforms have been attempted, yet a salient one. The poorly motivated opening and closure of higher education institutions in Tajikistan, with quality controls operating mostly at administrative whim, and the staffing of new public administration education programmes with old-style academics offering run-of-the mill courses from their usual repertory under a new fancy umbrella, are but a few examples of new policy initiatives gone wrong. Would the presence of a few competent civil society experts have corrected the situation? Not necessarily. But in their assured absence, the reforms are more likely to fail.

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