NGOs in Central Asia

Lola Abdusalyamova

NGOs began to appear in Central Asia in the transition period following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their numbers have increased rapidly in four out of five post-Soviet Central Asian countries[1]over the last five or six years. This would not have been possible without the support of international organizations and programmes.

Though civil society encompasses political parties, religious organizations, trade unions, sports clubs and professional associations as well as NGOs, their role varies greatly. In some spheres they have a lot of influence; in others they are relatively weak. The role of NGOs is accepted in social welfare but less so in more ‘political’ areas like human rights.

Figures for size of the NGO sector are hard to come by. According to one estimate,[2] Kyrgyzstan has the most NGOs (1,001), with Kazakhstan and Tajikistan coming next (699 and 595, respectively), followed by Uzbekistan (465) and Turkmenistan (138).

Government attitude to NGOs

These very different figures reflect wide differences in relations between the state and NGOs. At the very beginning of the transition period there was a lack of understanding throughout the region of the role of NGOs in the development of civil society – indeed, of their role in the development of society as a whole. There is a sense in which the Western concept of civil society has been artificially attached to society in Central Asia and to the transition process. Much time and effort will therefore be needed before the concept is absorbed and assimilated. Not surprisingly, then, although NGOs are set up to help solve social problems, some governments in Central Asia tend to view them as anti-governmental organizations.

Some governments have promoted a much more ‘enabling environment’ than others. In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, NGOs are gradually moving from providing social services for their target groups to engaging in a dialogue with the state to discuss new legislation. NGOs in Tajikistan showed great promise when they first emerged in 1992, but the civil war in that country, coupled with a crippling drought and the establishment of huge humanitarian aid programmes, stifled that early development. However, a few strong NGOs survived and gradually the sector is picking up again. In Uzbekistan, there are many registered NGOs (especially women’s NGOs), but the regime is authoritarian and fairly difficult to work with. Development of the sector thus lies behind that in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Finally, Turkmenistan has a regime under which very little NGO activity is possible. There is no NGO law and it is very difficult to register an organization.  This is the one country in Central Asia where the Open Society Institute has no office, supporting very limited activities direct from New York.

Rural-urban divide

In all countries but Kyrgyzstan the majority of NGOs are concentrated in the capital cities.[3] Although all the Central Asian republics have large rural populations, NGO development in rural areas is mainly weak. This is largely because the representative offices of international organizations are situated in the capitals, where people have more access to information. It is difficult for people living in remote regions to travel to the capital cities because of the cost of transport – especially in Kazakhstan, which has such a vast territory.

While in Soviet times differences in living standards between urban and rural populations were not so marked, because the state provided free education, health and social welfare services, there is now a sharp difference between city and village. More generally, society is becoming more stratified, more polarized between rich and poor, with poor people comprising the overwhelming majority.

Soviet organizations and GONGOs

During the Soviet period, public organizations such as trade unions, the creative unions of the intelligentsia and the voluntary society of the Red Cross had to implement state policy in the social or economic spheres. Some organizations which organized ‘voluntary’ activity in the past, like the ‘Comsomol’ (youth movement), have now lost public funding and institutional support.

After achieving independence, quasi-NGOs, which were established by the state, began to emerge, especially in Uzbekistan. These organizations often had certain privileges, such as preferential taxation. Sometimes they were simply Soviet-era organizations under a new name. Often referred to as GONGOs (governmental NGOs), they can play a useful, if less independent, role.

NGOs and donors

International organizations working in Central Asia have played a major role in the development of NGOs in the region. This has taken the form of providing training programmes and technical assistance as well as giving grants to local NGOs for the implementation of social projects.

A number of international organizations provide training programmes for NGO leaders in such areas as planning and management. However, much of this training is built on the experience of Western organizations, and is not always relevant or meaningful to local people, whose traditions, culture and values differ considerably from those of the West.

The question of NGO governance – specifically, the reasons for creating a board of directors as the governing body – is causing heated discussions among NGO leaders at the moment. One problem is that the role and functions of governing bodies are not precisely determined in current NGO laws. Throughout Central Asia, a board of directors is usually associated with direct supervision – something which people who have established their own organizations generally do not welcome. This means that a board of directors often exists in name alone, just to meet donors’ requirements.

Donor dependence

Central Asian NGOs depend almost entirely on external donor organizations. NGOs know more about the priorities and needs of international organizations than about their own constituents and their needs.

On the one hand, many NGOs are created simply to get grants because the founders of the organization are trying to solve their own economic problems. The new organizations often rewrite the programmes and projects of other organizations which already have financial support. Such organizations often operate programmes within very restricted themes (women, youth, environmental, etc) and frequently change their field of activity.

For example, there has been a recent mushrooming of crisis centres for women, especially in Uzbekistan, as a number of donor agencies have begun to work in this area.
This is an important area of work, but it is not clear how the need was identified or who created the strategy. Some years ago there was an escalation in the number of ecological NGOs, mainly in the Aral Sea region, reflecting the large amount of international attention being paid to the catastrophe of the Aral Sea at that time. An area that is becoming very ‘fashionable’ now is advocacy, ie activity to protect and promote the rights and interests of citizens. This activity is directed mainly at increasing the legal literacy of the population, preventing domestic violence, disseminating information on the rights of women, children and disabled people.

But one must question how much can be achieved, for example, in terms of raising literacy levels among women or reducing crime levels among young people in one year – the average length of time for which projects in Uzbekistan are funded. After that, even if the programme is successful, NGOs have to write a new application for it to continue, either to the same donor or to another. Or they begin a completely new activity and new projects.

It is worth noting here the more positive approach taken by some European donors in Kyrgyzstan, which provide long-term financing for NGO programmes, including organizational development. This makes it possible for NGOs to bring in foreign consultants, create a team, work out a development plan for the organization, build relationships with the community and other players – and for a time to forget about having to look for money, which continually bedevils NGOs that are implementing short-term projects.

The involvement of local organizations in developing international programmes and in working out the best ways to implement projects may lead to more stable development of NGOs. Unfortunately, Central Asian NGOs have very limited capacity to lobby international organizations and so influence donor agendas, partly because of the lack of strong NGO coalitions in Central Asia. This is partly because donor funding practices promote rivalry and are an obstacle to such coalitions – though it is the NGOs that must overcome this in the first instance.

If NGOs are to become sustainable, they need to be able to develop long-term programmes. Some NGOs, especially newly created ones that are implementing small projects, lack the means even to support an office and staff. Small grants for needs assessment to help NGOs looking to develop a long-term strategy might sometimes be helpful.

NGOs and government

One can certainly find positive examples of cooperation between NGOs and local governments in solving social problems. Areas of joint working include educational work on the rights of women and disabled people, measures to prevent the spread of tuberculosis and AIDS, and workshops and retraining for the unemployed. Rising unemployment, especially among women and youth, is a very serious problem in Central Asia, leading to criminality among young people, drug addiction and prostitution, and children working long hours in the market.

On the other hand, NGOs can find their activities completely ignored by the state. This is certainly true of Uzbek NGOs working to protect human rights or prevent ethnic conflicts. It is usually difficult to register such organizations and the local authorities pay no attention to the problems they are uncovering.

According to many NGO leaders, establishing dialogue and good relations depends mainly on the particular individual who occupies one or another senior post – in so far as this individual is ready to take responsibility for solving the problems rather than referring the matter to a higher level of authority.

In this connection it is interesting to note that the policy of several governments in Central Asia is to decentralize power, ie to transfer authority to local self-governing bodies. This has moved ahead fast in Kyrgyzstan but is more complex in bigger countries like Kazakhstan. However, as the experience of Uzbekistan shows, the leaders of local self-governing bodies need to improve their own understanding of the law and develop skills in planning, conflict resolution, and the development of small businesses and local infrastructure.

In fact, improvement in democratic decision-making processes needs to happen at all levels. Local leaders may refuse to make decisions not because they are unaware of their legal right to do so but rather because, often with some justification, they fear repercussions if their ‘superiors’ disagree with the decision. Finally, there is the issue of corruption – a serious problem throughout the region. Unfortunately, there are few special education programmes for local government leaders that focus on the concept of development, including the role of CSOs in the development of a democratic society.

NGOs and community

How can citizens and citizens’ organizations succeed in influencing the course of political, economic and social change? Most people feel that outside help is needed to achieve anything, for example to ensure that roads are repaired or that communities have drinking water and gas.

The experience of existing international programmes in the region suggests that the most important factor in success is developing feelings of ownership among members of the community affected. Many NGO representatives are beginning to realize that working with communities cannot be limited to one-off time-limited projects. It is essentially a long-term activity.

Unfortunately, most NGOs lack know-how and experience in developing local communities, mobilizing local resources and establishing community-based organizations. To do this, NGO workers need specific training in working with communities, using tools such as participatory appraisal and analysis of problems to identify priorities, elaborate a community action plan, and monitor implementation.

Following the tragic events in the USA and the war in Afghanistan, new programmes are planned for the region (eg USAID). Are local communities ready to absorb the grants and implement projects in rural areas? Past experience indicates that although the sums of money may be large, the time frame for spending it is disproportionately small. One danger is that awarding grants to some organizations but not others will cause conflicts among members of a community?

In order to avoid such negative consequences, we must ensure that new programmes include elements of education and training on relevant issues both for NGOs and for those working in the state sector. Transparency on the part of both local and international organizations may also be a key factor in success. More involvement of local people/NGOs in building strategies and programmes may be another.

Particularly in small rural communities, it is very important that people should know exactly what has been done, how much money has been spent, how many people will benefit from particular projects or programmes, and to what extent the results actually meet the needs of target groups.

1 Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
2 These figures come from the Counterpart Consortium database – see According to data provided to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law by the Tajik Ministry of Justice, the number of registered NGOs in Tajikistan has increased dramatically since a significant reduction in registration fees in March 2001.
3 About half, according to the Counterpart figures, except in Kyrgyzstan, where only one-fifth of NGOs are to be found in the capital, Bishkek.

Lola Abdusalyamova is Country Programme Manager, INTRAC-Tashkent, Uzbekistan. She can be contacted at

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