“Non-governmental organizations, mass media, community groups and initiatives have emerged amidst lockdown as actors actively engaged in assisting the population and addressing the crisis,” political scientist Muslimbek Buriev examines the role of civil society in Tajikistan in an article just for the CABAR.asia.
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The civil society matters in Tajikistan have little or no discussion; some even wonder if there is one in the country. Who do we call the civil society representatives, and what should be their role in social and political developments?
Non-governmental organizations, mass media, community groups and initiatives have emerged amidst lockdown as actors actively engaged in assisting the population and addressing the crisis. This has provoked considerable rethinking and enhancing of the civil society’s role in times of both epidemiological and economic crisis.
The civil society’s “revival” during the COVID-19
Pandemic was marked by an upsurge of non-governmental initiatives. Volunteer groups put their efforts to collect humanitarian aid for health workers and persons deprived of personal protective equipment. Individuals, inter alia entrepreneurs, purchased food items and also on their own distributed to health workers and patients.
Apart from community initiatives, the work of NGOs was also conspicuous. For instance, The Office of Civil Freedoms, a local organization, has launched a fundraising campaign for the elderly. A similar initiative was proposed by the NGO “Peshraft”, which later organized the delivery of 14,000 kits of humanitarian aid for affected families, elderly people and health workers.
Among other things, representatives of civil society formally appealed to the Health Ministry and WHO requesting to speak up on the situation with coronavirus in the country and provide open statistics.In particular, the Civil Society Coalition against Torture and Lawlessness explicitly offered its assistance to the Health Ministry in arranging awareness-raising and information campaigns.
With no data available, it sparked further doubts amongst the public on the coronavirus situation in the country, which at first resulted in an unofficial count of patients and deaths from the coronavirus on online platforms. The authorities, in turn, adopted amendments can fine a person up to $ 1000 for the dissemination of false information about the pandemic. These amendments, nonetheless, mainly target the other part of civil society – the media. Any material, in fact, that goes against official sources will be deemed incorrect, which is restricting freedoms of expression and press activity. The amendments have been widely criticized both within the country and in the international community.
The country’s authorities find it vital to keep everything under control and block any attempt to spread panic in the country. The crisis management did not prove effective, and efforts to publicize the precautionary measures among the public was poorly conducted. While the country was no prepared in terms of financial resources and technical equipment, international organizations and other governments came to help and sent humanitarian assistance to Tajikistan.
Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous oblast (GBAO) was the only region in the country whose leadership has so far provided an open report on the financial resources spent during the pandemic. The region’s authorities had introduced more stringent measures than in the rest of the country. According to various reports, a “secret quarantine” was introduced in GBAO, restricting the movement of residents within towns and villages. The regional authorities also restricted transport links between settlements and the entry of citizens from other regions, while the Sughd regional authorities declared similar measures, but in fact, did not implement any.
The head of the region, Edgor Fayzov, as we know, hitherto chaired the Aga Khan Foundation, thus has experience in working in the field of NGOs. This is one example of the merge of the civil sector and government structures, that is, when specialists previously working in the third sector now occupy decision-making positions. This enables such candidates to use the established contacts with the population and the civil society networks while understanding the societal interests and prioritizing policies accordingly. This is very rare in Tajikistan, but the GBAO’s case illustrates how this experience affects state management practices.
The distinctiveness of civil society in Tajikistan
Civil society in Tajikistan comprises various forms of non-governmental associations: unofficial (communities and councils) and formal (NGOs and public organizations) that must be registered with the Ministry of Justice.
The activities of nonprofit organizations mainly target vulnerable or groups that are incapacitated physically, mentally, or economically. The sector, however, has clear links with government activities, too. The civil society promotes the state’s agenda. This typically applies to registered NGOs, whereas local unofficial unions resolve local economic disputes.
According to the Justice Ministry, there are 3,000 NGOs operating in the country, while neighbouring Kyrgyzstan has about 33,000 NGOs.
In Tajikistan, as in any other post-Soviet country, civil society’s interaction with the authorities is very peculiar. Civil society implements projects and programs aimed at strengthening democratic norms, while also monitoring, supporting and lobbying their implementation.
A similar role is performed by the media that covers the social problems, thus, just like NGOs form the social agenda. There are public organizations in Tajikistan such as the NGO “Homa”, the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan and the Coalition of Female Journalists of Tajikistan. Their activities are aimed at protecting freedoms of expression and the press, which fits into civil society’s General agenda.
Independent media can also be deemed a watchdog in the enactment of various draft laws and state programs, while also giving a critical perspective on the processes in the country. Thus, the independent media and NGOs have a role of government watchdog, overseeing the democratization processes, with only one alteration – targeting a wider audience.
Relationship between government and NGOs
At the legislative level, the situation with NGOs is extremely complex. The law “On Public Associations” was adopted in 2007, which basically defined the legal status of such organizations, their powers and duties, the registration procedure. The law also outlined the case when the Justice Ministry has the right to suspend the NGO’s activity. The reasons given were vague and non-concrete, referring to the violation of the country’s laws and Constitution. The first draft of the law looked quite benevolent and accommodative to NGOs, so at that time the document did not establish enforcement for financial reporting to the state, which was included in subsequent changes.
The first amendments to this law were adopted in 2015. The key alteration is the obligation to notify the country’s Justice Ministry about incoming funds from abroad. Thus, for the first time, the law introduced a clause establishing for NGOs accountability standards to the state. A fairly serious step towards controlling NGOs was taken amidst the Russian Foreign Agent Law adopted in 2012. The Russian law attached the status of “foreign agent” to non-profit organizations that receive external funding, conduct political activities and try to influence the decision-making process in the country. As a result, dozens of NGOs, including human rights organizations, such as “Migration and law” who was involved in protecting the rights of migrant workers in Russia.
The Tajik law also applies to all NGOs, regardless of their activities. The main factor is the receipt of money from foreign donors, and since the Tajik authorities do not allocate financial resources to non-profit structures, amendments have become a common requirement for all existing NGOs.
Figure 1. Amendments to the law on public associations of the Republic of Tajikistan
In 2019, the Tajik government adopted new amendments to the law from 2007. From now on, NGOs are required to develop and run their website, where they must annually report on the funds spent. NGOs are also required to keep financial transactions receipts and provide the Justice Ministry with information on NGO staff. As a result, the 2015 amendments have allotted NGOs with huge reporting and financial liability, since they are now forced to pay for hosting. This is especially true for small organizations operating at the local level, whose budget is extremely limited.
Branch offices of foreign NGOs also have to report to the headquarters. The core rhetoric that has escorted the amendments all this time is the fight against terrorism, or rather the fight against its financing. Whilst in Russia an organization is labelled a “foreign agent” for attempts to interfere in the state’s internal affairs, in Tajikistan the very term NGO causes negative connotations.
Former Tajik Minister of Justice Rustam Shohmurod said that the state needs to know what foreign donors’ money is spent on, as there is a risk that this money might go to terrorist organizations. Nothing is yet known about such precedents, which is why the rhetoric rather indicates a complete lack of confidence in NGOs. The main reason for the vigilant attitude might be the lack of effective communication and interaction between government agencies and non-governmental actors.
At the same time, civil society is presented as a source of destructive forces that spend money ineffectively and act as envoys of foreign agencies, that is, “outsiders”. Some groups in society share this perspective since the official rhetoric promotes a suspicious attitude towards NGOs operating in Tajikistan. It is assumed that the instituted legislative amendments, in addition to increasing control over NGOs, could also negatively affect their image in the eyes of the public.
On the way to redefine the role of civil society
The work of civil society has gained prominence during the pandemic, expanding its scope and scale, and demonstrating that even minor individual initiatives can have a significant social impact.
Civil society is certainly a valuable asset to the government. The state is not that successful in public relations as a civil society: even at the local level, officials are either not interested in working with people, or they do not have enough time and resources to do so. In this case, the civil society serves as a bridge between government and the people.
The authorities’ passive attitude at the early stages of the virus’ spread provoked an upsurge in the activity of civil society. The high level of mobilization and work efficiency in a short time, as well as regular media coverage of civil and volunteer initiatives, have had a positive impact on the public image of non-state actors. Their activity, nonetheless, is also a demonstration of the high civil potential for the authorities.
The state cannot ignore the growing importance of civil society. The trend has been going on for several years now – representatives of civil society and other non-governmental organizations have been involved in various projects, such as the police reform and the new tax code. For example, the Public Council for Civil Society Assistance to Police Reform Initiative unites civil activists, NGO representatives and human rights activists. It is imperative to systemize this type of cooperation for all draft laws to reflect on alternative perspectives and avoid further disputes and shortcomings in the execution of these decisions. Enduring civil monitoring of political decision-making, in general, is an indicator of a developed democratic state and it is necessary to strive for such a format if the state positions itself in this way.
Presidential candidates should ponder the growing public loyalty to civil society during the election campaigns. Having established ties with civil society, the candidates increase the probability for the effective enactment of future state programs. Therefore, now and after the pandemic, a chief task is to create an environment for the free functioning of NGOs.
The following should be considered for fostering further efficient cooperation between government agencies and civil society organizations:
- The country’s authorities need to regularly involve civil society representatives in the development of state programs, reforms, and draft laws. This is the most prime option for fostering cooperation.
- Review amendments to the law On Public Associations, ease the requirements for financial reporting or at least make it less consistent and cumbersome.
- If the authorities care that much about financial reporting of NGOs, it is worth considering state funding for non-governmental initiatives. Small grants will be a good start. In this case, the reporting requirements will appear more relevant.
- NGOs often do not possess enough financial resources to use media tools to spread information about them and the work they do. Independent and state-owned media could be more active in covering their activities, which would inflate the story segment of non-governmental initiatives.
- International donor organizations and other governments, as the main sources of NGO funding, should allocate more support to small NGOs, considering the current environment and trends. Larger organizations receive greater financial support, while smaller ones are left to rely on donations.
- International organizations should take a new approach at NGOs capacity building in various areas. The main goal is to develop writing skills, while also enhancing capabilities in promoting their projects, seeking funding, working with the media, establishing relations with the public and government structures.
- Civil society needs to be more cohesive. Currently, there are separate platforms dedicated to specific issues like human rights or security. It is worth organizing a broader platform or forum for NGOs for them to discuss common obstacles, prospects and general situation of their work.
- Establish personnel exchanges between NGOs and government agencies. This will promote mutual understanding of internal organization norms and benefit from two sides’ advantages in fostering further cooperation.
This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.
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