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Azeri Government Launches NGO Programme

Observers debate whether a new programme funnelling government money into non-governmental organisations will help or harm the NGO sector.
By Sevinj Telmanqizi
The Azerbaijani authorities are due this month to launch a new programme which they will say will oversee and give support to hundreds of non-governmental organisations or NGOs across the country.



While the government insists the aim is to increase funding for NGOs, some activists are fearful that the real intention is to impose control over their work.



A presidential decree was signed at the end of July which authorised the creation of a new body to handle NGO affairs as well as an NGO support fund. Consultations on the process are due to end on October 17.



Officials point out that in western countries, NGOs receive substantial state support, with for example around half of the budgets of such organisations in Britain and the United States coming from government sources. Azerbaijan, they argue, needs to be able to hand out state grants in the same way.



But critics of the programme fear it is designed to counteract the influence of foreign donors and the NGOs they fund – many of which are strongly critical of the government’s policies and record on human rights. Member of parliament Alimamed Nuriev said international donors allocated around 50-60 million manats (60 to 70 million US dollars) a year to Azerbaijani NGOs, and that the government should distribute the same amount.



“Of course, initially it will be difficult to provide that much money for NGOs out of the budget,” he said. “I think that fairly big sums will be allocated in the first two years, as there will be a need for funds to set up the envisaged state body during the period. But subsequently, a certain part of the state budget will be provided to NGOs -0.5 to one per cent of budgetary revenues.”



Ali Hasanov, who heads public relations department of the presidential administration, said that the government’s message to NGOs was, “If you don’t want to be controlled, no one will control you”.



But he went on to warn opposition organisations, “Many NGOs are politicised nowadays, doing things that are no concern of theirs. Mostly, they act under the patronage of various political organisations.”



Hasanov said he hoped NGOs would start publishing reports on their projects so that everyone could read them.



“NGOs advocating openness should be the first to keep their work transparent. In all democratic countries, the state provides material support to NGOs. That is also the case in Baltic countries and Georgia. It doesn’t mean that NGOs in these countries are government-controlled, does it?”



NGO activists engaged in politically sensitive work are alarmed. Arastun Orujlu, who heads the East-West Research Centre, said he was worried that the real aim was to assert control over NGOs ahead of next year’s presidential elections. “The fact that the decree coincides with the pre-election period makes one pause for thought,” he said.



Eldar Zeinalov, director of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, said that in general he welcomed the new programme, because it would assure funding for NGOs working in areas like culture or architecture which did not receive western grants.



But he insisted that grant-funded “politicised NGOs” were an inevitable phenomenon in Azerbaijan, where there was no proper system for funding political parties.



In the Nineties, most NGOs in Azerbaijan were perceived as being close to the opposition, but they have been more politically diverse in the past seven or eight years.



There are now estimated to be around 2,500 registered such organisations in the country and a further 500 unregistered ones. In fact, says Azai Guliev, chairman of the Forum of NGOs, only around 15 per cent of them are active.



Saida Gojamanly, director of the Bureau for Protection of Human Rights and Legality, believes the new programme could be good for civil society – but only if the president protects it from being abused by officials.



“In 1998, [former president] Heidar Aliev signed a document on the development of human rights,” she said. “However, instead of developing human rights, they simply created a state-controlled network of NGOs. That is why it is essential this time, that the president himself oversees the enforcement of the decree, so as to prevent officials from crushing it underfoot.”



Gubad Ibadoglu, head of the Economic Research Centre, said it would be a good thing if a system of open tenders for grants was introduced, but he feared this was unlikely to happen because the NGO sector was so heavily politicised, with a clear division into pro- and anti-government camps.



“Only a few NGOs stand in the middle, and it’s rather difficult to keep to a middle course,” he said. “NGOs should be assessed according to what they do, irrespective of what their positions are. It’s likely that preference will be given to pro-governmental organisations when projects are selected. That is why we should try to find a format that ensures that state funding is distributed transparently.”



Sevinj Telmanqizi is a correspondent with Yeni Musavat newspaper in Baku.

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