Tajik NGOs Flourish But Lack Political Bite

Though most agree they do good work, women-led NGOs are vulnerable to accusations of being too close to the government.

Tajik NGOs Flourish But Lack Political Bite

Though most agree they do good work, women-led NGOs are vulnerable to accusations of being too close to the government.

When lawyer Elena Shtratnikova found herself out of work and forced to rely on friends to pay for her mother’s funeral, she realised drastic action was in order.


With a law degree and successful practice under her belt, she joined a growing number of women escaping hardship and unemployment in post-civil war Tajikistan by founding NGOs. Called Law and Welfare and launched in 1998, Shtratnikova’s group today boasts a hefty one million US dollar budget, which it uses to provide legal aid services to the needy.



“I was really hungry,” said Shtratnikova. “Like many other women, I had a difficult moment in my life when I had no job or any money.



“Then I began to look for a solution, and decided to try to do something in the NGO sphere. I had to learn a great deal and go to many seminars. I receive enormous pleasure when I see the benefit that my organisation brings people.”



Women are leading the country’s NGO movement, drawn in by the prospect of higher wages and more satisfying work dealing with social issues like poverty, drug addiction, illiteracy and homelessness. About 160 women’s NGOs have sprung up in recent years and their female leaders are an impressive collection of scientists, doctors, teachers and journalists.



Mavjuda Rahmanova left her job as an English teacher at the Dushanbe Pedagogical Institute because of the tiny wage. She found work as an interpreter at the UN High Commissioner’s Office where the plight of destitute children inspired her to found the NGO Children, Refugees and Vulnerable Citizens. Currently the group occupies a two-story building not far from the centre of Dushanbe, where over 100 orphaned children receive daily hot food and are taught to read and write.



Former television journalist Ella Ryazanova heads the NGO Dialogue, a development organisation providing organisational and technical support to grass-roots groups in rural areas. She was attracted to the sector by the chance to be creative and break free of the suffocating regulations inherent in the Soviet-style organisations where many Tajiks still work.



“After the civil war and other catastrophes, women became so disenfranchised and poor that they were virtually deprived of the ability to prove themselves in other spheres. The third sector became a saving niche, where they could apply their knowledge and achieve success by legal and open means,” she said.



Most NGOs were initially registered in the capital but this has gradually changed with international donors increasingly willing to back organisations like Gender and Development. Although registered in Dushanbe, it has offices in many rural communities and with the help of the UN Development Programme supports women who want to start their own business.



In the past nine years, they have given loans to over 5,000 women, sponsoring projects in farming livestock and fish; growing rice, onions, potatoes, cotton; and opening factories producing carpets, macaroni, porcelain, canned fruit and vegetables.



Gender and Development supported Tursunzade resident Rano Abdullaeva’s plans for a year-round business growing carnations; helped Maryam Kadyrova, who lives in the western Hissar district, create a small seed farm; and enabled Safargul Nazarova to replace sewing equipment stolen from her workshop.



“For people who want to work, a loan is a way to test themselves, to develop their taste for business. We give loans for economically justified projects, and there has not yet been a single case when a loan was not returned,” said the executive director of Gender and Development Maya Khoshakova.



Despite comments by President Imomali Rahmonov two years ago that “NGOs have become a recognised force which must be taken into consideration”, criticism persists that they have no real influence on government policy.



Presidential support comes at a price. Critics accuse the women-led NGOs of being too close to the government and of blaming Tajikstan’s myriad social problems on the collapse of the Soviet union and the civil war rather than standing up to the current regime and laying blame where it belongs.



Ilhom Nazriev, a well-known Tajik journalist, had this explanation, “NGOs cannot speak out against the government and demand anything from it, as this would go against their charter. Every organisation before it starts its activity should be registered, and if they write in the charter presented to the justice ministry that they wish to conduct political activity, especially activity opposing the government, then no one will ever register them.



“And the smallest violation of the charter may lead to an NGO being closed down. So most NGOs are artificial structures which are unable to support themselves, and which cannot oppose the government, or demand anything from it.”



Newspaper editor Rajabi Mirzo suggested that loyalty to onetime colleagues could be responsible for the passive attitude of many NGO leaders.



“There are a lot of people among NGO heads who are former party workers, the ruling nomenclature, and they do not have the desire to quarrel with their old colleagues,” said Mirzo, whose opposition paper Ruzi Nav has been shut down.



NGO employee Dilbar Amirova admits that many groups practice a form of self-censorship in their dealings with the government, “No one goes to protests now making demands on the authorities, despite the serious economic situation, because they fear this may turn into disturbances which cause fatalities.”



Others like Roziamo Ashurova, chairwoman of the Odamiyat medical association, an organisation providing free health care services to elderly and disabled people, feel grateful to the government, which provides them with a rent-free building.



“Why do we want to do anything against the authorities?” she said. “I am already happy that we bring enormous benefit to our people.”



Margarita Khegai from the NGO Traditions and Modernity admits her group and others like it have little influence on government policy. She insists, however, that despite their lack of political activism, they still have an important role to play in inspiring others.



“This does not mean that NGOs cannot take part in energising the political life of the country and help to involve people in politics, and also advance their interests in the higher echelons of power,” said Khegai.



The growing NGO movement has another vulnerable spot – its dependency on foreign financing and under investment by domestic donors.



Critics like World Bank economist Rustam Babajanov insist this bodes ill for the future of NGOs, which he said could simply disappear when the foreign money dries up, making their jobs impossible.



Roziamo Ashurova is more optimistic. She believes the work of her group will continue, even after their funding from the Swiss relief group Caritas runs out.



“Thanks to many years working in the NGO, many women, including myself, have gained management skills,” she said. “Now we are capable of starting companies using the [computers, furniture, medical equipment] of previous years. Probably this will be a consulting company or a commercial medical institution or a centre for training social and medical workers.”



Valentina Kasymbekova is an IWPR contributor in Tajikistan.


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