There’s actually a bright side to government dysfunction in Central Asia: when the state lacks funds to take care of basic necessities, citizens are learning to band together to tackle civic problems.
The concept of citizen-led public works is perhaps strongest these days in Kyrgyzstan, but the idea is also popular in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and, to a lesser extent, in Uzbekistan. Foreign assistance and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play key roles in encouraging mutual-assistance initiatives. But the most important element is a spirit of civic volunteerism that has existed in Central Asia for centuries.
Roughly a decade ago, after 10 years of economic upheaval following the Soviet collapse, foreign donors, working through local NGOs, such as Mehr-Shavkat, a non-profit based in the southern Kyrgyzstani village of Aravan, started funneling money to local citizen groups that strive to informally fulfill what are usually considered government responsibilities.
For the past 12 years, Mehr-Shavkat, has overseen a growing confederation that now totals 136 village mutual-assistance groups in the Aravan District. “They [citizen groups] help local governments fix bad roads and street lights. They also provide micro-credits to poverty-stricken families, organize cultural events to build stronger ties among ethnic groups, [and] run advocacy campaigns to promote gender equality,” Maharam Tilavoldieva, director of Mehr-Shavkat (Uzbek for “mercy”), told EurasiaNet.org.
A pivotal moment for Mehr-Shavkat came seven years ago, when a flood destroyed a wooden bridge in Aravan. Villagers turned to the local government, but officials rebuffed petitions to repair the structure, citing a lack of funds. So residents designed a novel solution: they formed a civic group, and with Mehr-Shavkat’s help, along with abundant volunteer labor, they built themselves a new metal bridge.
Most mutual assistance groups are organized into small clusters of 10-15 members who elect a leader, a deputy leader and a treasurer. Depending on the group’s size and the monthly dues (most members contribute about $10 per month), groups offer short-term loans of between $100 and $1,000. Members take turns obtaining loans and, together, they agree on projects that will help the community. When groups do not have enough cash for a project, they apply to organizations such as Mehr-Shavkat for grants.
“Farmers, teachers, bazaar traders, senior citizens and unemployed people have formed mutual-assistance groups in recent years because of such benefits,” said Nigora Khadjimatova, a coordinator with Mehr-Shavkat. “But the majority of self-help groups’ members are women with low-income backgrounds.”
According to the United Nations, by 2010 there were 1,800 such voluntary groups operating in Kyrgyzstan, up from only a handful in 2000. The groups are also popular in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.
In Uzbekistan, authorities tend to view such self-help groups as a sign of suspicious foreign influence, and thus keep a close eye on their activities. Prior to 2005, when Tashkent took action to smother the non-governmental sector following the government’s use of force during the Andijan massacre, mutual-assistance groups played a significant civic role in the Ferghana Valley. For example, in Andijan, several prominent local entrepreneurs operated a group offering interest-free credit, employing members in bakeries, and providing free childcare. Their sentencing in May 2005 to long jail terms for purported membership in a banned Islamic group precipitated the Andijan tragedy.
Adding to Uzbek authorities’ suspicions, some mutual-assistance groups are closely linked to local mosques, sometimes because members are believers and sometimes because mosques double as village meeting halls. In some cases, Muslim clerics encourage believers to form mutual assistance groups.
Today, the dozen or so groups still functioning in Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley keep a low profile, offering micro-loans to farmers and operating some small garment-producing workshops. All avoid publicizing their work, fearing unwanted attention from authorities.
International aid agencies believe that mutual-assistance groups play an important role in combating rural poverty. But some local officials resent the fact that groups are performing tasks that belong to the state, even if the government lacks the means to carry out those functions. “They don’t follow established standards and seek to introduce quick fixes to problems,” said a local official in Kyrgyzstan’s Aravan District, pointing out that the Mehr-Shavkat-financed bridge in Aravan collapsed during a flood two years after it was built. “They need to work more closely with local government authorities when planning things.”
Citizens bristle at such criticism. The government wasn’t in position to rebuild the bridge on its own, and local residents say they’d rather have some sort of bridge for two years, than not at all.
There is some criticism about the operations of mutual assistance groups that comes from within, including complaints about peer pressure to donate. There are also reports of group leaders embezzling funds. Moreover, donors have inadvertently created perverse incentives: some individuals will quietly admit to bouncing between groups, depending on which has the most cash in a given funding cycle.
Most observers believe the groups are important, but insist their influence should not be overstated. One World Bank expert on mutual-assistance groups said they “have developed in some communities, but they are still nascent in many parts of Central Asia. It will take a long time before they will emerge as potent force.”
For many development-oriented non-profits, the mutual-assistance groups are seen as a promising model to be replicated elsewhere. In a region where governance is weak and corruption is rampant, says Tilavoldieva of Mehr-Shavkat, self-help groups have emerged as providers of some essential social and public services. “Before, people thought that their government must do things for them. But now, people are increasingly becoming aware that they have to take control over their own problems. This idea is new in our region,” Tilavoldieva said.
: Alisher Khamidov is a researcher specializing in Central Asian affairs.