"What Happened to Popov Won't Happen to You": USAID
Last month, we asked if USAID's new health outreach program in Uzbekistan might wind up endangering any Uzbeks who agreed to work with it. That's because Maxim Popov, a psychologist and HIV/AIDS campaigner in Tashkent who worked with international agencies, wound up sentenced to 7 years in jail on charges of "corrupting minors" for distributing booklets about safe sex. He was also charged with embezzlement of foreign donor funds, a charge the foreign agencies themselves didn't make,which seems to have been trumped up by the authorities. We noted that USAID (the U.S. government's Agency for International Development) and various other agencies that had given grants and publications to distribute to Popov seemed to disappear when it came time to defend him.
In March, EurasiaNet interviewed an activist requesting anonymity who assessed the situation:
Unfortunately, today international organizations don't give protective help to their grant recipients. It is hard to do AIDS/HIV advocacy work in Uzbekistan, but this isn't a problem for just health NGOs.
All public organizations and NGOs are experiencing difficulties, because without some approval from a [government] commission they can't get a grant. Most of the international organizations' accreditations are ending and they are not getting new ones.
Last summer, when President Islam Karimov permitted international relief organizations to operate in Uzbekistan to assist ethnic Uzbeks fleeing violence in Kyrgyzstan, there was hope in the international community that he might reverse the government's expulsion of NGOs, imposed following the 2005 Andijan massacre. But it wasn't long before Karimov was forcing the refugees back home in time to vote in a referendum, despite their traumas, likely because he feared their activism might threaten his own regime. And international groups were ordered out of the Ferghana Valley back to the capital of Tashkent.
There have been some glimmers of possibility that foreign NGOs might get back into Uzbekistan, as relations have warmed between the U.S. and Uzbekistan, which is cooperating in the Northern Distribution Network to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan.
We're not there yet, however. Even so, USAID is back with an HIV/AIDS outreach program, and now telling local activists who have questioned how much they will go to bat for their staff, "what happened to Popov will not happen to you," ferghana.ru reports.
On November 23, USAID conducted a roundtable to roll out their new $2.3 million outreach program which involves community services to prevent HIV and tuberculosis among vulnerable groups, including education, improved diagnosis and harm reduction. The contractor is Project HOPE, which will cooperate with the Uzbek government's Republican Center to Combat AIDS, the Republican Center for DOTS [Directly Observed Treatment, Short-Course, a treatment method instituted by the World Health Organization], and also the Institute for Health and Medical Statistics of the Uzbek Health Ministry. At the meeting, journalists submitted written questions to a U.S. Embassy staffer who got back to them the next day with answers.
Reporters asked about the case of Maxim Popov, who was tried for distributing a book published in Kazakhstan in 2003, which had been reprinted thrice since then by UNDP and USAID and used in HIV/AIDS programs by other organizations including UNICEF, Population Services International (PSI), the Global Fund and others. They noted that when Popov was arrested, they had tried to get statements from these agencies and they would not comment. The U.S. Embassy statement said that the U.S. had "carefully followed the case of M. Popov and had raised this case several times with high-ranking Uzbek officials."
"USAID would like to assure you: what happened with Mr. Popov will not happen with any of the staff working within the framework of the USAID Health Outreach Program," the Embassy statement continued.
The Embassy went on on to explain that the project is cooperating with various government agenices and the Ministry of Health and the responsibilities for implementation have been clearly defined.
Ferghana.ru concluded that the USAID program was now essentially under control by the Uzbek government, as Uzbek state agencies were now taking a role in both receiving and auditing funds and overseeing grant recipients. That means that small independent NGOs like Izis, the group which Popov ran, actually doing the work of reaching at-risk populations, would not be included -- "USAID learned their lesson from the Popov case," said ferghana.ru. It's easy to see why the Embassy can now make assurances that staff won't get into trouble -- they will likely have to operate with the government closely looking over their shoulder and will understand the limits.
The program will run for a year in Tashkent, and if it achieves results, will be replicated to other cities. Journalists submitted a written question about how the expenditure of the $2.3 million would be monitored, and received an answer from the Embassy that USAID has in place systems to oversee programs, including regular meetings with program staff, review of grant proposals, meetings with the government and civil society and also financial audits. An Uzbek program coordinator with the last name Niyazov also said at the round table that the oversight of the finances was the responsibility of the Ministry of Health -- the program's contract stipulated quarterly reports to the Ministry.
While any host government should have a right to know how foreign donors are expending their funds on programs in their country, with an authoritarian government like Uzbekistan, there's clearly overreach, making the work of authentic civic groups difficult -- and still risky.