Expert opinion on work of the public associations in Central Asia
14 Feb 2017
Ms. Ubysheva Erkingul is an Executive Director of the Civic Participation Fund, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She has been working in the non-profit sector for over 18 years.
UNDP: What is civil society? What’s its role?
Ms. Ubysheva: Some people believe that civil society is a composition of the public organizations. In my opinion, civil society is a characteristic of the level of tolerance, transparency, importance of the public opinion and engagement of the citizens into the decision making process in the country. Civil society is considered a platform outside of the state, family and market, where people are revealing their civil activism – their civil position through the ability to use their rights in private and public interests. In its actions, be it provision of the social services or promotion of the business interests, civil society develop civil values, skills and knowledge necessary for consolidation of democracy.
UNDP: Who are the key players of the civil society?
Ms. Ubysheva: In my opinion, those are public organizations, as organized groups of citizens. Political parties, labor unions and regions organizations are also part of the civil society, indeed. However, public associations, opposite to political parties, promote social interests without competing for power. Public associations also cover a wide scale of rights, apart from labor as the labor unions do.
Public associations perform several important functions in the state:
1. First of all, they shape and express public opinion of the citizens through active engagement on certain topics. Thanks to this function, those groups of the population which might be discriminated or deprived of their rights, such as people with disabilities, can receive a chance to be heard by the society and the government.
2. Shaping of the public opinion and ensuring pluralism in the society. One of the meanings of the civil society is raising public tolerance to diversity. Public associations such as analytical centers and independent media form alternative public opination on various topics. They create alternative opinion and platforms for discussions, influence discussion of the important topics.
3. One more function is political socialization. Public association cultivate democratic values and civic virtue. Through educational programmers, people start understanding the political system they live in, the role of the citizens in it, and change their paradigm that people live for the state to the state for the people. They change their consciousness, begin to actively analyze political activities, they try to influence the policy of unjust power.
4. Another important function is provision of social services which are not covered fully by the state or business such as educational, information, legal and other services. Let’s consider what is the difference between social support provided by public associations and the state. In its approach, the state treats people as passive object 0 recipient of the services. Meanwhile, public associations consider a person in need as an active member of the support process. It is important that we change the attitude of a person who takes active position in life.
Thus, public associations shape citizens. Any organization that provides social services, for example, psychological help for rehabilitation of persons with disabilities, considers recipient of the services as an active member of the rehabilitation process. As a result, recipient obtains active position and acquires responsibility for his life.
UNDP: What are the peculiarities of work of public associations in Central Asia?
Ms. Ubysheva: There is a general trend in Central Asia which reflects shrinking of the political space for the public associations. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, 137 limiting legal initiatives have been undertaken against NGOs starting from 2012. For example, Kyrgyzstan adopted 7 legal initiatives to limit NGO activities starting from 2010. Those initiatives include additional reporting, ban on operations of the unregistered NGOs, additional control over foreign funding. Recently, the rhetoric and public discourse on NGO subjects also becomes more negative. These tendencies of limiting of the freedom to public association are related to geopolitical and global factors in relation to terrorism and extremism threads and the events in the USA of 11 September.
In our country (Kyrgyzstan) the polarization of the religion is on rise. Religious leaders are engaging into the institute of family, school and the government, which in turn may lead to abandoning one of the key principles of democracy – secularity or division between the religion and the state.
The most recent sectoral research on internal NGO development held in 2013 has revealed that the NGO sector is growing older. The average age of the heads of NGOs in Kyrgyzstan is 48 and just 4% of the NGO leaders are associated with youth group. Thus, the issues of accession and development of the youth leadership are the most pressing ones.
UNDP: What values do public associations promote and what qualities shall leaders of the public associations possess?
Ms. Ubysheva: One of the important features of the civil society is pluralism and ideology of peace and no violence which foresees respect to the opponents. The means of the public associations are as important and the goal.
Now, on the background of the “anti-western” rhetoric, there is a wary trend of the “human rights and democracy language” becoming less universal. In Kyrgyzstan, the government has adopted the amendment assigning the superiority of the national legislation over international norms. This makes the mechanism of international protection of human rights void.
In addition, the polarization of the religion, its engagement into the family, school and state affairs in the end may lead to abandoning of the secularity principle of democracy. Religious affairs which on one side are part of the human rights based on the freedom of religious confession, on the other migrate from private to public sectors of social life and become basis for political mobilization.
Unfortunately, all of these processes form conservative public opinion where it becomes harder to reinstate democratic values and practices.
UNDP ПРООН: Today business and the state are dominated by men. Could we say that the civil society sector is led by women?
Ms. Ubysheva: Many think that NGO has a woman’s face, however, according to our survey, 60% of the public associations in Kyrgyzstan are led by men. Women are predominantly occupied in the organizations working with vulnerable groups of population – children, women who survived domestic violence, people with disabilities, and others. Business associations, sports federations, professional unions, investment forums, interest clubs are led by men.
UNDP: Should there be an overseeing or monitoring body?
Ms. Ubysheva: I am not supporting this type of ideas. The power of the civil society is in its diversity. The more freedom and choice we have, the higher is the civil participation.
The government already has enough leverage to control public association, for example, reporting to the tax services, statistics and justice institutes. An important thing is to create dialogue platforms between the government, business, donor society, citizens and public associations. In Kazakhstan, there is a permanent platform called “Citizen forum” held under the auspices of the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbaev. In Kyrgyzstan, tens of various platforms exist on permanent and temporary basis, such as the Citizen forum of Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia in action, Investment forum, Bar camp, Hakaton.
UNDP: Who is the main partner of the public associations?
Ms. Ubysheva: Government, of course. The conditions for operation of the public associations in our countries were formed for the last 20 years. The legal bases were formed, support programmes were adopted, social partnerships were established.
Certain practices of cooperation between the NGOs and the government have also been established, for example, provision of the support services through the government procurement, mediation between the citizens and the government, participation in the legislature processes and development of the government policies and other activities.
Unfortunately, the government cannot always asses the positive impact of cooperation with NGOs. One of the reasons is that public associations often do not demonstrate the feasible impact of their work. Another problem is that mission foundation of public associations is not the priority for many organizations. People are engaged and fascinated by implementing as many activities as possible and forget about their mission. Therefore, the effectiveness of their work decreases from point of achieving the mission set forth because there is none. This is why it is important to pay attention to the organizational development, strategic planning, monitoring and evaluation of the impact of organization’s activities.
The government does not always see the scale of positive impact of work of the public associations from the perspective of the national partner in the economy of state. In 2008, together with the John Hopkins Institute, we held a survey on NGO contribution into the GDP of the economy and the results received were very impressive. It turned out that the public associations provide employment opportunities on the same level with the industrial, energy gas and water distribution sectors, while the contribution to the GDP is 2.2% similar to the freight transport services and on a par with Portugal and Mexico.
We are proud that in our country the non-commercial sector is very dynamic. There are 14,000 registered organizations in Kyrgyzstan. Due to the issues related to their sustainability, only 3,000 are effectively working now. Do you think this is many or few?
Let’s compare to the European countries such as Finland where the population is smaller than in Kyrgyzstan. Finland has more than 150,000 NGOs registered, with 70,000 operating. The non-government or civil society sector employs more than 100,000 people. The total number of members of the public associations is three times higher than the population of the country because each citizen is member to more than 2 organizations. Another example is Slovakia with 55,000 operating NGOs. Way to go!