Academic journal article Human Organization

A Critical Look at NGOs and Civil Society as Means to an End in Uzbekistan

Academic journal article Human Organization

A Critical Look at NGOs and Civil Society as Means to an End in Uzbekistan

Article excerpt

Drawing on fieldwork in Uzbekistan and Washington, D.C., the author illustrates how conceptual ambiguities in development work can lead to corruptions of entire aid projects by structuring a recipient community of elites and thereby generating new forms of knowledge and practice, alignment and interest. The author then examines the dialectic of acceptance and subversion of NGO ideals by local recipients. In this process, the concept of civil society loses its utility as a conceptual category and gains the potential to become an instrument for dissembling structures and relations of power between different interest groups at subnational, national, and transnational levels.

Key words: civil society, the state, development, NGO, Central Asia, Uzbekistan

Introduction

Most anthropological and other research on the implementation and effect of foreign aid and development around the world tends to focus only on reception and the consequences for the target country and to ignore the interests of the donors and intermediary institutions. This vacuum lulls us into complacency in thinking that aid is essentially a selfless enterprise (and that altruism and philanthropy are purely selfless practices). On the abstract level of morality and principle, aid is selfless. On another level-that of cultural translation of concepts such as civil society, nongovernmental, and nonprofit, which people use to legitimate foreign aid-there emerge significant ambiguities, gray areas, the possibility for slippage of meaning, and the consequent corruption of practice.1

In this article I argue three important points. First, elite recipient communities are not pre-existing, but are largely created through the development process. Thus, foreign aid disciplines select groups of locals in both intended and unintended ways. Consequently, development agencies' lack of control over and ability to orchestrate social change stems from the dynamic process of cultural translation and from struggles to overcome regional economic difficulties. Second, the ways in which people construct the meaning of NGOs-what they are supposed to accomplish, what actually constitutes a genuine nongovernmental organization, and how much definitions really matter-are highly contestable. The lack of smooth translation of such an oft-used term similarly stems from past structures of knowledge and practice and contemporary experiences in an unstable economy. Finally, promoting activities that are both separate from and alien to state structures-indeed, civil society is often constructed as an antistate matter-may well lead to further mistrust, social disintegration, and even violent conflict.2

This article begins with accounts of two events-an international conference in Washington, D.C., and a local training seminar in Kokand, Uzbekistan. My analyses of these two events and of materials taken from interviews and conversations with representatives of local branch offices of foreign aid organizations, Uzbekistani NGO organizers, and people just trying to make ends meet show how conceptual ambiguities in development work can lead to corruptions of entire aid projects. After illustrating how projects structure a recipient community of elites and thereby generate new forms of knowledge and practice, alignment and interest, I then examine the dialectic of acceptance and subversion of NGO ideals by local recipients. In this process, the concept of civil society, I argue, loses any universally understood meaning and value; it also loses its utility as a conceptual category and gains the potential to become an instrument for dissembling structures and relations of power between different interest groups at subnational, national, and transnational levels.3

I conclude with a modest proposal for redirecting aid and development in the form of NGOs away from institution-building projects based on western models and toward those that more directly address the kinds of social divisions that increasingly threaten to tear Uzbekistan apart. …

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