Take Away Line
The European Union is supporting the development of civil society in a number of its neighbours, seeing their stability and prosperity as in our interest as well as a good thing to support. Solidarity in action. But developing civil society in a country that has often been reported as being nervous about independent voices is not easy. This is real development in action and takes place quietly behind the backdrop of more visible things. A report of a week in Baku, Azerbaijan just before the Eurovision Song Contest 2012, taking CSO leaders through a leadership development programme.
Baku’s the place
If the Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan was your particular cuppa, don’t arrive too early for your stay to pap the stars as they appear in Baku, the host city for this year’s Europop, tinsel and dodgy voting fest. When I was working there just three weeks before the event, they were still building it.
In May 2012, I spent a week in Baku working with NGO leaders. My hotel was swarming with German contractors working round the clock to complete the interior of the ‘Chrystal Hall’, the purpose built venue, positioned on a coastal promontory close to the centre of this Caspian Sea city. Not only that: wherever you go, new building work going on, decorative walls being built, facades being cleaned up… And, as a recent Discovery Channel documentary showed, bold modern architecture is mushrooming in the form of cultural centres and a trio of very tall flame-shaped towers. Need building job right now? Baku’s your place.
Glamour and Poverty
Azerbaijan placed a lot of store by hosting this contest. An oil-rich, post-Soviet independent republic in the strategically vital region of the Caucasus, Azerbaijan wants to put itself on the map as a West-leaning, secular Muslim country, forging its own identity in a volatile region. And it’s got a lot to show off; as a capital, Baku is magnificent. Aside from the brand new, there are also the grand classical sandstone facades that line broad avenues. Chichi shops with all the typical brands of a global economy are all about, as are all the other trimmings of a town that had money during its first oil boom of the early 20th Century. And still has cash aplenty in the early 21st Century. Facing out to sea, Baku points east. But that is one of the few ways in which, currently at least, it has an oriental orientation. It feels more like the fantasy in an American Express magazine of what a city should be like.
However, I was in this glamorous setting for a much more prosaic purpose – to run a skills development programme in organisational management for the leaders of a range of small civil society organisations (CSOs) who would in turn take the message back to their civil society and local authority peers. This is all part of a two-year ‘capacity building’ programme supported by the EU’s fund to promote stability, democracy and good relations with our near neighbours and trading partners. In other words, it’s our tax money that’s paying for this, so you might like to know how it’s spent.
Here’s an example of the work my new friends carry out. ‘One young woman who came to our attention,’ the head of a woman’s organisation said, ‘was abducted by a man. He kept her prisoner, raped her repeatedly and after a number of days’ beating, he killed her. We complained to the authorities, but they take no action. We know who the perpetrator is. I’ve started to receive anonymous death threats if I continue with the case.’ This was just one of the 30-odd serious cases that this underfunded and fragile local organisation dealt with last year. They can’t cope with their work load. And speaking truth to power in Azerbaijan is said to be not for the faint-hearted.
Not yet a vibrant civil society
All across Europe, the cuts are making life tough for CSOs. But CSOs in Azerbaijan face additional hardships, according to a report by the influential independent agency, the International Crisis Group (ICG). They characterise the government’s policy towards the still young and fragile NGO sector as ‘reactive containment’.
Reports suggest the Azerbaijani state has a chequered history on the human rights and open democracy fronts, something it hotly disputes. A recent article in the respected German news weekly, Der Spiegel, for example, quoted a German Government report which spoke of ‘state repression’. Meanwhile, ‘afraid of democracy’ is how one Azerbaijani writer put it in a piece for the John Smith Memorial Trust.
According to the Asia Development Bank’s (ADB) assessment of the state of the civil society sector in Azerbaijan, it is only the larger and better funded CSOs that can register officially. And without legal registration, there is little legal protection and it’s harder to raise funds. Smaller organisations far from the cities also face other challenges that would defeat all but the die-hard. If they don’t have very good contacts, they can find life tough.
Most of the active CSOs work from the capital and the sector is still dependent on external donors. Rural poverty and other needs call for the kind of skilled CSOs that the country currently lacks. They need money, but it is frequently skills that hold them back. Again, according to the ADB report, CSOs need assistance in organisational development: ‘as a result of limited access to funding and overall weak management practices’ CSOs can stagnate, especially in rural areas and fail to provide much needed social, educational and advocacy services for their communities.
Even in an oil boom, rural life can be harsh and the oil will run out. Maybe in 10, 15 or 20 years suggest commentators vaguely. Without a more balanced economy, less dependent on oil exports, the sparkle that currently shines in Baku, could begin to fade. Not tomorrow, but soon. A strong civil society, working freely to aid social development is key to improved life chances in the short and longer terms.
Supporting local NGOs
Playing a small part in a bigger picture, is where I came in. Building local, rural civil society capacity by putting regional NGO leaders through a boot camp of NGO management skills, including our friend with the case of alleged abduction, assault and murder mentioned earlier.
What a delightful bunch of people! I was warned that the preferred learning style would likely be ‘Soviet-didactic’ and I’d struggle to get active engagement. Not a bit of it! They were really up for it, despite my working through an interpreter. Keen for new models, new perspectives and ways of developing not a pale imitation of a European civil society sector, but something that is theirs, really Azerbaijani, borrowing ideas liberally from where they can get them.
Eager for change?
Why such a receptive environment? What’s this country like that most of my friends had to look up on a map when I told them I was going there?
Main squares all across this region can be sensitive. One only thinks of Tahrir Square, Green Square and the violent goings-on across squares and cities in nearby Syria and, not that long ago in neighbouring Iran, to conjure a generalised picture of pressure for change from authoritarian regimes in West Asia.
Not the case so far in the lovely and recently redesigned Fountain Square in the heart of Baku. Here you’ll find, for example, a statue of a young woman. She’s life size, petite, casually walking with her bag, an umbrella up against the rain, talking on her mobile, in the way that the countless people she portrays do. She’s also wearing the uniform of her peers: spay-on tight jeans, long hair draping over her back and a skimpy figure-flattering belly-top. She walks alone; she is free; and she seems very happy chatting on her phone.
Double-take! A young woman, alone, ‘skimpy’ clothes, loose hair? Where am I? In a country where ‘98%’ are Muslim, which is just a few hours’ drive from Iran. It’s not what you’d expect.
‘She’s quite famous in Azerbaijan’, my local colleague said as we looked over at her, sipping a beer in the square after work. ‘She suddenly appeared. We wondered why. But now we’re used to her.’ ‘A strong statement?’ I ventured. ‘Yes, indeed,’ he agreed, without indicating whether it was a statement with which he felt content or not.
The square in which she walks is filled with people like her: young people socialising, laughing, people-watching, people attracting. A modern square, prettily laid-out with fountains and trees, edged by the usual chains: Zara, Mothercare, etc, befitting a city considering itself leaning west.
You do see headscarves in Baku, but not often (there’s no prohibition) and less than in UK cities, I’d guess. You also see mosques, quite a number of exquisite old stone mosques within the walls of the old city. They seem mostly closed. And you see the occasional church. There’s a gorgeous Armenian church on Fountain Square, perfectly preserved on the outside, but neither in use nor any longer accessible.
Light your Fire
The slogan of Eurovision 2012 is: ‘light your fire’, a rather odd slogan for a country sandwiched between massive oil fields and several Arab spring fires.
As the building works are completed and final preparations are made for the Eurovision circus, it could be easy to forget my friends from the programme I ran and the people whose basic needs their organisations seek to support. The two things Roman emperors are famous for providing for their citizens were bread and circuses. As the authorities focus on the Eurovision circus and rebuilding the gorgeous spectacle that is Baku, one hopes that the need for ‘bread’ and the fragile CSO sector that helps provide it remains at the forefront after the Eurotinsel train leaves town.
- What’s the best way, in your view, of supporting CSOs in challenging environments? What’s your experience?
 Azerbaijan, Vulnerable Stability (rep 207, 9/12)