Pretending Civil Society: Western NGO Scripts and Local Actors in Post-Soviet Tajikistan

Paggi, Livia Alexandra

On the basis of my fieldwork6 as well as my reading of civil society studies and INGO civil society projects, I would maintain that INGOs have created a “bubble civil society,” infused with Western rhetoric and resources, but without effective roots in Tajik society. By bubble civil society, I refer to INGO resources (equipment, services, and support from Western governments) that have attracted key actors (mainly government, elites, and motivated youth), enabling them to hook into the resources. But they are not necessarily reform-minded, nor does the assistance create strong links of solidarity among members even among other groups outside of the particular sector for which aid is provided. This happens for two reasons: first, INGOs ignore existing systems of social networks and the dependency of citizens on clans or informal organization of political and social networks of Tajikistan that were established during the pre-Soviet as well as Soviet political systems.7 Second, as INGOs attempt to collaborate and build relations of solidarity with local individuals on project implementation, Western staff members establish their own new relations of hierarchy with local employees.8 Local staff has very little voice in their operations and can only participate by articulating Tajikistan's problems in terms of Western universal rights rhetoric. Often this rhetoric fails to reflect the nuances of Tajik society. The bubble civil society created by INGOs thus accommodates both international and local actors' interests just enough to distract or deter both of them from making real institutional change in Tajikistan. As local actors reconfigure themselves to engage with international actors and resources, they try to adapt the organizations to their own interests. Once this dynamic has been institutionalized, it contributes to maintaining the status quo, obstructing any new dialogue about social values and politics, much less new social movements.

To explain this phenomenon, this article will look at the “scripts” for the bubble society in Western ideas of civil society before looking more closely at the interaction between international and local actors and the contrast between larger INGO goals and the interests of local actors. At the center of my research, is a case study of ABA/CEELI, an American INGO in Tajikistan funded by USAID to promote criminal law reform and legal education. The case of ABA/CEELI demonstrates how an initial focus on legal reform becomes diluted as actors reconfigure themselves to the project and resources.

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Harriman Institute
The Harriman Institute, Columbia University
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January 7, 2021