“…Uzbekistan, using generally recognized democratic norms, has qualitatively enriched the system of democracy since mahallas in Uzbekistan reveal a new means of democratic organization of society.”182
Mahalla committees can appear to be attractive partners for international organizations working on development or the promotion of democracy. They are small, apparently grass roots organizations with a traditional base, seeming to lend themselves to the promotion of local decision-making through the development of locally-run projects or events that could have a significant impact with a low budget. Finding reliable local partners to implement international donor programs has increased in importance since the U.S. and E.U. countries have increased their aid budgets to Central Asia in the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks on the U.S. and the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan.183
Several international organizations already work with mahalla committees as part of their development programs, and have accepted government promotional materials about the values of the mahalla committee. In doing so, these organizations have failed to take into account the role of these committees as the local enforcer of government policies and have accepted mahalla committees as a form of local self-government, a form of decentralized government, or even a nongovernmental organization. The danger in this approach is that such international development programs end up supporting the local enforcers of discriminatory, abusive, and coercive government policies, rather than strengthening civil society, furthering realization of human rights, or a process of democratization.
A range of international organizations has worked with mahalla committees in Uzbekistan. These include the United Nations Development Program, Tacis (the development arm of the European Union), the Counterpart Consortium (with USAID funding), the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (with Swiss and German government funding), and the Open Society Institute. Some of them have worked through the Mahalla Fund, an organization set up by government decree in 1992 to channel funds to the mahallas.184
Some projects funded by international organizations, such as Counterpart Consortium, provide development assistance, through the mahalla committees, to poor rural communities. Examples of these are the building of water pipes, creating small income generating projects, and improving irrigation systems. The projects of Counterpart Consortium, for example, are run in conjunction with local NGOs and attempt to take into account the dangers of working closely with government agencies by limiting the budgets and ensuring that the money does not go directly to the mahalla committees.185 In these cases, programs attempt to support concrete projects that can have a positive impact on the immediate community.
Other organizations, such as Médecins sans Frontières limit their programs to cooperation with, rather than support of mahalla committees. For example, in one program, they request that the committee provide them with a premises and the practical support for Médecins sans Frontières to run educational programs for the local population.186
In 1999 and 2000, the Open Society Institute worked with mahalla committees as a part of its Local Government Initiatives, designed to strengthen community participation in local government. By the end of the project, however, the Open Society Institute decided not to continue the program, recognizing that, on the whole, mahalla committees are controlled by the hokimiat and are therefore not an appropriate body to encourage community participation.187
In the above examples, the donors have attempted to take into account the dangers of working with mahalla committees, recognizing that they are of limited value for their programs.
However, other international organizations continue to work with mahalla committees under the framework of democratization programs and fail to recognize the government nature of the committees.188 Their work is designed to strengthen civil society and a process of decentralization. Such programs seem to accept the government position that mahalla committees are self-governing bodies. For example, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation has run national conferencesand training programs for government and mahalla officials to promote the notion of the mahalla committee as a means of decentralization.189 The assumption in these programs is that the mahalla system in Uzbekistan can be used effectively to promote human rights, democracy, and civil society and no distinction appears to be made between the traditional mahalla system and the current government-led mahalla committee system.
Such an approach fails to take into account the real nature of mahalla committees and how they operate in society, and is based on an acceptance of government rhetoric on democracy, aimed at encouraging investment in programs with little potential to bring about the stated goals. Unless funding organizations rigorously determine their methods of operation in Uzbekistan, they run the risk of supporting a government system of control and abuse at the local level.
182 Professor A.A. Azizkhojaev, Rector of the Academy of State and Social Construction under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, “Na puti k Kharti OON o mestnom samoupravlenii grazhdan: trebovania XXI veka,” paper submitted to international conference organized by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, The Academy of State and Communal Building under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and the International Center for Training Journalists, November 2000, published in Tashkent, 2001, p. 5. Human Rights Watch translation.
183 Switzerland has also increased its aid to Uzbekistan during this period.
184 “On the Creation of a National Charity Mahalla Fund,” Presidential Decree, September 12, 1992.
185 Human Rights Watch interview with Serush Javadi, Counterpart Consortium, Tashkent, November 21, 2001.
186 Human Rights Watch interview with Christina ter Braak, Médecins sans Frontières, Tashkent, December 19, 2001.
187 Human Rights Watch interview with Iskandar Ismailov, Open Society Institute, June 18, 2002.
188 For example, UNDP, Tacis and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
189 For example, the conference “Organs of Local Self-Government as a Basis for the Development of Civil Society,” November 20, 2001, Tashkent, sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.