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SICA Success Stories

Space for Civil Society Dialogue in Uzbekistan

While the Government of Uzbekistan continues to enact reforms in various sectors, gains for civil society remain limited. Nonetheless, with support from the USAID Civil Society Support Program in Central Asia (CSSP), implemented by Eurasia Foundation (EF), independent civil society leaders have recently capitalized on the opportunities still available to advocate for policy and legislation based on the needs of the country’s diverse civil society organizations rather than the priorities of a closed circle of government policymakers. Through CSSP, EF facilitated a robust dialogue on Uzbekistan’s draft law for social entrepreneurship in March 2020. To support the dialogue, EF created a network of dedicated Telegram channels and groups for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Uzbekistan, and then organized discussions, connected experts and supported broad dissemination of the draft law to a wide cross-section of civil society leaders. After this successful experience, the Telegram channels and group were then re-purposed for an in-depth review of Uzbekistan’s new NGO Code. The platforms launched in March initially brought together members of Uzbek civil society to review and discuss draft law No. ID-16188 “On Social Entrepreneurship,” which had been posted online by the Ministry of Justice for public discussion. The draft law has promise and addressed priority areas and tasks for the country’s development in 2020 as articulated by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Considering the potential impact of the law on civil society and its financial sustainability and given the lack of response from the country’s legal sector, EF’s CSSP team created the Telegram group to encourage discussion among NGOs. Through active facilitation – constantly inviting knowledgeable and influential civil society leaders to join the discussion, prompting group members to share their opinions and providing translation services – the CSSP team helped participating NGOs provide substantive, and at times critical, comments based on their own experiences and recommendations for removing barriers to financial sustainability through social enterprise. Following a robust series of discussions, members of the group posted their recommendations on the Ministry of Justice website.

Building upon that success, a new opportunity quickly arose with the publication of a draft NGO Code, a set of regulations and draft protocols that will shape the operating environment for civil society. The NGO Code had been produced by the Civil Society Development Center of Uzbekistan, a quasi-governmental NGO. Their draft received overwhelmingly negative feedback from Uzbek civil society and was subsequently recalled for revision. The Telegram channel that had provided a platform for discussion on the social entrepreneurship law quickly became a hub for dialogue on this new initiative, with CSSP staff expanding its membership to NGOs from all regions of Uzbekistan. Several international NGOs whose programs and funding support the sector as well as independent experts from across Central Asia also joined the group. Through this channel, the members drafted an “Alternate NGO Code,” which centers on the issues NGOs prioritized themselves, including removing registration barriers and territorial restrictions, limiting government control, excluding discriminatory factors toward social enterprises and ensuring similar rights for NGOs that businesses enjoy. Birodar Mirzaev, head of the Fergana regional branch of the Center for Support of Civil Initiatives, was grateful to have the safe space the CSSP team had created for independent discussion on the Alternate NGO Code, stating “The platform provided a different spectrum of opinions about what the law should be, what it should express and how it should work.” By diversifying the inputs and including civil society leaders who had previously been excluded from such processes, discussion on the platform served as a mechanism through which NGOs could garner experience in reviewing, commenting on and even authoring laws and policies.

The platform’s relevance did not stop with the creation of documents either. Oybek Isakov, the chairman of the Association of People with Disabilities of Uzbekistan and a participant of the CSSP Policy Research School, was responsible for the development of the first draft of the Alternate NGO Code. Isakov explained, “Writing the Code is one thing, but the most challenging process is lobbying our interests. Recently the government passed a legislative requirement that the initiator of a law should present the draft of the law in Parliament. Since we are the initiators of the Alternate NGO Code, I believe that we will defend it in Parliament.” Looking to the future of the channel the CSSP team created, Isakov is planning for the group to address the Government of Uzbekistan’s “Strategy for the Development of Civil Society” and an upcoming draft law on social partnerships, explaining, “The platform needs to be preserved and developed. […] Our life and our activities are still determined by laws. Therefore, we must participate in the development of draft laws and express our opinion.”

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