Civil Society Initiative

There is a need for longer-term focused support for existing and potential leaders within civil society. Present initiatives for capacity enhancement have not always been able to address the issue of long-term sustainability and capacity that is needed to sustain civil society in the region. Donor agencies have concentrated primarily on a particular type of entity in civil society – non-governmental organisation – without always engaging with the broader spectrum of existing bodies and institutions of associational life that have existed for many years in Central Asia.

The University of Central Asia’s (UCA) Civil Society Initiative (CSI), with extensive outreach across the region – both rural and urban, aims to facilitate learning networks around key themes of good governance, health, education, rule of law and the environment. CSI is a first step towards the possible establishment of an Institute for Civil Society at UCA, whose mission would be to foster a more enabling policy and administrative environment for civil society in Central Asia and assist the development of a broad spectrum of civil society actors. CSI’s initial geographical focus is Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, with a longer-term goal to expand into Northern Pakistan and North-Eastern Afghanistan once an Institute is established.

Taking a regional approach focused on building domestic institutional and leadership capacity, CSI will focus on three pillars with long term perspective:

(1) Skills: Training Opportunities and Professional Development

The growth of online and blended-learning courses have the potential to democratise opportunities for learning, transcending urban-rural, rich-poor, tribal and gender divides and reach thousands of entities in remote areas using a lower cost and replicable model.

CSI will offer a continuum of skills-building opportunities to civil society stakeholders. Opportunities will range from short blended-learning courses, to professional development offerings. Training opportunities will focus on areas of particular need including leadership, communications, organisational strengthening, multi-stakeholder facilitation and policy analysis.

Under the skills pillar, CSI will:

  • Offer a wide range of blended learning courses (online combined with face-to-face) in organisational strengthening, leadership and management, and media and communications through blended learning.
  • Augment online training courses with professional development certificates in critical skill areas including policy analysis and development, project cycle management, non-profit law, communications, leadership, financial management and monitoring and evaluation.
  • Provide support services to national and regional associations of teachers, nurses, lawyers, journalists, civil society organisations and other practitioners to enhance the social and economic status of these groups, and improve standards for quality, merit, ethics and collective impact.
  • Expand educational programmes and academic activities on civil society through UCA and partners including subjects covering Central Asian arts, music and cultural heritage.
  • Expand and develop a multi-layered curriculum for civic education in schools, colleges and universities through the Aga Khan Humanities Project.
  • Develop regional technical working groups of: (i) current civil society leaders; (ii) potential future civil society leaders; (iii) media practitioners; and (iv) civil society lawyers. Technical working groups will advance regional thought leadership and engage in discussions of policy and practice with decision-makers in government and private sector.

(2) Knowledge: Research, Communication and Convening

There exist a number of critical knowledge gaps concerning the role and functioning of civil society in Central Asia. In response to this information gap there is a need to build a stronger knowledge base on civil society in the region. For example what does civil society consist of, what is it doing, and how is it making a positive contribution to society? This would help with building greater legitimacy across the region. Central Asian societies would benefit from greater public awareness and education on the important roles of civil society, redefining the interpretation and general understanding of civil society, taking account of cultural contexts, diversity, and specific demographics (i.e. youth and ethnic groups).

Experience has shown that there is a need to construct a clear and accurate picture, to assist policy makers with important decisions, enhance good governance, and encourage technical support and funding from aid agencies.

Under the knowledge pillar, the CSI will:

  • Map civil society actors across the region to better understand the full diversity of organisations based on real data, and to provide transparent, up-to-date information to those seeking to learn more about civil society, utilising available technologies to provide greater public accountability.
  • Publish and disseminate, through local channels, relevant research and case studies for policy makers and practitioners.
  • Conduct, curate and disseminate high quality academic and action research to improve understanding about key trends impacting civil society in Central Asia.
  • As a regional convener providing space for dialogue and interaction, bringing together diverse groups, including regional or national networks and government agencies working on governance and public administration.
  • Host virtual and in-person speaker events that explore key aspects of regional civil society work and bring together thought leaders from across the region; convene roundtables and panel discussions around critical issues such as extractives, youth, urbanisation, inequality and pluralism.
  • Support civil society networks identify common sector goals and indicators, collect data against these, visualise data in dashboards, and use data to promote learning and action.

(3) Resources: Income Generation, Philanthropy and Asset Creation

Fundraising and sustainability are persistent challenges for civil society in many regions of the world. In numerous cases there is no mechanism for civil society organisations to access government grants or local funding opportunities. Private sector funding difficult to achieve and philanthropy remains underdeveloped. This pattern is repeated across Central Asia, with the majority of civil society actors dependent upon external funding sources, often from the West, to survive.

Civil society that is powered and influenced by international funding is not resilient, and will never achieve its full potential. CSI can support civil society through a combination of local resource mobilisation, community philanthropy and income generation. This will enable civil society stakeholder to take charge of their own destiny and engage on an equal footing with government, private sector and international actors. Indigenous philanthropy and local giving is something that is happening mostly under the radar. People in general want to contribute to society and yet often there is a lack of credible mechanisms to do this at sufficient scale. The cultural and historical context of giving in Central Asia would need to be better understood, including the regional variations and diverse practices.

Also, in addition to philanthropy, how can civil society better sustain itself through income generation, fees for services and social enterprises, and what legal frameworks would facilitate this? How can civil society take advantage of existing and potential ‘shared value’ from business, through business models and value chains that provide public benefit, and how to build up assets and resources, including through social impact investment?

Under the resources pillar, CSI will:

  • Facilitate the establishment of quality standards in civil society to improve transparency and legitimacy for government and the wider public.
  • Study the patterns and volume of philanthropy, for example in Kazakhstan, with a feasibility to establish more permanent frameworks to create a more enabling environment.
  • Investigate measures for improving the environment for philanthropy including tax laws and enabling legislation.
  • Explore the viability of new innovations in social investment through research and demonstration pilot projects.
  • Develop further the social enterprise initiatives across the region.
  • Pilot engagement with business in various sectors, demonstrate examples of ‘shared value’ and develop models for public private partnerships.

The initiatives proposed within UCA’s CSI are in line with the Aga Khan Development Network’s broader regional development efforts. CSI will help support the development of UCA as an international institution of higher learning and build human capacity in the region, particularly in the areas of longer-term focused support for existing and potential leaders from civil society.

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