Recalibrating the EU’s Approach to Civil Society in Central Asia to Local Resilience

Since the European Union (EU) launched its New Strategy on Central Asia in 2019, the EU has been striving to play a role of greater significance in the area. The EU is committed to forging a stronger security and economic partnership with Central Asian states whilst encouraging the region’s development into a more resilient, prosperous, and closely interconnected political and economic space.

Indeed, the EU has positioned itself in the area as a strong supporter of civil society, for instance by launching the EU-Central Asia Civil Society Forum. The latter was established following the adoption of the Strategy and is envisaged as a platform to bring together voices within the EU and its member states, as well as high-level government, parliament, and civil society representatives from Central Asia. The forum has been gathering civil society representatives, researchers, media experts, the private sector, and government experts on a regular basis to discuss innovative proposals and recommendations on how to increase civil society involvement at the local and policy level.

On the ground, the EU’s resilience-driven activities translate into various thematic programmes. Some long-standing, as for example the Border Management Programme in Central Asia (BOMCA) to enhance security and stability in the region; and others emerging to address a specific crisis, such as how the Central Asia Covid-19 Crisis Response Programme (CACCR) aimed at increasing the resilience of national healthcare systems in Central Asia as part of the Team Europe global response to Covid-19. Since its launch in April 2020, the concept of Team Europe has been incorporated into the ‘working better together’ approach to further improve the coherence and coordination of EU efforts, notably at the partner country level. Team Europe has given rise to a variety of national and regional initiatives, with two regional ones being developed for Central Asia on ‘Water-Energy-Climate Change’ and ‘Digital Connectivity’. Two of Team Europe’s main goals in the region are to scale up the EU’s collective impact and increase the visibility of its development efforts in Central Asia. Yet, the Team Europe format is likely to be more guided by the EU’s self-image and branding aspirations than by partner countries’ development needs and priorities. Given that its core innovation lies in the pooling of available financial resources and further centralising the system, both in terms of priority-setting power and financial instruments, it remains to be seen how the adoption of the Team Europe format will directly benefit Central Asia.

As part of its goals to promote local resilience, the EU also explores breakthrough ways to engage young people. Central Asian states are developing an increasing demographic share of youth, amounting to 24% of their general population. Engagement with Central Asian youth has long been one of the key priorities for Brussels, as its Central Asian Strategies of 2007 and 2019 boldly emphasise. Related EU-led initiatives are aimed at reforming the education sectors of Central Asian states by creating, for instance, the Central Asian Education Platform to facilitate political expert dialogue on education; and directly involve Central Asian youth in European scholarships and academic mobility programmes, like the Erasmus Mundus and Jean Monnet modules. In addition, the EU has been assisting in establishing and developing European studies programmes and centres at local universities since the launch of the new Strategy.

Furthermore, the EU has launched the Dialogue and Action for Resourceful Youth in Central Asia (DARYA) in 2022, the EU’s first-ever regional project supporting young people in the region through measures fostering inclusion and labour market skills. The five-year project will be implemented by the European Training Foundation to assist with the countries’ post-Covid recovery by further developing the quality and inclusiveness of education, training, and employment systems in the region, in addition to promoting participatory and inclusive dialogue and cooperation mechanisms in each of the individual countries, as well as at regional level. DARYA is organised around three key areas, or modules, designed to encourage and facilitate cooperation and project ownership by participants at different levels of the education and training, labour market, and associated stakeholders’ system: (1) forward-looking skills development based on better evidence and analysis of education and training outcomes and skills needs; (2) stakeholder-driven flexible and permeable approaches to regional and national qualifications that allow equal opportunities for all; and (3) increased use of flexible and inclusive teacher and learning approaches, based on learning outcomes relevant to the labour market. These are all areas where the EU’s wealth of experience can strengthen Central Asia’s own approaches and reforms. Through sharing experiences and concentrating on developing further synergies between education and business, the region has the chance to take a major step forward in supporting its overwhelmingly young populations.

The EU is far from a newcomer in supporting the region’s civil society. Even though its prioritisation and terminology vary, its engagement with civil society already dates back to the early 2000s when the EU started cooperating with local non-state actors in the framework of its ‘Institution-Building and Partnership Programme’ (IBPP). The succeeding EU Central Asia strategy and bilateral Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs) alternately refer to good governance, the rule of law, human rights, and democratisation as key areas for support and as objectives or conditions for EU cooperation with the Central Asian states. The EU largely conceptualises its democratisation objective as promoting the rule of law and good governance assistance, which appear as increasingly less confrontational objectives, potentially impacting the lives of the peoples of Central Asia more directly.

Still, despite the EU’s long-standing support for civil society, its perceived neoliberal and Eurocentric approach is still not as effective as intended and may be less suited for the Central Asian context. Instead, a locally-owned and locally-driven approach to civil society may be better suited to help empower Central Asia’s civil society in its efforts to strengthen societal resilience.

Too Eurocentric, too Neoliberal?

Already in the EU’s 2016 Global Strategy, boosting the resilience of societies in neighbouring countries and developing countries is singled out as a key priority of EU foreign policy. This priority has also found its way into the EU’s latest Central Asia strategy, in which enhancing the resilience of Central Asian societies tops the agenda. In particular, resilience priorities towards the region are concretized by a triple focus on (1) promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law; (2) strengthening cooperation on border management, migration and mobility, and addressing common security challenges; and (3) enhancing environmental, climate and water resilience.

While in its New Strategy on Central Asia the EU acknowledges ‘the significant differences between the Central Asian countries in their socio-economic development stages and models,’ ongoing programmes and practice suggest that the EU’s ambition of exporting its successes of regional integration often runs counter to its stated aims of strengthening resilience in Central Asia. The problem lies in Central Asia’s currently still limited regional integration instead of region-oriented programmes and initiatives. Furthermore, the threats to regional stability are not of the same nature or priority across the countries.

Although the EU’s approach represents a move away from ‘full intervention’ and shifts responsibility away from the international community onto local actors, thereby invoking a progressive discourse of empowerment, ‘this is done according to a global template that is decided not at the grassroots level, but among international, non-governmental and donor organisations and other international actors.’ While recognizing the leading role of partner countries, the EU is essentially telling them what their practices should be.

The EU upholds an understanding of resilience as neoliberal governance that boils down to building resilience ‘outside-in’, namely by offering external solutions to internal problems for communities, turning them into dependable subjectivities and consumers of the western modes of ‘good governance’.

This can be observed in how the EU promotes governance and engages with local societal actors in Central Asia and how it envisions the role of civil society in these countries. Just like in other regions, the EU’s approach to civil society support and governance promotion in Central Asia is of a neoliberal kind, as it proceeds in a very technocratic manner. Moreover, the substance of its governance promotion and civil society support in Central Asia is not only embedded in the neoliberal paradigm of the state – civil society – market triangle, but also in the Western ideological concept of liberal democracy. As such, it is not surprising to see that in its engagement with local societal actors, the EU continues to rely on organisations with western-style of managing. These operate on the professional systems and processes required to access and manage EU funding and fit the EU’s understanding of civil society. Home-grown community-based groups, including Islamic organisations and other bodies representing traditional forms of self-governance, as well as less professionalised local bodies are less in the EU’s scope and often tend to be sidelined.

Yet, this approach is unlikely to change in a meaningful way in the near future. First, Central Asia’s geographical distance determines a lesser strategic importance of the region for the EU, despite the increased focus on the region as a supplier of energy and raw materials. Given the impact of the war in Ukraine on the EU’s domestic security, its main priorities are likely to remain closer to its borders. Secondly, even if the EU were to re-evaluate the strategic importance of Central Asia and enhance its engagement, it would still be through the lens of regionalism, presenting itself as a ‘knowledgeable mentor’ in exporting its own regionalisation experience. However, in terms of resilience support, this approach is unlikely to be effective in Central Asia due to its lack of regional coherence, especially given each country’s specific security and stability risks.

Time for a Change

In a regional context marked by consolidated rigid leadership and conservative values among large segments of society, a neo-liberal and Eurocentric approach would be ill-suited to help boost societal resilience. If the EU is serious about strengthening societal resilience in Central Asia, it would need to decenter its approach and embrace a post-neoliberal engagement with these societies.

The EU could be more effective in accepting these societies for what they are and advocate support for more home-grown self-organisation and self-governance, starting from a deep understanding of the local meaning of ‘good life’ and local knowledge about the available resources. As community-based institutions of self-governance, especially in rural areas, the mahalla in Uzbekistan, as well as other Central Asian countries, can serve as a concrete example of how the premise of this post-neoliberal paradigm of governance promotion could be operationalised. The mahalla is, in essence, a residential neighbourhood within a village or city, which functions both as a community group based on residence and as a self-governing local administrative unit, continuing to play a key role in offering assistance to people at the community level. Political elites in Uzbekistan have often tried to control the mahallas to enforce their legitimacy; in turn, the mahalla has overall been seen as part of the political authorities and surveillance rather than an indigenous system of social organisation. Nevertheless, in a society where informal practices have a significant weight, the mahalla is still the main institution addressing the state-society relations in Uzbekistan. In rural areas, the mahallas deal also with issues related to identity and values, whereas in the cities their work is more limited to purely legal matters.

Rather than ignoring or minimising the role that community-based systems such as the mahalla play in building resilience in local societies, the EU’s approach should start from local knowledge and perceptions about the potential of community-based institutions of self-governance that embody local understandings of ‘good life’ to act in function of resilience-building. However, this does not mean that the EU should be uncritical of local self-governance systems. Instead, the EU should seek to support these self-governance systems and practices based on a deep understanding of how they function within the societal fabric of the countries concerned and how they could be further improved. The latter is unlikely to be an easy task, especially if the EU is to avoid interference in local affairs, with the potentially adverse effect of aggravating local societal cleavages.

In the case of the mahallas, this would involve accounting for the varying levels of popular support they have acquired among the different groups and layers of the population, which are partly connected to how the understanding of ‘good life’ and the underlying values vary between these groups. It would also involve showing awareness of the implications of growing state involvement in such local systems, as well as of the complex and subtle balance between modernity and traditionalism, and how this balance affects people’s reliance on self-governance systems at the community level. For instance, while the mahallas in Uzbekistan have a strong capacity to provide social protection to disadvantaged people, they nevertheless remain vulnerable to elite capture, corruption, and clientelism and should therefore not be romanticised as the ideal of home-grown self-governance either. The issue of women within the context of the mahalla is another complex phenomenon, which may have controversial outcomes in the long term.Much more than in Western societies, societies in Central Asia remain collective rather than individualistic. This also implies that solidarity among members of the community is much more embedded in local practices and customs than in Western societies. As the Covid-19 pandemic showed, civil society plays a crucial role in Central Asia in areas where governments fall short, and are not capable of coping with the implications of a crisis of such magnitudes, such as social services and life-saving assistance. The pandemic has indeed revealed the importance of home-grown self-help, self-governance, and self-organisation that is based on an in-depth knowledge of the available soft infrastructure. Grassroots civil society, which is close to the local communities, is best placed to know how to help the local communities.

The priority for the EU should therefore be to keep a focus on human development and security in the broad sense of its meaning: education, health, environment, civil society, and administrative and legal reforms. In particular, Brussels has been assisting regional governments in reforming youth education sectors to better address the needs of this huge segment of the population. European universities have been cooperating with their Central Asian counterparts to improve the quality of education. Various academic exchange and mobility opportunities have been created for Central Asian youth. European diplomats on the ground have been engaging in regular dialogue with the local youth, whereas European cultural centres have been acquainting interested youngsters with the history, culture and traditions of Europe, and providing support in language learning. The other factor highlighting the importance of learning and education is that investing in youth now and their human capital, could reap dividends in the future. For Central Asia, this is a real opportunity. Enabling young people is seen as a driver of socio-economic and cultural development for the region. By actively engaging with Central Asian youth, the EU, inter alia, tries to increase their awareness of the EU, making them more receptive to EU policies, its experiences, as well as the norms and standards it upholds.

The EU should launch new, more specific initiatives. Many are already mentioned in the new strategy for the region, such as the inclusion of European studies in Central Asian universities and improving language training. This would not only make EU education assistance more effective, but it would also strengthen the EU’s image as an engaged actor who can respond to local social and economic needs. This would also help the EU go beyond cooperating mainly with ruling elites, which entails risks for both donors and intended recipients. Finally, and most fundamentally, local actors, trained in EU institutions or local branches of European universities and then integrated into the higher echelons of the administration, would become vectors of real change, overcoming the embedded defects and corruption in the system and initiating new approaches and substantive reforms.

As applies to other policy areas as well: ‘there is no real way to alter the behaviour of a regime through disengagement’. Effective strategies for change will have to connect to ideas and initiatives that have a reasonable degree of local ownership.

Author: Luca Urciuolo, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons