Conflict Prevention: the Ultimate Casualty of the Osh Violence?

“For years, there has been a part of the development sector that existed and expanded on the assumption that the Ferghana was soon to explode”, a former colleague in Kyrgyzstan said after the violence in the south which left between 300 and 800 dead in June 2010. “Eventually they got more than they could deal with.”

It is a bitter irony indeed that the Kyrgyz Ferghana, an area which must have the largest amount of internationally-funded conflict prevention projects, peace building programs and early warning systems per square kilometer in the region, eventually saw the worst ethnic violence in the region for almost two decades. Why is that? In a recent article on Ferghana.Ru (in Russian), Alisher Khamidov, who is himself from Osh and currently at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, tries to answer the same question.

Khamidov identifies three factors (and, at the same time, lessons) that affect this specific development field. First, there is the lack of coordination between the different donors, UN organizations and NGOs. Second comes the limited geographic scope of many projects. Khamidov thereby finds that only a limited amount preventive work was done in the ethnically homogenous areas from where many recent migrants in the cities come. And third, although reconciliation between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks remains a central issue, it also has serious limits, set not in the least by the lack of credibility of the national government among minorities, the striving of donors to be in the government’s good books, and a strong distrust among the Uzbek and other minorities towards the law enforcment agencies. Having worked for several years in Kyrgyzstan, notably in Osh and Batken, and having been back several times since then, I would like to add a number of elements and impressions to those brought up by Alisher Khamidov. Even though I was involved in emergency management and humanitarian aid rather than in conflict prevention and peace building, both the working environment and local realities where we all worked, remained the same.

Conflict prevention and ‘early warning’ were a thing in vogue in development circles as well as among concerned academia in the nineties. In a way, it was understandable and well-intended. The horror in Rwanda in 1994, in particular, left a huge hangover: ‘why didn’t one see this coming?’ Precedents of ethnic violence in the Ferghana, like that between Uzbeks and Meshketian Turks in Andijan in 1989 and between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Uzgen in 1990, and the wars in Tajikistan, Nagorno-Karabakh and other parts of the post-Soviet space left many to believe that the Ferghana valley, with its ethnic mosaic, its border imbroglio and its social deterioration, was next in line. The need to profile itself early on in the aid landscape of a potential hotspot, at times when the worst in Tajikistan and Nagorno-Karabakh seemed over, did much of the rest. There are instances of aid organizations that set up shop in Osh just to have a presence already ‘for when it starts’. Also, once hell breaks loose, nobody, least of all aid actors and diplomats seen to hold the moral high ground, likes to be caught in a blame game that ‘not enough was done’ to prevent violence or restore peace quickly.

Although a couple of international organizations ran conflict prevention and tolerance education projects from Osh from 1996 onwards, it was the appearance of guerrillas of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Batken in 1999 and 2000 that led to a surge in initiatives in the field of conflict prevention. Soon, almost every self-respecting donor had, or supported, one or another form of conflict prevention project, preferably in Batken which was promoted from a forgotten backwater to, at one time, the place to be for the aid sector. To the donors and aid bodies that Khamidov mentions in his article (UNDP, USAID, the World Bank and the EU) one could add, at one time or another, the OSCE, the DEZA-DDC (the Swiss development cooperation) and Unicef. They either work(ed) directly through their own project units, or through local and international NGOs. The activities carried out under these programs ranged from rather woolly ethnic harmony jamborees for youth, to more tangible things like infrastructure repair and water projects.

Of course, more activities and donor money inevitably attract individuals and groups who cleverly use the new niche. What is the idealism or voluntarism of a foreign academic or development consultant, is simply an opportunity for someone on the ground. Everyone familiar with the area and the aid sector there, knows that the local NGOs working on conflict prevention rapidly expanded after 1999, more so as sub-contractors than as organizations that are really rooted in society, in which they are often perceived as profiteers. Do I condemn them? No, it’s just the way it goes, if only because it is being fed from somewhere, first of all from donor budgets that have to be spent for the sake of proper reporting to headquarters. This is not to say that all local cadres of organisations who are implementing these donor programmes are cynical opportunists or careerists. Most seize opportunities, and do their thing like many of us do.

What did happen, though, was that much implementation came to lay with structures which are often led by people from local elite groups who understand what donors want and like to hear. They often strongly compete with each other, and are not necessarily representing the interests and realities of the population. What is more, good intentions and lofty donor concepts are not immune to being highjacked by local realities, not in the least what one calls ‘network corruption’. Project staff or partner NGOs dominated by members of one extended family or one regional group are not unusual. One example of how this can compromise the purpose of peace building and inter-ethnic cooperation, is that of a ‘multi-ethnic’ youth media project which was fairly quickly taken over by a mono-ethnic staff and cadres — notwithstanding two or three members of minorities in low-level positions to keep up an appearance of multi-ethnicity. Some donors have been aware of this for years but ignore it, if only because they know there’s little they can do about it.

A crucial issue identified by Khamidov is (the lack of) coordination in this proliferation of conflict prevention activities. Attempts to coordinate certainly do exist. Yours truly, for one, was involved, along with the then OSCE representative in Osh, in an initiative to make a detailed aid map of Southern Kyrgyzstan, which off course included the conflict prevention projects too. The purpose was to try involve these in humanitarian aid operations in case of a natural disaster or other emergency. Other people took similar initiatives. Yet while everybody pays lip service to ‘coordination’, many organizations, or, at least, their individual representatives, simply do not want to be coordinated since they consider this as an intrusion in their affairs or because they are convinced that they are the only ones doing the good work the right way. ‘Egos’, and real as well as perceived hidden agendas are serious spoilers, also in conflict prevention and peace building.

There’s also the question who has the legitimacy to be the main coordinator. In practice, much depends on the charisma of the people who take the lead and of the personal relationships between them and those they are to coordinate. The flipside of this is, that initiatives often crumble away once these people leave. If a larger NGO or an international organization tries to be the coordinator, it is often seen as imposing its dominance or undermining the authority of the government. As for the government, either national or local: individual exceptions (who, I insist, certainly exist) aside, government officials in this region, by nature, are simply not interested in the efficiency of aid, but in controlling it and taking advantage of it. This is just a reality with which some aid organizations cope better than others. For my part, I’ve seen too many coordination seminars degenerate into sycophantic affairs for local officials. For organizations and donors who are keen to work with the government in the name of ‘national execution’, ‘national ownership’ and what all, this contains a serious risk of being associated with personalities who are a conflict factor rather than a conflict prevention factor.

The sustainability of infrastructure projects that are implemented under conflict prevention programs and which, in my experience, are more appreciated by people than activities promoting ‘soft skills’, is another issue. While in a number of cases, people or individuals in the mahalla (part of a town or neighborhood) or ayil (village), do find ways to continue to maintain these, many others simply come to a standstill once external funding stops at the end of the program. Furthermore, projects are usually based on what is called ‘community mobilization’. That is a mixed bag, especially when one looks at who is being mobilized and how. Community mobilization with aksakals (community elders) or rap concerts to promote peace and harmony among youth, to name but two examples, are nice and photogenic. Yet the question is to what extent these represent the real society or an idealized version of society that fits into the donor-driven neo-liberal social engineering for which Kyrgyzstan serves as a laboratory. Even though aksakals are to play a prominent role in peace building and community mobilization, I personally, doubt whether their local authority is not primarily symbolic, with a very reduced ‘real’ influence. And to assume that to westernize the young by bringing them in contact with cosmopolitan pop culture will automatically dilute ethnic lines and make everyone be nice to each other, is wishful thinking.

The above factors, in my opinion, help to explain why the relatively strong presence of conflict prevention and peace building activities in Osh and southern Kyrgyzstan in general could not prevent what they intended to prevent and why ‘more aid’ will not necessarily prevent further violence.

Uzgen, for example, may have been the centre of vicious ethnic fighting in 1990, this time it saw no violence even though it is still an ethnically mixed town and situated bang between places where there was heavy fighting. Was it because of peace building? I don’t think so. Rather, what can make people find some modus vivendi after the onslaught, are the shock and embarrassment, among many, about the ultra-brutal turn that events took, the informal role by people of real authority including Islamic actors, the daily economy, and, not in the least, the silent will to carry on with life.

Dr. Bruno De Cordier is with the Conflict Research Group of Ghent University

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