Friday, 21 January 2022

EU support to civil society in Central Asia: time for a radical change

Published in Analytical Articles

By Fabienne Bossuyt

January 21, 2021, the CACI Analyst

Since the launch of its new strategy for Central Asia in 2019, the European Union (EU) has further profiled itself in the region as a strong supporter of civil society. The EU-Central Asia Civil Society Forum that has been taking place annually since 2019 is the most visible testimony of the EU’s reinvigorated commitment to support civil society across the region. However, despite its self-proclaimed aim to help boost societal resilience in Central Asia, the EU’s neoliberal and Eurocentric approach to civil society remains ineffective and is ill-suited in a region like Central Asia, not least in a context of consolidated authoritarianism and the rise of conservative values. Instead, a locally-owned and locally-driven approach to civil society seems better suited to help empower civil society in its efforts to strengthen societal resilience.


Teri Hakala 2021 EU-CA meeting

BACKGROUND: In 2019, the EU launched its long-awaited new strategy for Central Asia. As part of the new strategy, the EU committed itself to strengthen its support to civil society in the region, and set up the annual EU-Central Asia Civil Society Forum. These steps are linked to the strategy’s key goal of boosting societal resilience across the region. The EU is far from a newcomer in the field of civil society support in Central Asia. Its engagement with civil society already goes 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. However, despite the EU’s long-standing support for civil society in Central Asia, the EU’s approach has been subject to a wide range of critiques, together pointing to an overall assessment of low effectiveness. While most critiques target the stringent nature of the funding mechanisms and instruments for the EU’s civil society support, more fundamentally, it is arguably the EU’s Eurocentric and neo-liberal approach that hinders the effectiveness of its civil society support. 

Since the launch of the EU’s Global Strategy in 2016, the EU has come to conceptualize resilience as “the ability of states and societies to reform, thus withstanding and recovering from internal and external crises”. In what appears as a promising feature, the EU acknowledges that strengthening resilience in third countries involves granting the local societies more ownership given that “positive change can only be home-grown”. Yet, despite the aim of this new resilience paradigm to balance the universalist claim of EU foreign policy, in essence, the EU’s understanding of and approach to resilience falls short of truly empowering the local and strengthening governance at a societal level from the bottom-up due to its continued neoliberal and Eurocentric fixation on EU norms-sharing through ready-made solutions. Indeed, in line with the Foucauldian concept of governmentality, which captures how a powerful actor operates to produce (governmentable) subjects, the EU’s neo-liberal understanding of resilience appears to externalize European modes of governance to local communities, who are then expected to integrate these approaches in their local practices. In other words, the EU upholds an understanding of resilience as neo-liberal governance that boils down to building resilience ‘outside-in’, namely by providing external solutions to local problems for societal groups and communities in third countries, who are made into compliant subjects and consumers of European practices of good governance.

This neo-liberal fixation is also very clearly manifested in the EU’s new Strategy for Central Asia and in how the EU engages with local societal actors, as well as in 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 Eurocentric and neo-liberal in nature, as it proceeds in a very technocratic, almost managerial manner, whereby solutions created in Europe are externalized to local civil society actors, who are supposed to internalize these European practices. Moreover, the substance of its 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 shows a continued reliance on western-style organizations, since these have the professional systems and processes needed for accessing and managing EU funding and they better fit the EU’s western understanding of civil society. Home-grown community-based groups, including Islamic organizations and other bodies representing traditional forms of self-governance, as well as less professionalized organizations still tend to be sidelined by the EU. 

IMPLICATIONS: Clearly, in a regional context marked by consolidated authoritarianism and the rise of conservative values among large segments of society, including youth, such a neo-liberal and Eurocentric approach is ill-suited to help boost societal resilience. Therefore, if the EU is serious about strengthening societal resilience in Central Asia, then it would need to decenter its approach more radically and embrace a post-neoliberal approach to its engagement with these societies. This implies that the EU would have to accept the Central Asian societies for what they are. Among other things, the EU should advocate home-grown forms of self-organization and self-governance that embody an indigenous understanding of good life and good governance. The EU should support the ability of local societal actors to self-organize and draw on their local strength and knowledge of available resources. The EU needs to acknowledge that resilience-building cannot be molded externally and that instead it starts internally, from the communities, which draw on their existing resources and knowledge and their understanding of ‘good life’, with external assistance provided only as and when deemed necessary by the communities.

Much more than in Western societies, societies in Central Asia are collective in nature 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. This has been illustrated very vividly during the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, the pandemic has revealed the crucial role that civil society and community-based initiatives in Central Asian countries play in offering life-saving assistance where governments fall short. In Central Asia, state capacity is not always strong enough to cope with a crisis of such magnitude, and vital public services such as health care and social protection are deficient. In such contexts, societal resilience is crucial in order to stand up to a major crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has indeed revealed the importance of home-grown self-help, self-governance and self-organization that is based on 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. 

CONCLUSIONS: If the EU truly wants to help boost societal resilience in Central Asia, then it should start accepting the Central Asian societies for what they are and decenter its Eurocentric, neoliberal approach to civil society support in favour of a more locally-owned and locally-driven approach. As has been illustrated by the Covid-19 pandemic, 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 magnitude, such as social services and life-saving assistance. As crises like the Covid-19 pandemic are very likely to emerge again in the near future, societal resilience in Central Asia is set to become even more important in order for these countries to stand up to the implications of such devastating events.

In a region faced with consolidated authoritarianism and the revival of conservative values across society, the EU’s Eurocentric, neoliberal approach to civil society support stands little chance of being effective. The recent outbreaks of domestic upheaval in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan further demonstrate this point. In both cases, protests against the ruling elites were not initiated by liberal-minded civil society groups, and instead involved a diffuse mass of largely uneducated people who represent the more conservative segments of society rather than the liberal-minded groups. Of course, this does not mean that the EU should abandon its support to the more liberal segments of society. Even if these segments are becoming increasingly marginal, they remain a prominent voice not only in opposing the rising conservatism, but also in trying to hold their governments accountable. However, in its attempts to help empower civil society, the EU needs to reconceptualize its neoliberal, outside-in understanding of resilience and should start acknowledging the importance of home-grown self-help, self-governance and self-organization that is based on in-depth knowledge of the available soft infrastructure. Therefore, the EU should start embracing a more locally-owned and locally-driven approach to civil society that supports the ability of local societal actors to self-organize and draw on their local strengths and knowledge of available resources and infrastructure.

AUTHOR’S BIO:  Fabienne Bossuyt, PhD, is associate professor at the Department of Political Science at Ghent University (Belgium). She is also co-director of the Russia Platform of Ghent University. The views expressed here are those solely of the author. An extended version of the argument presented in this article will appear in the author’s forthcoming contribution to Central Asian Survey.

 Photo credit: Photo credit: EU Delegation to Kazakhstan.

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