Civil Society Organizations Are Key to Developing Rural Areas

In Uzbekistan, civil society organizations are working with the agriculture sector. Photo: ADB
In Uzbekistan, civil society organizations are working with the agriculture sector. Photo: ADB

By Marina Best, Dilfuza Zakirova

As our work in Uzbekistan has shown, civil society organizations can provide the expertise and flexibility needed to support farmers.

Agriculture is a large and vulnerable sector in Uzbekistan, with 49.5% of the population living in rural areas and employing 15 out of 32 million people.  Factory farming is almost unthinkable in a country built on local bazaars and markets that rely on dekhans (small-scale farms) for their products.

At the same time, 75% of the country is covered by deserts, which means that it is crucial to be smart with resources: conserve the little water available, carefully select the crops to be cultivated, and use environmentally savvy farming techniques. It is hard to forget that Uzbekistan is home to the now-extinct Aral Sea, whose waters were diverted from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers for decades to form irrigation canals that fed water-intensive cotton and rice crops in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Since 2016, the agricultural sector in Uzbekistan has undergone a process of reform and renewal. Under the new agricultural strategy, the Government of Uzbekistan is trying to address environmental impacts in rural areas, as well as support farmers through increased financial resources, social support systems, and making innovative technologies available that allow them to produce more while wasting less.

As the agricultural sector continues upon its path of reform, one underexplored area is the role that civil society organizations can play in reaching rural communities – raising awareness of agricultural programs, training farmers in new, resource-smart techniques, and attracting investment and projects to the sector.

Civil society organizations are widely present in Uzbekistan, particularly at the grassroots level, with thousands of small-scale groups across the 14 regions of the country; however, they rarely engage in agricultural development because the government is still considered the key actor in the sector.

In recent years, civil society organizations have sought to introduce themselves into Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector, acting as mediators between rural communities, local bodies, national institutions.

Civil society organizations are particularly suited to this role for several reasons:

  • Insights into Local Communities: Uzbek civil society organizations tend to cover a relatively small geographic area with on-the-ground presence in rural and difficult-to-reach areas. Their presence within communities and familiarity with the households in their geographic coverage provides them with important insights into the issues that communities are facing.
  • Effective and Context-Specific Communication:  Communication in Uzbekistan has traditionally come from official government regulations where rural communities are left to interpret complicated, legalistic jargon and language. In contrast, civil society organizations have significant potential to bring together government institutions and rural communities through information sessions or presentations where they can explain things in clear, simple terms.
  • Flexible Mobilization: Government processes in Uzbekistan are traditionally slow and require multiple layers of approvals.  Civil society organizations, in contrast, can take a more flexible approach that allows them to quickly scale-up programs, pivot messaging, and inform communities about new opportunities, benefits and subsidises offered by the state.

Leveraging such characteristics is necessary for effective information dissemination, increasing the productivity of the sector, and working with rural communities to better conserve resources. 

In recent years, civil society organizations have sought to introduce themselves into Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector, acting as mediators between rural communities, local bodies, national institutions.

For example, in a recent project in Khorezm and Karakalpakstan, the civil society organization Khorezm Rural Advisory Support Service (KRASS) discovered that dekhans and farmers will often introduce new species of plants and livestock without a technical understanding of their proper cultivation and management.

While knowledge on these issues exists broadly within Uzbekistan, it would be unusual for farmers to have access to national research institutes or organizations where such information typically resides.

In contrast to institutions that must seem very far away for local communities, the civil society organization was able to connect with farmers by offering seminars on a wide range of issues - from the current government agenda on the livestock sector, feed and forage crops, pedigree cattle, and veterinary diseases – that always ended with recommendations on livestock husbandry. 

Despite the strong case for leveraging the strengths of civil society organizations in the sector, challenges remain. Given historic precedents, local communities are often unfamiliar with civil society organizations and continue to look to government institutions for support.

One solution to these challenges is for civil society organizations to establish partnerships with government agencies specialized in the field through an approach that is simultaneously top-down and bottom-up. 

As government agencies are well-known and trusted by the communities, such partnerships provide government with the on-the-ground knowledge and help civil society organizations to build legitimacy. By liaising and building partnerships with the national government first, followed by local authorities, civil society organizations can strengthen their position as 'legitimate' actors in agricultural development and better contribute to supporting rural communities across the country.

Overall, agriculture can offer important lessons for engagement more broadly in Uzbekistan, including the need for partnerships at all levels.