The Definition of NGO is…
Since I’m part of the Community Economic Development project for the Peace Corps here, one of the major sectors I’ll be working with is NGOs. To get a feel for what that’s going to be like, we’ve been talking about the status of NGOs in Azerbaijan and how they function, which happens to be a little different than you might expect.
First, our term, Non-Governmental Organizations, translates very poorly into Azeri. Instead of our generally positive association with the term, in Azeri you end up with something that is akin to “Anti-Government Organization.” To say that we’ve started on a bad foot here might be a bit of an understatement. Because of the poor adaptation of the term (and a host of other reasons), the government provides almost no assistance or support for NGOs functioning in Azerbaijan. Telling a government official that you work for an anti-government organization may not be the best way to curry favor with the powers that be. Skepticism runs deep.
Despite that, there are over 3000 registered (plus approximately 5-600 unregistered) NGOs functioning in Azerbaijan. Government support for NGOs is minimal, so more than 90% of the funding for these NGOs comes from international sources. The growth in NGOs comes from these sources. Combined with the poor economic conditions of the country (unemployment is LINK), the incentives for NGO development are a bit off-kilter.
Instead of starting with a cause, passionately working for your cause, establishing an organization, and then maintaining a sustainable operation, Azeri organizations do it a little bit backwards (at least, from my point of view). Since the need for jobs is so high, the prospect of applying for grants from international organizations provides the opportunity for a salary, even if its only for a little while. There have been a host of NGOs that have started up, received grant money, and promptly disappeared once that initial grant ran out. The organizations generally are missing a lot of the key characteristics we would ascribe to successful NGOs. Whereas we might expect any given organization to have well-defined mission statement, contacts with other organizations, ongoing projects, and a plan for sustainability, these are the things that are generally missing from Azeri organizations. The outlook, instead, is short-term: Get a grant to pay for certain things (like a salary), and then go on until it runs out or someone else contributes money. And you fit the cause to the grant, instead of choosing the cause first. This is a rather deleterious practice from a sustainability perspective.
A great resource for understanding NGOs in Azerbaijan is here, at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. This is a great paper put together about women and civil society in Azerbaijan that does a good opening about how Azerbiajanis understand NGOs.