Peace-building and Violence against Women: Tracking the Ruling Relations of Aid in a Women’s Development NGO in Kyrgyzstan


Peace-building and Violence against Women: Tracking the Ruling Relations of Aid in a Women’s Development NGO in Kyrgyzstan

Elena Kim and Marie Campbell


This chapter focuses on a women’s NGO that receives development aid to support a network of women’s crisis centers in Kyrgyzstan and to work in other ways toward a reduction of domestic violence1. In the absence of adequate involvement of the criminal justice system in addressing violence against women, Kyrgyzstan’s crisis centers offer crucial services, even if they are organizationally weak and constantly under threat. Feminist critiques of NGOization (Bagiimage, 2004; Lang, 1997) suggest that building organizational capacity routinely supplants an NGO’s activist work that otherwise, as in this case, directly or indirectly focuses on alleviating violence against women. Our analysis shows another side of NGOization and efforts to address women’s domestic problems. In 2010, an acute episode of inter-ethnic violence, arising within Kyrgyzstan’s post-Soviet political instability, brought international humanitarian relief and associated post-conflict planning into the country. Our inquiry, an institutional ethnography, focuses on the emergency-related structuring of development aid to explore how it is affecting the work and working relations of the women’s anti-violence NGO.

The institutional ethnography we conduct addresses questions arising from ethnographic data we collected in 2011 about organizational changes that frustrated the NGO’s staff, and mystified us. Through our analysis, we discover ‘violence’ being treated as a concept newly attributed to a discourse on international security, conflict resolution and peace-building that is now being institutionalized as part of the post-conflict coordination of aid. We learn how, as the director of the anti-violence organization maneuvers skillfully within the new processes and the associated funding opportunities, the policy direction of the NGO seems to be shifting away from its goals of reducing violence against women. Our research tracks the institutional relations that account for how things happen as they do, allowing us to make visible and more understandable the nature of ruling relations that are being enacted in this setting. While this finding is important in itself, we draw more general conclusions, arguing that the analysis we conduct of one NGO provides insights into the administered nature of the exercise of contemporary global power.

Using institutional ethnography to explicate ruling relations

Institutional ethnography is a feminist-inspired research approach to social analysis that Dorothy E. Smith (1987, 2005) pioneered and that she calls an alternative sociology. Its claim is to ‘extend people’s ordinary good knowledge of how things are put together in their everyday lives’ (Smith, 2005, p. 29). To do this, an inquiry begins in ethnography and reaches ‘beyond the locally observable and discoverable into the trans-local social relations and organization that permeate and control the local’ (Smith, 2006, p. 65). In our case, we wanted to extend what people, such as those in settings we examine in Kyrgyzstan, could know about their choices, actions and organizational commitments beyond their own experiential knowledge and beyond the claims of even the best technical, managerial and professional practices that structure development projects. In this manner, our research addresses what critical development scholars such as Gould (2004) understand is the challenge for ethnographies of aid: to attend systematically to the trans-local relations in which development work is situated. Use of institutional ethnography also side-steps the problems such as Mosse (2006) encountered when a researcher’s analysis is a subjective interpretation of ethnographic data, however competent, insightful or empirically supported that interpretation might be.

Institutional ethnography’s beginning was in the scholarship surrounding the women’s movement of the 1970s in North America. At that time, women were insisting that their experience was different from how it was authoritatively explained and how it was reflected in academic theory, in social policy or in institutional practices. Feminist scholars recognized that new methods of analysis were needed to generate more scientifically adequate and socially acceptable accounts of women and their everyday lives, capacities and troubles. Smith (2004), along with social constructivists, argued that all social life is enacted. By building on Marx’s epistemology, Smith (2004) went on to introduce analytic attention to the social relations that coordinate people’s doings, across their various settings of action. In this approach, ethnographic data on people’s experiences become a conduit for analysis of the trans-local coordination of a setting, opening up what is otherwise missing from people’s ordinary understandings. Missing from ordinary work knowledge is what institutional ethnographers understand to be the ruling relations coordinating people’s everyday actions. The institutional ethnographer makes an ‘explication’ of this more or less invisible, but materially present, substratum of everyday life.

Although an institutional ethnography begins from a problematic, a puzzle arising in the experiences of people in the research setting, it must extend beyond ethnographic accounts of the setting. People’s experiences of their work are organized somehow and traces of that social organization are there to be discovered in it. Smith (2005) speaks of ‘actualities’ (p. 223) to be explicated. Ethnographic data draws attention to something actually happening in the everyday world that needs explication in order to understand how actual people’s lives are organized outside of their own knowledge and control. The choice of a problematic reflects the institutional ethnographer’s explicit positioning of the research, which Smith calls ‘taking the standpoint of people’ (Smith, 2005, p. 10–11). In any institutional ethnography, the question that arises for researchers is not ‘does an informant’s statement offer the correct interpretation of what is happening?’ Rather, the truth that institutional ethnographers seek comes from the inquiry conducted to discover how things have been organized so that speakers have the experiences that they speak about as they do. We are convinced that only through such discovery can local experiential knowledge be extended, and otherwise-authoritative institutional knowledge or an individual’s preferred interpretation, be countered objectively. As we proceed, we will demonstrate how issues of knowing authoritatively and knowing experientially are important to the operation of the NGO we analyze.

Kyrgyzstan and its contemporary setting for development

Kyrgyzstan (also called the Kyrgyz Republic) is a former Soviet state, independent since 1991. It is inhabited by about five and a half million people, 43 percent of whom live in poverty and as many as one million live and work abroad (Ibraimov, 2011). The ethnic composition of the country is very complex and includes major groups such as ethnic Kyrgyz (67 percent), ethnic Uzbeks (14 percent), ethnic Russians (10 percent) and more than 80 other ethnicities. With little local industry and only a few natural resources (including gold, hydropower, and cotton) Kyrgyzstan is economically vulnerable. Its fertile agricultural areas with access to water have become a source of competitiveness, especially in the southern overpopulated Fergana valley, predisposing this area to social unrest. The valley’s linguistically and ethnically distinct populations share borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and in 1989 and 1990 violent conflicts flared up in this area between different ethnic groups. Despite being poor, Kyrgyzstan is considered to have ‘infrastructure and government institutions [which] are relatively well developed. Government agencies and institutions are operational, though inhibited in their functions by under-funding and corruption’ (Human Rights Watch, 2006, p. 8). Citizens do not trust the government to act in their interests and frequently take direct action to make their demands known. A popular and almost bloodless revolution in March 2005 forced the country’s first president after independence to resign and leave the country. His replacement, Kurmanbek Bakiev, was overthrown five years later in April 2010, in a more violent manner. Political instability following Bakiev’s departure laid bare many social problems including the ethnic question which in the summer of 2010 took the most dramatic turn. In the conditions created by a fragile interim government, and lacking official control, severe ethnic-based violence broke out. Four hundred people were killed, 375 thousand displaced and more than one million people suffered loss of property, physical injuries, and sexual and psychological harm in several days of widespread and indiscriminate violence, mass killings, looting, and arson. Today, regardless of the absence of fierce fighting, inter-ethnic relations remain fragile and sensitive.

Kyrgyzstan’s transition to democracy has required and attracted considerable international development assistance. Recognizing gender equality as indispensable to democratic development, international donor organizations have made funding available to support initiatives to empower Kyrgyzstani women. Feminist analysts have observed contradictory characteristics of donor-funded women’s NGOs in Kyrgyzstan. For instance, Hoare (2009) believes that ‘NGOs working on gender and women’s rights issues constitute one of the most active and vibrant sectors within “civil society” in Kyrgyzstan, both in terms of the provision of services, and advocacy and lobbying […] but they remain marginalized within wider “civil society” […]; perhaps more so than any other area of development work in the Kyrgyz Republic, donor priorities have determined the activities of these organizations’ (p. 9). Simpson (2006) sees these contradictions for women’s NGOs somewhat differently; she insists that ‘it is important to conceptualize “local” women not as a homogenous group, and the movements they comprise not as static, either on the national level or from an international or global perspective’ (p. 27). Simpson’s sense of the social organization of the ‘local’ making a difference to how women’s efforts play out relates to our own research. Campbell and Teghtsoonian (2010), for instance, analyzed the work of women activists on Kyrgyzstan’s state budgeting processes that would build in appropriate attention to women’s needs; it was argued that their efforts were shaped and undermined as they took up the prevailing discourse of Aid Effectiveness that was required for the Joint Country Support Strategy’s planning of the distribution of development assistance.

This chapter advances a focus on what Simpson (2006) calls the ‘multifarious factors affecting relations among local women’s organizing’ (p. 26). We identify effects on the use of development aid following the national emergency in 2010. The emergency motivated Kyrgyzstan’s appeal to the United Nations (UN) for international humanitarian relief. The UN Flash Appeal triggered a strategic planning process called the Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) to facilitate the quick and coordinated response to global emergencies (UNOCHA, 2011, p. 1–3). Besides bringing immediate relief in Kyrgyzstan, the CAP generated a longer-term response promoting peace and political stability. It must not be overlooked that Kyrgyzstan’s internal troubles are part of larger regional and even global issues. The Middle East conflict and the war in Afghanistan are responsible for the United States (US) military air base on its territory and increased drug trafficking into and through Kyrgyzstan is also a feature of the regional strife. Martha Brill Olcott (2010), Central Asia expert from the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, commented in November 2010 on how the international community sees Kyrgyzstan’s troubles: ‘Competing narratives [have] developed to describe what happened in Kyrgyzstan … but many of the narratives being used inside Kyrgyzstan could serve to exacerbate inter-ethnic tensions within the country, and these are legitimate source of [international] concern’. Olcott also recognizes that inter-ethnic tensions might expand across national borders exacerbating international concern about the potentially dangerous outcomes of NATO’s military withdrawal from neighboring Afghanistan. However relevant to international security, making peace-building the immediate focus of development aid adds an unexamined element to efforts that women in Kyrgyzstan have been making to address their serious everyday concerns, including unacceptable levels of domestic violence.

The organizational setting of the research

The organization at the heart of our analysis is the Women’s Anti-violence Network2 (henceforth called the Network), registered in Kyrgyzstan since 2001. In 2008, the Network received its first organization-building funding from the Dutch international development agency, Hivos. It was then already an umbrella organization for Kyrgyzstani crisis centers. Today the organization works with a network of twelve independent crisis centers located throughout the country and is contractually accountable to international donors for using their funds on specified objectives. A letter from Hivos to the Network written prior to the signing of the first contract shows that all its objectives, except one, were chosen to reflect the Network’s own understandings of how to work toward reducing the violence experienced by Kyrgyzstani women in their homes, families and interpersonal relationships (i.e., what we are calling ‘domestic’ violence). A fourth objective, the exception, was chosen by Hivos and commits the director of the Network to seek additional funding locally from the government. The latter is how Hivos saw the Network becoming self-sustaining according to a Hivos program officer interviewed in 2008. As of this writing, however, international funding still covers all the expenses of the work the Network undertakes to reduce gender violence in the Kyrgyz Republic.

Our fieldwork in the organization has generated data on the Network office, the staff and the work associated with the Network’s more recent Hivos-funded project entitled ‘Reducing Gender Violence in Kyrgyzstan’ that ran from October 2010 until December 2011. Besides this project, the Network now receives funding from the European Initiative for implementing a partner project with HelpAge International called ‘Right to Life Without Violence in Old Age’. During the emergency, the Network participated with two UN agencies in a partnership project for the ‘Coordination of emergency measures to render support to the victims of domestic violence in Osh and Djalal-Abad oblasts’.

The Network office is situated in two rooms of the building of the National Centre of Medical Diagnostics, in the capital city, Bishkek. The director of the Network (whom we call Sophia) is a physician who works in her own office one floor above the Network office, and from which she also provides medical consultation in the National Centre of Medical Diagnostics. Next door to her office is a crisis center called Chance, which is a member organization of the Network. Sophia founded it, and along with her other work, she continues to lead this crisis center. Sophia coordinates the Network and its projects with help from general office and project-specific staff: an accountant, an office manager, a secretary and at least one project assistant for each funded project. The full-time accountant (whom we call Shakira) manages the project budgets and writes financial statements to the funders and local tax authorities. The office-manager (Beka), besides managing the work of the secretary, corresponds with the crisis centers, donors and partner organizations, manages logistics for Network events, shops for office supplies, cleans and tidies the office and library, and helps the accountant with her work. As their position title suggests, the project assistants work on a project’s programme. For example, Karina, the project assistant for the Reducing Gender Violence project prepares training, researches and writes training manuals, organizes training events, and produces detailed reports of them. The office shelves are filled with such reports.

Proper accountability for both the funding provided and the action taken on agreed objectives is an explicit conditionality for payment of funds by donors according to the contract between the Network and Hivos. According to the schedule, the organization is to submit to Hivos two annual reports, two financial audited statements and five progress reports over the thirteen months of this particular project’s duration.3