Sunday, June 19, 2011

Remembering Osh (Updated)

Volunteers reach the safety of a helicopter in Osh (via "Exit Osh")
Another former Peace Corps volunteer recently based in southern Kyrgyzstan has contributed some thoughtful commentary in response to "Remembering Osh," last weekend's dispatch on the first anniversary of the Central Asian province's interthnic riots.

Along with several of RBM's colleagues whose service ended as a result of the fighting, Peter Andrew Clark went to work -- almost immediately and for months afterward -- on behalf of a Western aid organization operating on the ground in Kyrgyzstan. Clark signed up to coordinate temporary housing in Osh. He now lives in New York and writes, in part:
In June of 2010, the world was reminded of a simple, general reality: Kyrgyz and Uzbek people do not like each other. These woes arise from even more widespread malaise and grief -- both sides feel victimized. Rumors have always spread about economic suppression. Kyrgyz blame Uzbeks; Uzbeks blame Kyrgyz. Kyrgyz villagers blame the rich Uzbek businessmen in Osh city for dishonest business practices. Uzbek businessmen blame the rural, uneducated Kyrgyz farmers for spreading mendacious propaganda thereby ensuring more discord. Unfortunately, these vicious rumors have rooted themselves in the culture to the point where many observers now simply see it as racism.

And on the edges of this problem are most international organizations. There have been international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) in Kyrgyzstan since the fall of the Soviet Union. Some have advised economically. Some have tried to better the dietary habits in rural areas. Some have even worked in the South of the country to prevent ethnic disputes and conflicts. But none of these organizations have integrated quite like Peace Corps. Unique among them all, Peace Corps volunteers, however callow they may seem, work with idealism and hope. The volunteers learn the Kyrgyz language, and oftentimes the Uzbek language, and live with families. The volunteers learn the names of shop owners and shake the hands of every little boy in their village. And unlike most of the other INGOs that function out of the two largest cities of Bishkek and Osh, Peace Corps is inside of the conflicts, often in a very tangible way. And it is from these grassroots efforts that Peace Corps sets itself apart from all other organizations, and it is this freedom to inspire change from the disenfranchised and downtrodden that should rally more support for Peace Corps volunteers.

One of the many criticisms of Peace Corps have been its manipulative bureaucracy (easily traceable to Washington) and the horde of neophytes it brings into the world of international aid. Many reasonable critics have also denounced it as a political arm of the State Department and a vehicle for American interests abroad. One cannot deny the organization's potential for these insidious doings just as it cannot deny the organizations potential for peaceful, cheap and productive change. Ironically, Peace Corps does not handle conflict well. It was not designed to. Peace Corps volunteers seek protracted engagement, dreaming of generational changes, not immediate ones.

So in June of 2010, when conflict erupted in South of Kyrgyzstan, Peace Corps came out and INGOs went in. INGOs offer aid equitably; they document their activities for the world to see; they have plenty of money; and they respect the governments and people for whom they serve. Their efficacy, though, is based entirely on the willingness of the populations to embrace their programs. When providing food and shelter to monoethnic, non-conflict communities, aid provides relief. In a post-conflict situation where the aggravators still live in close proximity to the victims, relief to the victim provides further enmity for the aggravators. INGOs are stopgap solutions, not lasting ones ...

... Peace Corps reaches populations that other organizations would consider statistically irrelevant. INGOs spend a large amount of time writing reports and justifying their actions because their projects need ... maximum impact at all times in order to secure more funding. Peace Corps does not have this issue. In some cases, it will take generations of volunteers before results are produced. And ethnic divide is a waiting game that may require nothing more than perpetual involvement -- no one can really say for sure. And most Peace Corps volunteers work directly with the children that can influence the next generation, subtly asking them to question their role in the world.

The ethnic conflict that so many of these INGOs hope to prevent will take many years of intervention (the expected deployment for many of the large INGOs is one to two years). This violence will probably repeat ten years from now, and maybe ten years after that; but eventually, the children of these children might have peace longer -- maybe fifteen years -- and maybe if a little more time passes, they will start to forget the animosities that caused violence in the first place.

One year later, not much has changed in Kyrgyzstan, but only a fool would have expected otherwise. As many media outlets profess the democratic power of the new government, the country is still plagued by corruption and intolerance. There are dangers still, but there will always be dangers until the collective conscience of Kyrgyzstan reviles racism and all other social ills. This does not mean that the international community should sit on the edges until things get better; this is a call for help.

As with many problems, the answer to how the international community should be involved in Kyrgyzstan is multi-faceted. Should INGOs provide aid? [O]f course. Should Peace Corps keep doing grassroots work? [C]ertainly. Should donors keep sending money into the country, even if it is not always best spent? [Y]es. All of the forces above would benefit from drastic changes to their policies; but in the meantime, they should continue working. Disengagement is the easiest thing to recommend, especially in political and social climates that prefer isolationism and self-determination. But self-determination is not a morally defensible position when people are poor, homeless, and suffering. Different people can solve different problems, and there are enough problems to go around.
RBM: Thanks for writing, Peter. Putting aside the question of INGOs (I agree with most of your analysis there), perhaps our main difference resides in our views of Washington, which I consider Kyrgyzstan's most capable ally in terms of socioeconomic development. Departments of state are indeed -- almost by definition -- manipulative, and in their worst moments, insidious. But next to China, the U.S. is also the Kyrgyz ally with the deepest pockets and best interests at play (other neighboring states and Europe do compete, not always in the latter regard).

Secondly, the power of an individual volunteer is an amazing thing to witness, but in my experience a marooned and ill-equipped volunteer can't go very far toward achieving the kind of literacy and business-related advances that could stop another Osh 2010. And the death of that well-meaning but hastily trained volunteer in the same violence might well end U.S. assistance for political reasons, as we've seen in Somalia, Uzbekistan, and now Yemen, to cite just a few examples. That's basically why I've come to feel, in researching this story, that the Peace Corps as presently configured is the wrong vehicle for empowering communities in southern Kyrgyzstan (the North is perhaps a different story).

Let me be clear: I'm not advocating disengagement. And you're right in that [three fellow volunteers referenced offline, whom I won't name] did become praiseworthy agents of change. But while the deaths of a couple of Kyrgyzstanis acting as American proxies can be quietly dismissed, as I've tried to document here, I shudder to think what the killing of one American last June (much less a group of 10) would have meant for U.S.-Kyrgyzstan relations. Not to mention the Peace Corps worldwide. That said, and as my June 11 post suggests, this doesn't mean that the State Department and its most celebrated agency (I view them as one animal) can't themselves change to adapt to the needs of the country.

Given their fluency and interpersonal skills, and despite your well-founded qualms about economic assistance, I believe [our colleagues] could have been still more effective as volunteers. More effective, that is, if they had been provided the means to buy a dozen Beeline wireless modems for a local nonprofit interested in offering micro loans to farmers, for example. I'm pulling that scenario out of a hat but what I mean to say is that I want to see American aid workers in places like Osh better trained, better resourced and better connected. In two words, if I were speaking to the State Department directly: Think better.

Our aid workers should also be better protected from mayhem by our own military, which could have taken the lead in last June's evacuation. Case in point: a simple GPS unit issued to volunteers might do away with the daily "whereabouts" mess -- a status reporting system based on intermittent mobile service and hand-drawn maps -- that did little to keep the 10 Americans in question away from the epicenter of Osh's chaos.

I realize these priorities could upend the image of a volunteer living a subsistence life alongside her fellow villagers, which does have positive cross-cultural benefits. But again, I don't think that model is realistic in this age and in that province.

Postscript (July 6, 2011) -- Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan has released a rousing slideshow on behalf of its volunteers, who I'm told combed through some 9,000 digital photos looking for just 20 that help "tell the story of what we do here." The photos will tour the provinces as posters with captions in three languages over the next several months.

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