January 14, 2019
REGION: Central Asia

In “How to Translate ‘Good Governance’ into Tajik? An American Good Governance Fund and Norm Localisation in Tajikistan,” Karolina Kluczewska draws upon a case study of a good governance project in Tajikistan funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to better understand how Western donor conceptualizations of good governance are transferred to and manifested in Post-Soviet countries and developing countries in general. By exploring the process and outcomes of applying international norms within a local context in which perspectives on and approaches to governing differ from, or even conflict with, these norms, Kluczewska proposes a new way of determining the success of development initiatives. Specifically, she posits that when program outcomes differ from original intentions, which may be perceived as a failed localization from the perspective of the donors, these outcomes may indeed be a success from the point of view of local actors.

Kluczewska defines governance as “inclusive decision-making and coordination efforts between state and non-state actors, with the aim of producing and distributing efficiently good-quality public goods and services.” This concept, in which authority is decentralized among a number of actors, is distinguished from that of government, which indicates a centralized authority which operates in a bureaucratic, top-down manner. Kluczewska argues that Western notions of good governance entail four major dimensions: rule of law, accountability, political freedom and competition, and citizen participation. U.S. policy-makers view good governance as a precondition of democratization, which in turn leads to greater global security. As such, Kluczewska explains, USAID has committed to fostering these dimensions of good governance worldwide. Kluczewska notes, however, that Tajik policy-makers are skeptical of the Western neoliberal concept of good governance, as it tends to conflict with their centralized government and diminishing space for oppositional perspectives. Kluczewska argues that in contexts of conflicting norms, localization—the process of active reconstruction of foreign ideas by local actors in which the norms are modified to become congruent with local beliefs and practices—is inevitable.

Four stages of localization are identified in the USAID-funded initiative to promote good governance in Tajikistan. Kluczewska explains that, because good governance at the time was a novel arena for USAID in Central Asia, little knowledge existed regarding its meaning in that particular regional context or how to promote it without resistance. As such, the first stage of localization occurred when USAID in Central Asia reinterpreted this norm to align with their visions for the Central Asian context and local realities. Specifically, as accountability and participation were believed to be most relevant to the region and most feasible to address, USAID in Central Asia believed good governance could be enhanced by focusing specifically on increasing the effectiveness of Central Asian governments’ provision of public services, as well as NGO involvement in national decision-making.

The second stage of localization occurred when USAID in Tajikistan decided how to enhance accountability and participation. USAID’s local assessments suggested that the Tajik government often failed to “hear the society and receive its feedback.” Therefore, within the local context, good governance was more narrowly focused on cooperation of the government with communities, rather than the broad definition encompassing all four major dimensions described above. From the perspective of USAID in Tajikistan then, the project provided an opportunity to empower Tajik NGOs to hold the government accountable and demand better public services. Kluczewska posits that though the call for proposals appeared to be open to NGO-designed activities, USAID in Tajikistan did not envision that Tajik NGOs would not be eager to challenge the Tajik government, leaving little space for local ownership of the project.

The grant was awarded to the NGO Future, based in Dushanbe, and entailed capacity building and advocacy trainings aimed to strengthen rural NGOs’ abilities to work with government structures. The author suggests this was meant to move Tajik NGOs away from “centralized, control-oriented Soviet approaches to ‘Western’ economic, political and social models of development.” The NGO Future became concerned that the project may make themselves and other partner NGOs vulnerable by criticizing the government’s negligence in providing high-quality public services. The NGO Future wanted to avoid provoking the government out of fear of retaliation via a range of tools such as audits and inspections, as well as because they viewed their role as an NGO as supporting the government, rather than challenging it. The third stage of localization thus occurred when the NGO Future issued its own call for proposals from rural NGOs, which invited proposals for initiatives offering support to the government by improving the mechanisms and processes of the provision of public services.

The final stage of localisation occurred during the actual implementation of the good governance projects across Tajikistan and is exemplified by a project aimed toward community housing reform. After 1991, apartment buildings previously owned and managed by the state became property of individual citizens. The new civilian owners, however, continued to believe that building maintenance was the responsibility of the state. By fostering the development of homeowner associations, USAID believed the project served to de-Sovietize the civilians’ minds, as well as diminish the influence of the government by empowering citizens and replacing expensive and ineffective house-management companies often perceived “as an extension of Soviet-era state-led institutions.” From the perspective of the NGO, however, the project served the interests of the government rather than challenging it. In 2009, the government implemented a law on the maintenance of apartment buildings which encouraged the creation of homeowner associations similar to those to be formed through the USAID-funded project. As such, the NGO employees viewed the project as supporting an ongoing housing reform previously launched by the government.

Drawing on theory and literature in the fields of International Relations and International Organization, the author concludes the article by arguing that when outcomes differ from the initial intentions of a project, rather than deeming this a failed localization from the perspective of the donor, this can be considered a successful localization from the perspective of local actors. Specifically, she argues that USAID tasked an NGO with a top-down diffusion of good governance and left little space for ownership by local actors. However, local actors took ownership of the norm through skillful localization and implemented the project as they deemed necessary.

How to Translate “Good Governance” into Tajik? An American Good Governance Fund and Norm Localisation in Tajikistan

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