First Days, First Impressions

I arrived in Bishkek early in the morning. A woman from the office, Gulshat, and the office driver greeted me with a sign. Gulshat and I spoke about a week before my departure and she is to be my “buddy” for the duration of my internship. She is organizing a seminar and a workshop for professors and students interested in non-profit management. More on that below. We went to my apartment, a small, one-bedroom on the third floor of a building across from a coffee shop frequented by westerners and centrally located in the city.

Later that morning I started at East-West Management Institute (EWMI). EWMI is an established, though small, non-profit, and I believe that it is fairly representative of other offices doing this type of work. As I said in my last post, this project is called the Collaborative Governance Program (CGP) and is funded in part by USAID. The Project has three components: A) Social Procurement (i.e. legislation creating social programs that encourage social well-being and civic participation); B) Education (including the work I will do with Gulshat); and C) Civic Engagement (a grant program that gives money and guidance to Kyrgyz civil society organizations).

As I learn more about each member of the team and his or her role in the components, I will share my knowledge. The office-workers are all nationals (except Mark, the Chief of Party, i.e. the boss) and speak Russian to each other. It is becoming clear I will need to pick up as much of the language as possible in order to understand what is happening around me.

My work with Gulshat will involve preparing for and putting on a seminar and a workshop in June. We expect there will be about 100 attendees. The keynote speaker will be someone from the government or someone associated with the government, but it is proving difficult to ascertain exactly who it will be. I've been able to observe the process and it sounds like it is important to find a speaker whom will not only say he will come, but will actually prepare and show up. Apparently attending a speaking event is not a given, even when someone commits to give the keynote address. 

The goals for CGP at the seminar are to finalize the syllabus for one class in non-profit management and to begin developing a second syllabus for another class. These workshops and seminars are an attempt to garner support for a track in non-profit management at universities around the country. There is a consortium of 16 universities that agreed to develop classes with the purpose of creating a track, (similar to a minor or a focus within a major) but a lot depends on support from the Ministry of Education and the number of students who would pursue such an option. 

Another aspect of the project is creating continuing education classes and possibly a degree for those already working in the non-profit sector. There are thousands of non-profits in Kyrgyzstan, and the current leaders would benefit substantially from structured guidance. A report from EWMI evaluated the challenges facing nonprofit leaders and many leaders believe they lack the resources necessary to be successful. Also, there are very few young leaders (under 28 years old) and so, while it is useful in the long-term to raise a new generation of leaders, there is a need for immediate assistance to those actually leading at the moment. Hopefully those who achieve the non-profit management minor will go into non-profit management upon graduating, but that is not the current trend.

One major issue that nonprofits face seems to be lack of support from the Kyrgyz government. People are only motivated to act when the government supports action, but it can be difficult to get explicit support. I have a lot to learn about the culture here as it relates to political efficacy. People have great respect for the government and for government officials. Any time the organization puts out a statement about its activities, it includes something about the benefit to the Kyrgyz people and something about having support from the government. There is clearly nationalism here, as there is anywhere else, but it is unique because it is mitigated by the recent political ties to Soviet Russia. So far I've learned that Russian is the language used in education (they use English as well, but it is treated as a second language, unlike Russian), while Kyrgyz only recently became written at all. Many national monuments and national narratives only emerged in the past 20-25 years, though they commemorate events from the last century. It is as if the national identity lay dormant and is now erupting with a vengeance. The result is that, in some ways, the culture is moving in an inefficient direction, such as using Kyrgyz rather than English in written documents. I will pay attention to and write more about the national identity as the summer progresses.

In my next post I will discuss some of the leisure activities I've enjoyed and some non-work related cultural observations.

Until then, dosvedanya! 

Pictures are the view from my apartment balcony and one of the several soviet-style apartments in the city.