Spring 2001 (9.1)
week I received an invitation to participate in a seminar for
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and specialists from Armenia,
Azerbaijan and Georgia who work with national minorities, refugees
and IDPs [internally displaced persons], meaning refugees like
so many of ours in Azerbaijan who did not have to settle outside
their own country when fleeing in the face of the enemy. The
seminar was being sponsored by a European human rights organization
and was scheduled to take place in Tbilisi [Georgia].
The invitation immediately brought to mind dozens of other projects
and seminars that now require the joint involvement of participants
from Caucasus nations. What it means for us in Azerbaijan is
that we often have to scour the region to find some sort of NGO
partner in Georgia or Armenia in order to qualify for foreign
grants. The result is endless meetings, seminars and conferences
organized for the sake of "regional cooperation and collaboration".
Back in 1992-1993 when Armenian forces were capturing Azerbaijan's
regional districts, starting with Karabakh, there was a mass
exodus of Azerbaijani refugees from Karabakh and the surrounding
areas. I remember the enormous amount of humanitarian aid that
was quickly organized to assist these vulnerable people. Western
countries, driven by humanitarian values, rushed to help our
people and provide emergency food, shelter and clothes.
Unfortunately, this enormous outpouring of aid was quite short-lived.
Soon, individual humanitarian agencies got involved, but since
1997 Azerbaijani refugees have received less and less assistance,
even for basic fundamental needs like minimal rations of flour,
tea and oil. Meat is totally out of the question - it's a luxury.
The situation became even more desperate when the High Commissioner
of UNHCR finally paid her first visit to Azerbaijan in 2000-seven
years after the crisis had begun. She used the occasion to officially
announce the gradual reduction of UN humanitarian assistance
to Azerbaijani refugees and IDPs.
In its place, international organizations came up with dozens
of regional projects with fancy names and great promises - "networking",
"partnership", "cooperation", "regional",
"Transcaucasus", "collaboration", "seminars",
"capacity building", "human rights", "confidence
building" and "resource centers". These are the
new buzzwords in vogue today.
Our poor and needy Azerbaijani NGOs quickly transformed themselves
into fish frantic for fat worms on the end of a hook. We rushed
out to "qualify" for such projects. From humanitarian
projects, the opportunities opened to media and communications,
education and human rights. Then an influx of self-appointed
American and European experts on "Conflictology" descended
on the Caucasus to teach us to live in peace with each other
and to develop human rights programs for refugees. It wasn't
long before we began sitting through conference after conference,
seminar after seminar, all taking place, of course, in Tbilisi,
the "neutral zone" between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Sounds great, you might say, and I would agree. Cooperation is
always better than fueling tensions or cutting off desperately
needed communication between tense and hot-tempered neighbors.
I, too, found myself being drawn into these new projects - not
only for the prestige of "having won a grant" but also
because the reality of the NGO sector in Azerbaijan is that if
you want projects, you have to "dance to the tune".
But now when I look back and see how useless some of those projects
were, I feel so ashamed.
The question demands an answer: Did any of our meetings change
anything for those poor, desperate refugees, many of whom have
been living in tents and primitive makeshift shelters for the
past eight years? Did it keep any of them from shivering in the
winter cold or fainting under the scorching summer heat? Did
their situation improve as a result of all our regional projects
with fancy names? Did our refugees gain even the slightest glimmer
of hope for regaining the dignity of normal human patterns?
Knowing the reality on the ground, I'm afraid the answer is No.
Mostly No. These people have more fundamental needs. They simply
want their land and jobs back so they can feed their families,
secure a decent roof over their heads and begin to rebuild their
Last week [mid-March 2001], the co-chair of the Azerbaijan-U.S.
Economic Cooperation Commission, Bill Taylor, visited Azerbaijan
and announced an increase of U.S. governmental aid to Azerbaijan
from $32 to $34 million. [Armenia is getting $102 million of
U.S. aid this year, even though they have about one-third of
the civilian population of Azerbaijan. Nor should it be forgotten
that Azerbaijan has had to cope with an economic crisis exacerbated
by nearly 1 million refugees and IDPs.]
Azerbaijan, like all the Newly Independent States (NIS), has
dozens of urgent political and economic problems. The question
is, how will this money be used? Will it be funneled to genuine
needs? I challenge donor agencies and implementing NGOs - both
international and Azerbaijani - to question the true essence
of the types of programs that are being proposed. Please, please,
value the little amount of money that international agencies
give us and do something realistic for refugees. Don't let yourself
be fooled by bureaucratic reports and inflated curriculum vitae.
Do something for real. Make sure the money really goes to make
a difference in the lives of the refugees who so desperately
St. Louis, Missouri
Editor: The writer, 23, helped
to establish HAYAT, the first humanitarian NGO in Azerbaijan,
where he has worked from 1996 until 2000, except during short
breaks to pursue his academic studies. Fariz is now studying
for his Master's degree in the field of Social and Economic Development
at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
(9.1) Spring 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2001. All rights reserved.
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