Azerbaijan International

Spring 2001 (9.1)
Page 13

Reader's Forum
Do Something Real

Last 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 futures.

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 need it.

Fariz Ismayilzade
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.

Azerbaijan International (9.1) Spring 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2001. All rights reserved.

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