Kazakhstan's Democracy Crusader

Speeches Shim

Monday, March 1, 2021
Jamila Asanova

Working Towards A Promising Future

Jamila Asanova was 21 years old when Kazakhstan became an independent country. “Kazakhstan was one of the first countries in the Soviet Union where students came together in the central square in Alma-Ata, the then capital of the country, to demand independence. This was in 1986, five years before independence,” said Jamila. 

The initial years were a struggle in Kazakhstan, similar to the rest of the post-Soviet nations. “We faced economic depression and a rise in crime,” said Jamila.

Jamila was concerned about the inequality, environmental degradation, and the state of human rights during the initial years of the new nation. “I completed a PhD in biology and decided that I must do something to improve people’s lives and for the sake of my young independent homeland,” said Jamila. 

In 1996, Jamila joined the USAID CSO Support Initiative for Central Asia program, as a coordinator. The program supported Kazakhstan’s budding civil society in the country’s formative years, serving as a convener of civil society organizations and strengthening their capacity to be more organized and consequently more effective. 

In 2004, the Civil Society Development Association (ARGO) was formed through USAID’s Civil Society Support Initiative, implemented by Counterpart International. The Initiative served as a resource center for a network of eight local organizations in Kazakhstan, providing services to civil society and non-governmental organizations. 

Seventeen years later, ARGO is still around, but now it’s a sustainable, umbrella organization with operations in eight countries across the region, with over 2,000 member organizations and activists. ARGO is currently implementing USAID’s Partnership for Innovations Program which strengthens civil society’s engagement with their local and national governments to promote positive policy changes and improve the lives of citizens across Central Asia. 

Jamila is the Executive Director of ARGO which is dedicated to efficiently planning and implementing social and economic development programs in Central and South Asia. 

Since it’s beginning in 2004 to date, ARGO has had some notable successes in strengthening the role of civil society in Kazakhstan and the region. “We were instrumental in advocating for the amendment in Kazakhstan’s constitution, Article V, which previously prohibited governmental financial assistance for civil society organizations,” says Jamila. 

“In 2015, we successfully advocated for Kazakhstan’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” adds Jamila. 

Jamila says ARGO is constantly learning and introducing innovative approaches and best practices to improve citizen advocacy in the region. “We were the first to host annual innovation festivals and labs, and we developed an innovation index for civil society organizations to leverage innovative tools, methods, and approaches to solve social issues,” says Jamila. For instance, ARGO developed a web platform, the CSO Web Academy, which provides training and courses for civil society organizations across Central Asia and beyond, to strengthen their advocacy and policy making abilities. 

ARGO has produced 23 distance learning courses, including in Central Asian national languages. Since the launch in June 2018, over 2000 students have taken courses through the CSO Web Academy, including 900 students from Kazakhstan. 

“We also advocated for an ‘inclusive planning’ approach that has been adopted by the Ministry of National Economy. The principles of inclusive planning have been integrated in the Civil Society Development Concept of Kazakhstan 2020-2025 by the Ministry of Information and Social Development. What it means is that state bodies will consult civil society organizations and public councils before drafting legislation. This way, citizens through civil society organizations, can provide meaningful input and feedback on key public policy issues,” adds Jamila. 

On December 16, 2021 Kazakhstan will celebrate 30 years of independence. Looking back at where the country began on its democratic journey Jamila says, “We have come a long way. We have a lot to be proud of. But we have miles to go, so we will keep going.”

Since the early 1990s, USAID has promoted the development, growth, and sustainability of civil society in Kazakhstan. Today, USAID programs help build a democratic culture by supporting civil society, increasing access to information, strengthening citizen initiative groups, and encouraging the protection of human rights. USAID also brings civil society organizations together with the Government of Kazakhstan to form partnerships that are working to implement reforms that will bring about real change in a variety of areas—including rule of law and civic engagement.

Last updated: April 08, 2021

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