National media coverage brings acclaim to Kazakh youth organization

After a grant allowed the Youth Information Service of Kazakhstan to increase its publicity and online presence, the media took more notice of its efforts to prepare young people as leaders and volunteers.

By Jennifer Brookland

Political stories tend to dominate the daily papers and television headlines in Kazakhstan, leaving news about youth movements or civil society to take a backseat at best.

In this challenging media environment, a civil society organization called Youth Information Service of Kazakhstan (MISK) had a doubly hard time getting attention as it worked to raise public awareness of the problems—and possibilities—facing young people.

Though unemployment, social problems and low-quality education weigh on the nation’s young people, MISK envisions a world where they are empowered to address these challenges through civic engagement and volunteerism.

Its main projects include a “Civic education school” where accomplished experts deliver classes that educate youth on democracy, human rights, social responsibility and the rule of law, and an annual conference called “ZhasCamp” that convenes 300 youth activists to discuss and plan social initiatives and learn to manage them.

Young people are seeing the benefits from these camps.

“Being a volunteer gives me a confidence in myself and those invaluable starting opportunities which lead to conscious activity,” says Dmitriy Shubin, who participated in civic education school. “MISK is not just a non-governmental organization, it is our life.”

But limited media attention was holding the organization back from becoming more influential, attracting more sponsors and partners and gaining higher-level support from Kazakh authorities.

Setting up for success

A public outreach grant won under Counterpart International’s Kazakhstan Civil Society Strengthening Program allowed the organization to change that.

The program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, competitively awarded $2,000 grants to MISK and either other partner civil society organizations for use in public outreach.

Institutional strengthening grants support the formal development of partner organizations, helping them acquire skills in strategic planning, financial sustainability, new media and volunteer management, says Counterpart’s Country Director Marat Aitmagambetov.

“We believe this would eventually result in the overall management progress of the partnering organizations, help them to become more effective and better advocate their mission to both beneficiaries and the Government,” he says.

Making MISK “exist”

MISK used its grant money to publish flyers and brochures about the organization’s work, as well as producing a short video about its mission. It shared the 90-second video entitled “Youth” on social media, and widely disseminated it via listserve to youth-focused NGOs, students and mass media.

Getting both traditional and new media interested in the organization’s work was crucial for MISK.

“It is a time when you realize that if you or your organization is not present in media, and social media, it may be seen as if the organization does not exist at all,” says Irina Mednikova, Director of MISK.

This time, the media paid attention.

Reporters from Kazakhstan’s only 24-hour television news channel, 24.kz, saw “Youth” on YouTube a few weeks after its release, and took a closer look at the organization.

Impressed with the video, and with MISK’s dynamic online content and social media presence, 24.kz produced a 25-minute news report about the organization in both Kazakh and Russian.

In turn, leading national TV agency “Khabar” used a clip from that broadcast in their news program as well.

More visibility, more results

The increased national media coverage generated measurable interest in civil education school and ZhasCamp.

The number of volunteers working with MISK soared—from 15 to 41 in its main office in Almaty. The organization was able to hire three additional staff members and coordinators.

New staff members are currently being recruited for branches in other places, after young people posted online inquiring about opportunities to work with MISK in their hometowns.

Focus groups are reporting a positive image of the organization, and invitations to events and meetings are mounting, especially as MISK strengthens its relations with youth organizations in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and Poland.

Its social media following has swelled from 250 to 1,000 followers on the Russian equivalent of Facebook.

The combination of grant money and media coverage is allowing MISK to interact with its most important audience—the young people it is making more visible in Kazakhstan’s public life.

Additional reporting contributed by Fariza Mukanova, Kazakhstan Civil Society Strengthening Program Coordinator.

January 31st, 2013 | Tags: Kazakhstan, media, public outreach, youth, Youth Information Service of Kazakhstan | Category: Impact Stories | Leave a comment

Women in Azerbaijan inspired to achieve their leadership potential

Workshops on leadership and decisionmaking helped Aytekin Verdiyeva gain skills and confidence - and a notable government position.

By Ilgar Agasibeyli

When a crowd of around 70 people listened to Aytekin Verdiyeva make an impassioned speech on women’s leadership in Azerbaijan, no one could have guessed it was the state official’s first-ever public oration.

“I was overwhelmed with feelings when I was making my first public speech as a government official,” says Verdiyeva.

Most women in Azerbaijan never achieve prominence in public and professional roles, constrained by conservative social values and an inability to enforce legal frameworks protecting women’s political participation.

But if Verdiyeva’s story is any indication, that situation seems to be gradually changing. 

The shy 28 year-old struggled to find a job after graduating from the Azerbaijan Technology Institute, and says she had very little confidence in her own skills and capacity.

Verdiyeva’s perception of herself and her career potential transformed while she was attending women’s leadership workshops organized by the Ganja Regional Women’s Center. 

For the past year, the center has been working with women in four regions of Azerbaijan to overcome their limitations, both self-perceived and imposed by society, and pursue more visible public roles.

It offers seminars and workshops on supporting women’s leadership and increasing their involvement in decision-making.

These training opportunities were made possible by the Women’s Participation Project, implemented by Counterpart International in close partnership with 13 local women’s organizations and Azerbaijan’s State Committee for Women, Family and Children’s Affairs. 

The two-year USAID-funded program seeks to improve the status of women in Azerbaijan by raising public awareness on issues that affect women and empowering more women to engage in political processes.

“I would say without exaggeration that confidence blossomed in my inner world after participating in the leadership events organized by the Women’s Participation Program,” says Verdiyeva. 

In fact, she became one of the most active participants.

Rising rapidly from her position as a government clerk, Verdiyeva quickly claimed the position of Senior Advisor of the State Social Security Fund.

She acknowledges that the leadership seminars helped her make the decision to apply for the Senior Adviser vacancy she saw advertised. She successfully passed the written test exams and interviews, surpassing competition that included other qualified male and female candidates.

“Aytekin Verdiyeva became a good role model for her peers,” says Maleyka Alizade, the executive director of the Ganja Regional Women’s Center. “And she is not just a ‘first swallow’ announcing the growing confidence of women in our region. Our women have great capacity for leadership and political participation.”

January 29th, 2013 | Tags: Azerbaijan, leadership, women | Category: Impact Stories | Leave a comment

Volunteers in Kazakhstan publicize patients’ medical rights

National advocacy organization Aman-saulyk works in Kazakhstan to raise public awareness of health and human rights. With volunteer management training from Counterpart, it added four volunteers who can amplify the message.

By Jennifer Brookland

Selbi Turesheva is passionate about raising awareness of people’s right to health in Kazakhstan.

“Every person may face a time in life when they are in need of medical attention,” she says. “Receiving quality medical care is that person’s human right.”

Turesheva and fellow university student Parvina Kurbanoa became the first volunteers to give their time to Aman-saulyk, an organization that conducts national advocacy campaigns to promote patients’ rights to quality medical care.

Though the need is great, the group was unable to attract volunteers away from big cities like Almaty in favor of Kazakhstan’s more remote rural areas. That changed when Aman-saulyk and another 11 civil society organizations received volunteer management training from Counterpart International.

As part of the U.S. Agency for International Development-supported Kazakhstan Civil Society Strengthening program, the instruction allowed Aman-saulyk leaders to improve their skills and learn how to recruit, train and make productive use of volunteers like Turesheva and Kurbanova.

“Earlier, I doubted how a person can work for free and work so effectively,” says Oksana Gulak, Aman-saulyk’s online health protection project coordinator. “But after the training we were able to see what an employer and a volunteer can offer to each other and build mutually beneficial relations.”

The training helped the organization recruit two more volunteers. Today, the four are actively engaged in translating relevant international materials from English to Russian to make the organization’s website more robust.

With their help, people can easily read general information about Aman-saulyk and its mission to educate patients.

Their goals include translating heftier publications into Russian so that all can peruse them. First up: information on providing palliative care.

The volunteers are also actively promoting Aman-saulyk’s activities using social networks and new media.

“On Facebook we have been posting basic patient’s rights hoping to reach a wide range of people,” says Turesheva. “They need to know that they have these rights.”

More fans are starting to follow the organization online, and the number of people reading web posts is ticking up as well.

The efforts of these hardworking volunteers allowed Aman-saulyk’s message to reach an increased number of Kazakhs. With its increased ability to manage volunteers, the organization is now working to expand its recruiting effort so that additional do-gooders can contribute their talents and magnify its reach.

Additional reporting contributed by Fariza Mukanova, Kazakhstan Civil Society Strengthening Program Coordinator.

January 23rd, 2013 | Tags: advocacy, Almaty, Kazakhstan, medical care, volunteers | Category: Impact Stories | Leave a comment

An Afghan village has clean water and civic action on tap

Regional Policy Dialogues allow Afghans to collaboratively address local needs and find solutions. Whether building a high school for girls or fixing a broken water pump, this community-led development approach is seeing real results.

By Tom Willcox

The inhabitants of Labaabe Baala village in Afghanistan’s Samangan province had struggled for seven months to secure a clean and safe water source, ever since the village well fell into disrepair.

The water source has finally been fixed as a result of regional policy dialogues held between the head of the Community District Council, two members of the Shura and three religious leaders and community elders. Furthermore, this feat was accomplished not through donor funds, but through the community’s own initiatives.

“These regional policy dialogues are like bridges,” says Rahimullah Morshidi, Counterpart International’s Director of Community and Policy Engagement in Afghanistan. “They enable follow-up of the issues which are recommended by RPD participants, ensuring the relevant responsible parties engage with the community to find a suitable solution.”

The dialogues are facilitated through Counterpart's USAID-funded Initiative to Promote Afghan Civil Society (I-PACS II) program, which provides technical and financial support to a network of key partner organizations. 

The program convenes regional policy dialogues on a quarterly basis across Afghanistan—forums specifically designed to enable civil society organizations, government officials, community members, and donors to interact and find solutions to community and regional challenges.

When Labaabe Baala’s water problem was nominated as a priority issue at a regional policy dialogue hosted by three I-PACS partners in Jawzjan province, one of the organization’s Community Dialogue officers traveled to the village to investigate.

When he arrived, Ali Ahmad Zalmai discovered the village well had been built with poor quality materials. Both the pump and the handle had only worked for a month after being installed. Community members, lacking the knowledge and resources to repair the well themselves, had expected support from the government.

Zalmai encouraged further discussions about the issue with community members, which led to suggestions that the well could be fixed without external funding if the villagers agreed to chip in for the cost of maintenance.  

“The community members themselves decided to contribute to rebuilding the water well,” says Zalmai. “They calculated the repair of the well to be 18,000 Afghanis (approximately $350), and each individual contributed 100 to 1000 Afghanis ($2–$20) depending on their financial limits.”

The collaborative problem-solving and joint decision-making gave the people of Labaabe Baala a sense of responsibility and ownership of the well, in addition to ensuring its operation and maintenance.

“We are now trying our best to take care of the water,” says community member Raees Khaliq. “We have a specific time for people in the community to come and take the water and we even lock the manual pump when it is not being supervised.”

The well repairs alone had an extremely important impact on the community of Labaabe Baala, now able to access clean, safe water. 

But the process by which it was able to restore the well is indicative of a far greater achievement: the empowerment of an engaged community to resolve issues and find sustainable solutions on its own.

January 23rd, 2013 | Tags: Afghanistan, civil society, IPACS II, Labaabe Baala, regional policy dialogues, water, well | Category: Impact Stories | Leave a comment

Parents in Honduras stand firm against school system corruption

Children at the Froilan Turcio public school are now back in class after advocacy efforts by their parents and a local Honduran NGO. © Katie Rotramel/Counterpart International.

By Jennifer Brookland

Many children rejoice at the thought of a day with no school. But for 63 children at the Froilan Turcio public school in Olancho, Honduras, those days suddenly became unacceptably frequent.

When one of their teachers was unjustly transferred to another community, the sole remaining instructor had to handle grades one through six, plus preschool.

In addition to the impracticality of educating an excessive number of students, she was about to depart for maternity leave.

When the unhappy parents realized there was no plan for a replacement teacher, they immediately went to local education authorities.

The parents found little assistance from officials, including the Municipal Education Director. He refused to return the absent teacher, and responded to their complaint by challenging the parents to press charges.

As the parents struggled to get answers, the remaining teacher went on maternity leave and the school was shuttered.  

Not taking “no” for an answer

Outraged, parents in this rural-remote community turned to the Association for a More Just Society, whose Anti-Corruption Legal Assistance Center (ALAC) agreed to help take their grievances to the government – and vowed not to accept no for an answer.

ALAC receives technical and financial support from Counterpart’s Citizen Participation for Responsive Governance program, known locally as Impactos. The program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is a five-year initiative that helps civil society organizations increase the transparency and accountability of public institutions.

ALAC offers a confidential system where all citizens who are victims of or witness to corruption can file and track an anonymous claim.

It is the first center of its kind in Honduras, where responsive administration and good governance sometimes take a backseat to other interests.

The education system is especially fraught with problems. In its first six months, 90percent of complaints ALAC received concerned corruption in the education system.

Responding in person

When ALAC followed up with the Education Departmental Office of Olancho on the case of the teacher-less school, it got the same response the parents did: none.

The staff realized they would have to solve the problem more actively. They contacted the Transparency Unit of the Education Department, and with one of the unit’s lawyers, traveled to Olancho to investigate and document the incident.

Together with the Transparency Unit, ALAC also worked to inform the community of their education rights. They showed community members how to use social audit mechanisms to oversee the public education services being provided locally.

They also organized and trained 30 of the parents on how to use the country’s Transparency and Access to Public Information laws to monitor the performance of public officials. 

"It's very important to highlight the parents' involvement in this case,” says Ludim Ayala, the director of the ALAC. “They were committed to making sure their children were in class."

 Finally, ALAC helped draft and circulate a document that denounced the deficiencies in the educational system and pledged the unit’s commitment to resolving the problem immediately.

The success of a partnership

With the pressure from ALAC, the Transparency Unit, and the community, the District Education Director threatened to fire the Municipal Director who had dealt with the complaint so cavalierly if the teacher was not returned to Froilan Turcio public school.

The swift, coordinated action organized by Counterpart’s local partners worked.

The teacher who had been inappropriately transferred was returned to her post, and classes resumed the following week.

“I think the key effect of the story is how citizens who were organized in a parent-teacher association in a hard-to-reach rural forgotten community were able to raise their demands and complaints on the right to education for their children,” says Gloria Manzanares, Counterpart’s Chief of Party for the Impactos program.

The success showed people throughout Honduras that reporting acts of corruption can help hold public officials accountable in upholding the rule of law, and make government more responsive to the needs of the people.

December 18th, 2012 | Tags: advocacy, children, education, Honduras, school, USAID | Category: Impact Stories | Leave a comment

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