History of NGOs in Azerbaijan

History of NGOs in Azerbaijan

When speaking about third sector development in the Republic of Azerbaijan, one should first research the history of public associations in the republic. There were no independent associations in Soviet Azerbaijan, except for state-run charitable and religious institutions. The foundation of independent associations was strictly prohibited in the Soviet times, although the Soviet government organized associations, trade union organizations, disability centers, women’s and youth organizations on the basis of self-initiative.

Non-governmental organizations with activities based on international standards were first founded at independence. The Karabakh Conflict, which began in 1988, provided an impetus for the development of non-government organization activities. Local people, who were protesting against the destruction of the Topkhana Forest, the hard living conditions of refugees from Armenia and the offences by the Soviet Empire, gradually started to found different, purpose-oriented public organizations. This was the beginning of the third sector in Azerbaijan. During the Soviet regime, such organizations were obliged to act illegally, but they still began to involve their relatives and friends in these activities.

Once Azerbaijan regained its state independence, public organizations received support from political parties and government structures. Essential problems of the community, such as social or humanitarian needs and human rights protection, had the attention of community organizations and political parties. Party members provided some organizations with offices, technical equipment, and staff. Though most parties had limited resources, they were active participants in cooperation with international organizations, and in international events.

Urban-based intellectuals were the first engaged in social activities. The intellectuals, who desired to do their hardest to find a way out from difficult situations, became founders of a wide range of organizations. Local institutes, universities, administrations and departments started to found various circles in their buildings. Recovering from the fall of USSR, trade unions also set up charitable and cultural centers. A public organization with many active people in 1990 was the Committee for People’s Support to Karabakh. Though the Committee mainly aimed to provide financial support to the population from Karabakh, it also organized different events and appeared as the defender and protector of their concerns and rights. By publishing the newspaper Azerbaijan, the Committee laid the foundation for an independent press and greatly served the adaptation of public consciousness to alternative thought.

It is not by chance that a public organization was set up in Azerbaijan in response to the mass struggle for independence. The organization that arose was named Azerbaijan Popular Front (APF). APF was an organization that united the active part of the people participating in strikes, and it was natural that its demands served further political activities. However, the factors for collective struggle can be found in the Scientists’ Association of the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences, which was composed of Academy’s active scientists, as well as in Varlyg at Baku State University (BSU) and the Yurd Society. These organizations founded the public struggle in Azerbaijan and became an important source for it. Like in all Soviet republics, the Central Committee of the Azerbaijan Communist Party (CCACP) was making every effort to put an end to such initiatives.

In 1992, and shortly thereafter, several independent organization were founded, especially youth and women’s organizations. The Azerbaijan Youth Confederation was founded on the base of the former Komsomol (Young Communists’ League) and served as the basis of a new type of public organization. An increase in the number of public organizations, by the name of public association, obliged the Government to recognize and legalize their activities. These organizations were registered under relevant decrees passed by the Council of Ministers. In 1992, the Azerbaijan Republic enacted “The Law on Public Associations.” In reality, this was a simple and basic law. Despite the fact that Milli Mejlis had already passed “The Law on Youth Policy in Azerbaijan Republic,” which created a legal base for youth to found public associations, “The Law on Public Associations” was the first law to legalize the foundation of the third sector in Azerbaijan.

Deterioration of the people’s economic situation in 1992 and thereafter began to accelerate the establishment process of public organizations in Azerbaijan Republic. There appeared different organizations, which could provide both legal and financial assistance to meet the needs of those who were known as welfare recipients. Insan Charitable Organization, Helsinki Civil Assembly’s Azerbaijan-based National Committee, Azerbaijan Refugees Committee, and the Istisu and the Alinja Charitable Foundations were among these organizations. Organizations that first aimed to resolve necessary problems of vulnerable populations soon expanded their activity scope.

The instability of domestic sociopolitical atmosphere in Azerbaijan led to the foundation of the Human Rights Protection Center in 1993, which was registered in 1999. This event became a turning point in the protection of local population’s human rights. This Center was founded to study information about the status of human rights in Azerbaijan and to provide their findings to international and national organizations. Similar local organizations played important roles in ensuring the dissemination of information about the situation in Azerbaijan through the publication of materials and by drawing the attention of international organization to these problems.

Early NGO activities within Azerbaijan were limited and restricted to a certain extent. Government agencies often believed that NGOs were collaborating with political parties. This was a natural assumption since many NGO leaders at that time were also national liberation movement members and political activists. However, in the early and mid 1990s there were neutral NGOs engaging problems for youth, environment, health, humanitarian aid; groups under political parties and easily supportable by international NGOs; missionaries and religious institutions; as well as government-oriented organizations. The developing domestic economy and unstable political situation in Azerbaijan provided few opportunities for long term activity in the third sector. Now, with growing experience and support, most NGOs have a better environment in which to operate.

Today it is difficult to identify the exact number of NGOs in Azerbaijan. The principal reason is that the Ministry of Justice registration and records-keeping processes have not been adequately systematized. Opinions about the number of NGOs in Azerbaijan can be identified only on the basis of public polls and from information database created by different organizations. According to approximate statistics, there are nearly 1500 NGOs in Azerbaijan. The Azerweb Internet website [http://www.azerweb.com] created by Save the Children as well as databases maintained by the NGO Resource and Training Center, by ISAR and others are important sources to identify the number of NGOs in Azerbaijan and their activities. It is estimated that only 225 or 250 NGOs are active throughout the whole republic.

The transforming economic situation in Azerbaijan, support from international organizations, and the activity of NGOs engaged in the resolution of political problems has led to dynamic changes in the manner of thinking of individuals who came together to serve a common purpose. Although the number of NGOs increased during 1991-1994, this number began to fall during 1995-1997. From 1998 until publication of this manual, the number of NGOs began to increase again. This process can continue only with the financial support and assistance of international organizations and agencies.

While surveying the development of NGOs it is important to present problems connected with the development of coordination centers of NGOs. In general, coordination organizations helped the development of NGOs. The first and longest lasting NGO coordination center established in Azerbaijan was the Coordination Council of Human Rights Protection organizations that was set up in 1995. This organization organized the human rights commissions of political parties with NGOs. Long-term decision making was based on consensus. Organizational chairs were rotated each month as a way to share experience and participation. When the Council’s activity took on a more political orientation, the 25 members decided to disband. After the Council was dissolved, a new organization stepped in to take its role in organizing. The first effective activity of the Resource Center of Human Rights Protection was to set up hall for the free use of NGOs and groups or populations whose rights have been violated. Today the branches of the Resource Center work in Lenkoran and Shamakhi regions and their role in the development of local organizations is clearly recognized.

Youth organizations were also gaining experience and began to work together. Here, the role of the National Council of Youth Organizations established in 1996 must be noted. After the National Council was created, it was comprised of 20 youth organizations. This organization had several successes in making international ties and creating links between youth organizations and the state government. At present, the National Council is a full member of the European Youth Council and takes part in the work of the branches of some organizations. After coming under the authority of the Ministry of Youth and Sports, the necessity for this organization was reduced, and it ceased to play an important role in the development of youth organizations.

The best example of combined work between numerous NGOs from a wide sphere of activities is the newly created National NGO Forum (NNF). The establishment of this organization was discussed in 1998, and it was set up in 1999 based on the participation of more than 150 organizations. The Forum organizes monthly meetings on the highest level, coordinates activities between various national NGOs (NNGO) and creates the favorable conditions to ensure that NGOs can establish links with government structures. Branches of the Forum work in 5 regions of the republic. Thanks to the efforts of the Forum in regards to the “Law on NGOs” of Azerbaijan Republic, the discussions regarding the drafting of the NGO Law within the Parliament took place with the participation of NGO representatives. Concerns of the NGOs were considered for the final version of the law, which was adopted in August 2000.

Although we have just described some of the history of NGOs in Azerbaijan, the conditions for social action remain difficult. This is especially true in the regions of our republic. The role of inter-sector cooperation remains an important aspect for the development of the third sector, but the level is low. Strong or stable support of NGO efforts from the state and business sectors is limited, and mass media does not seem to have a strong interest in reporting their achievements or activities.

Types of NGOs and their Principal Objectives

Humanitarian relief activities of NGOs throughout the world include social development, charity, environmental protection, social service and protecting the interests of subgroups. The main fields of activities of public associations are peace-making, protection of environment, problems of drug addiction and the struggle against it, the establishment and development of civil society, problems of national minorities, migration, the problems of indigent and poor social groups, and human rights protection.

In Azerbaijan the growth of fields of NGO activity was different. After Azerbaijan gained independence and in response to refugee/IDP needs, most NGOs specialized in assistance to citizens who suffered through conflict and forced migration. Some NGOs specialized in the protection of the rights of these groups. During the discussion of the NGO Law, different NGO types were indicated in an early draft, but later it was decided to withdraw these variations from the law.

Generally, as indicated in Azerbaijan legislation, current NGOs can be established under the name of center, association, union, society, group, committee and foundation. The four main divisions are: Advocacy; Religious; Humanitarian/Development; and Associations. The direction of most NGO activities in Azerbaijan can be divided as follows:

Charity and Welfare                  Children and Youth

Culture                                       Ecology and Environment

Education                                   Health

Law and Rights Protection        Migrants and Refugees/IDPs

Minorities                                  Research/Resource Centers

Veteran and Invalid                   Women and Gender

In the following sections, we describe them and their scopes of activities in full.

Advocacy NGOs

In general, advocacy refers to the provision of support to a cause. More specifically, these organizations strive to address specific problems of a particular part of society and to represent their issues and protect their rights in the policy-making and public domains. Advocacy groups must ensure that their charters list the types of activities in which they will engage. Formal political activity is restricted under the NGO Law. These groups often take on projects that may also fall into one of the other three categories. Some of the major advocacy sub-groups are explained below.

Women’s organizations

For Azerbaijan, this is one of the more recent fields of activity in terms of foundation and formation of advocacy organizations. Women have had a positive effect in the republic through their active participation as individuals and in small groups in the national liberation movement, in economic life, and in important events of politics. However, they have been slow to organize on a national level. This has prevented their capacity to act on the highest level or to quickly grow. In 1995 the republic had several women’s organizations, among which the Woman and Development Center, Azerbaijan Republic Women’s Council, and the D. Aliyeva Women’s Rights Protection Society were notable for their active work. The World Women’s Congress held in Peking in 1995 accelerated the foundation process of women’s organizations in Azerbaijan.

Now our republic has about 30 women’s organizations. Since their profiles and concerns are not similar, their potentials and aims are also different. Women’s organizations that intend to be active in the social and political processes sometimes seek cooperation with political parties and participation in political events. The high number of women’s organizations in the republic does not mean that they cover or engage in all concerns of women. The key fields are health care, education, and protection of women’s rights. Registration for these organizations is normally easy. This field has great potential for joint activity with government structures and active involvement in their important events.

Children’s and youth organizations

When Azerbaijan regained its state independence, one of the significant laws the republic enacted simultaneously with other directives was the “Law about Youth Policy in Azerbaijan Republic.” Although a legal base has been laid for the government position on youth policy, both material and human resources for youth organizations’ are insufficient. Youth advocacy organizations often formed as a result from the desire to participate in the political process and the scarcity of employment opportunities. It should be noted that youth organizations are mainly composed of students. Partially as a result of the nature of this group, such organizations do not have a long duration. Major organizations of this sub-group include the Enlightened Youth Organization of Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijan Democratic Development Fund, and the Young Lawyers.

As a result of the conflict and the transition period, orphans and refugee children in Azerbaijan now compose a significant vulnerable population. A number of organizations were formed to assist this group. Buta, established in 1995, was one of the first organizations active in the fields of care for refugee, invalid and orphaned children. A similar union is Umid Yeri whose goal is to help these children resume a normal life by securing them rights for health, education and rest. An example of an organization working with a more specific population is the Republic Association of Parents of Children with Thalassemia, which has been providing assistance since 1994.

Human rights organizations

The Azerbaijan League on Defense of Children’s Rights was established in 1990 and was one of the first human rights organizations registered in Azerbaijan. In 1991, their main concern was helping Azerbaijan meet the standards stated in the UN Convention on Children’s Rights and monitoring steps of the Government in this direction. The Human Rights Protection Center was established in 1993 to respond to numerous needs, including the rights of prisoners. Despite many attempts, this center was not registered until December 1999. As in other focus areas, there emerged a need to provide support and resources for the numerous organizations involved in these activities. The Human Rights Resource Center was established in June 1998 to provide humanitarian and moral support to organizations active in the field of human rights protection.

Religious Organizations

The foundation and legalization of religious organizations in Azerbaijan started mainly after Azerbaijan Republic regained its state independence. Since freedom of belief was restricted as part of the policy of the former USSR, people had to illegally practice and celebrate their religious traditions.

Before the official foundation of religious organizations, people began to demonstrate their return to and learning interest in Islam. This intention helped lead to the foundation of several religious advocacy centers in Azerbaijan. These centers, like the Fraternity Association and the Islam Advocacy Association, started to publish a wide range of religious books, leaflets and manuals to raise awareness of Islam among people. Many people show acceptance of Islam because domestic life and our traditions are closely connected with Islam.

In addition to Islamic centers, there also operate several Christian, Krishna, Bahai, and Jewish religious agencies in Azerbaijan. The Government laid a legal foundation for their activity. One example is the Jewish Women’s Organization that has operated since 1992. Their social protection efforts include elderly, homebound/shut-in invalids, children invalids, and widows. Advocacy efforts of these institutions are more active than their Islamic counterparts. Religious centers and organizations on the whole are not allowed to proselytize. As a result, they restrict their activities to serving needs of their corresponding religious communities.

Humanitarian and Development Organizations

1988 became the first year for the foundation of humanitarian and development organizations. Humanitarian NGOs aim to provide assistance by responding to needs of refugees and other needy populations. The Government created a legal base for the activity of humanitarian organizations, but their activities are monitored. The humanitarian organizations cover many sectors, wide coverage area, labor power and social support. A major focus has been relief assistance, especially for populations affected by the Karabagh conflict and the transition process. In reality, distribution of humanitarian aid to refugees in Azerbaijan started long before the establishment of most local NGOs. Much of this work was accomplished by international NGOs (INGO) from western countries active in Azerbaijan and UNHCR. Later, local NGOs began to take part.

As the need for relief assistance began to diminish in the late 1990s, some of these organizations began to re-focus on the need to develop various sectors of Azerbaijan. They were joined by a number of new organizations to meet the growing importance to facilitate sustainable development and strengthen the growth of civil society. Activities of these organizations include environmental protection, skills training, public awareness campaigns, social research, and more specific projects aimed at alleviating particular social problems.

Included in this category of organizations are charitable foundations. Some of the initial ones were established to provide financial aid to the refugees from Armenian territory. They accomplished their mission and later transformed into new types of organizations. Istisu, Alinja, Aghrydagh, the People’s Committee for Support to Karabakh, and other organizations are additional examples.


Associations are our last category. They include professional, trade, scientific and cultural organizations that aim to improve conditions for those groups.

Scientific associations

Despite the great scientific potential of our republic, there are few strong research centers operating on republic-wide basis. However, hundreds of scientists and researchers have been involved in research and experience exchange projects organized by international agencies, such as ECA (U.S. Government, formerly USIA), IREX, ACCELS, and OSI/SOROS. Azerbaijani researchers and scientists continue to demonstrate our scientific potential in research institutes of economically developed and technically advanced countries all over the world, like in the USA, Turkey, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Japan, Germany and Great Britain. These specialists have great potential to actively join, form and engage in scientific associations.

One example of such an organization is a scientific society for education and student-related affairs founded at the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences called Society Bilik (Knowledge). However, their activities are currently limited due to financial problems. Unfortunately the Government is unable to financially support activities of local institutions and organizations, which otherwise would be able to carry out a wide range of projects that would contribute to the development of sciences in the republic.

Cultural and creative associations

Perhaps, culture and creativity is one of the advanced fields in the social environment of Azerbaijan Republic. Organizations in this field are notable for their wide range of activities. Some cultural centers are Samur Cultural Center, Simurg Cultural Center, Artists Confederation, the Cinematographers Confederation, and the Cultural Foundation. Cultural centers for ethnic minorities also fall under the sphere of cultural and creative organizations.

Official registration of such organizations face minimal problems. When compared with the overall material and technical level of all Azerbaijan NGOs, the potential of these organizations are better prepared to take on projects. However, Azerbaijan’s cultural and creative potential is virtually dormant, primarily due to limited financial support. Cultural and creative organizations prefer to apply to either local businesses or to foreign organizations’ representatives to solve to their financial problems. However, philanthropy though is also in the beginning stages of development in the republic. Current domestic popularity, foreign relations and cooperation are growing over time.

NGOs and Civil Society

We have described types of NGOs active in Azerbaijan. Although each type has a particular scope of activity, every organization can help itself by maintaining awareness of the large issues that can effect its work and mission as well as helping others learn about the NGO’s activities and its beneficiaries. In this way, every NGO has a role in advocacy and policy-making.

Advocacy and policy-making

The action representing a specific sub-group of the larger population so that the Government and the general public can be informed and aware of their needs and concerns is called advocacy. This can be accomplished through public awareness campaigns, press releases, news articles about projects, brochures, or letters to officials and agencies. In other words, advocacy is simply making sure that the general public has good information about the NGO and its work.

Policy-making is the process of bringing issues to public and government attention with the desired effect of changing legislation or current practice. Development, the process of reform, restructuring, and/or capacity building of a group, institution or nation, is not just the concern of the just one sector but all of society.

The third sector

Today in Azerbaijan, a transformation is taking place. We now have the opportunity to participate in shaping the future of the republic. This process depends on the involvement not only of government agencies, media and business, but also of ordinary people who are able to share information about issues and concerns that may not be available by other means. During the Soviet period, such involvement was not possible, and only now are private individuals and organizations able to become involved in the political, economic and social life of the republic.

These roles do not mean overt political activity. What we mean is engaging in the process of policy making. When the Government of Azerbaijan considers new legislation and reforms, decisions should be based on broad information. Therefore, many sources are necessary. This is important since the situation of Azerbaijan is very complex. In our population, there are many groups, many needs and many concerns. Properly understanding the extent of a problem or prioritizing responses is an understandably difficult task. This is where non-governmental organizations and the third sector have a role to play.

Civil society is described as the third sector. The first sector is the Government that forms the major political division of life. The Government acts at the national, regional and local level and is represented by the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The media sometimes acts as a fourth part by providing information about government actions and as acting as an occasional watchdog as do opposition parties. The second sector is business and industry. They form a major part of the economic life of a nation. The third sector is the social sector, the one that represents conditions of private life of the general population. If we define the term democracy as “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” we can then understand that an essential part of this process is the involvement of people in the whole political process.

As we have described, there are many types of NGOs active in our republic, but all of them are parts of the third sector. They can be divided into four groups, and each of them is responding to different needs. Sometimes though, direct assistance to a population is not enough. Deeper changes must be made, often at a legislative level. One example is providing assistance for refugees. An NGO might design a project to help find jobs for them, but protecting their right to keep these jobs or for the legal basis for such an opportunity to exist can only take place with support of the Government. This support though can not happen if the Government is unaware of the need. Somehow, this information must be communicated in an effective manner using proper routes.

Advocacy and policy-making in practice

A prime example of NGOs becoming involved in policy-making is the joint advocacy action used by the NNF to help bring into existence an NGO Law that reflected the needs and wishes of the NGO community. The active participation of NGOs in the creation of the “Law on NGOs” was one of the most important, recent events in the development of the third sector of Azerbaijan. When Milli Mejlis (National Assembly) considered drafting a new law on NGOs, local NGOs in collaboration with the National NGO Forum contacted the representatives of Milli Mejlis to announce their intention to participate in the discussion and preparation of the law. This participation took place with the first reading of the legislation and comments arising were included in preparations for the second reading. NGO interaction with deputies and joint collaboration with local media played important roles in this process.

At the beginning of 2000, a retreat at the Zaghulba resort was held to discuss the draft law. The meeting was attended by more than 150 NGOs, the head of the Political and Social Department of the Presidential Apparatus, Milli Mejlis’ Social Policy Commission members and their NGO representative. They were divided into different groups to discuss the draft law, and an expert group was set up to discuss the draft law in specifics. Then their suggestions on the draft law were presented to Milli Mejlis. As a result of effective collaboration, a second meeting was convened in the Hotel Avropa. Parliament Commission members and NGO representatives attended this session. Suggestions resulting from these joint discussions were included in the third and final reading of the draft law that was then ratified by the Milli Mejlis.

Civil society and your NGO

Your NGO should continually attempt to maintain awareness of legislative changes and policy issues that might affect your mission. Participation in the National NGO Forum, monitoring the media and related reports, communicating with similar organizations and maintaining good relations with your communities and beneficiaries are ways not only to update your knowledge. It is also a way to share your experiences with them, which will help make your voice heard, and possibly help you to find new projects to undertake thereby ensuring the continuity of your organization’s activities.

Society for Humanitarian Research


History of Azerbaijan NGOs

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