Uzbekistan’s Mahalla Foundation had invited me to speak at an international round table in Samarkand on the role of self-governing bodies in strengthening the family, alongside academics and other policy analysts from China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. A key feature of Uzbek civil society since the nineteenth century, the Mahalla is a self-governing community that exists in every borough, town and village of Uzbekistan. It espouses notions of community empowerment and social action as central to the well-being of citizens and society as a whole. The activities of the Mahalla committees include the provision and improvement of public services, assistance in organising traditional events, promoting compulsory education, as well as supporting low-income families, the disabled and orphaned children. Since Uzbekistan’s independence in 1991, the status of Mahallas has been governed by the country’s ‘Law on self-governing bodies of citizens.’ The Mahalla Foundation was established in 1992 in order to ensure that state support was made available to promote national historical and cultural values, folk customs and traditions, as well as the social and economic development of the nation.
The first couple of days in the capital, Tashkent, were filled with meetings with civil servants at the Ministries of Economy and Foreign Affairs. I also visited the Senate to meet with the leadership of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and went on a tour of the impressive library and museum. Next was the Amir Temur Museum, named after the great fourteenth-century emperor, who at the height of his powers controlled 26 nations. There I saw portraits of Temur and his descendants, including the scholar Ulugh Beg, who built one of the most famous medieval observatories in the world, and the ruler Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his late wife Mumtaz Mahal. Later that day, I visited the Barak-Khan Madrassa where I saw the Usman’s Koran, dating back to the seventh century.
We arrived in Samarkand on a wet winter’s day to be greeted by sounding horns played by gentlemen in native attire at the train station. Samarkand was once the capital of Temur’s Empire and known as the ‘Paradise of the Ancient East.’ It is also mentioned in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, as the seat of one of earth’s great kingdoms. The city was at the crossroads of the Great Silk Road, which connected China with the Mediterranean. We visited Registan Square in the heart of the city, which was the main trading point during Temur’s reign. Later that day, we went to see Guri Amir, Amir Temur’s mausoleum, and the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, built in honour of Temur’s wife.
We visited the Airport Mahalla in Samarkand, where we were greeted by the oqsoqol (elder), the Chairman of the Mahalla committee. Elected by residents for a two and a half year term, there are now a considerable number of female oqsoqols across the country. We were informed about proposals to create a ‘parent university’, with the aim of offering classes and advice to new and existing parents. I was surprised to hear that 49 nationalities were represented at this Mahalla, so I asked one of the translators to confirm this with the oqsoqol. Not only did he provide the necessary verification, but he invited me to join the Mahalla to bring the tally to 50!
When initially reading about the Mahalla and following these first experiences, I could not help thinking that this all sounded rather familiar. The concept of Mahalla appears to encompass many of the aims inherent within the Big Society. As an ideology and part of the legislative programme of the Conservative -Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement, the Big Society strives to empower citizens through the devolution of responsibility and authority to local communities. At the heart of this concept is the theory that local communities are best placed to identify and address local concerns and needs. It is also intended to strengthen the social capital of communities, which refers to the level of trust and co-operation among members of a given community. One can argue that this has already been achieved within the Mahalla structure. A possible explanation for the success of decentralisation and localism in Uzbekistan may rest with the notion that collectivism and paternalism are dominant theories in Eastern civil societies. These beliefs hold social cohesion and the achievement of the common good as central to society.
Therefore, collective gains are thought to be central to a stable and peaceful society. Paternalism is present in the Uzbek Mahalla, but also in areas of British public policy such as legislation on the packaging of cigarettes or the requirement to wear seatbelts in vehicles. A Bill has been introduced in the Uzbek parliament that will devolve greater powers to Mahallas to include the distribution of welfare payments. The Bill also includes measures that will allow Mahallas to act as guarantors for loans.
That evening, our hosts held a reception where we were treated to traditional Uzbek dancing and a banquet which included the Samarkand plov – Uzbekistan’s national dish which varies from region to region. The actual round table was well-attended by members from the Oliy Majlis, the Uzbek parliament, and Uzbek civil society groups. I met people from local women’s organisations and the Kamolot, which is a civic youth movement. The day ended with a round of print and television interviews. Upon returning to Tashkent, I gave a lecture on policy at the Academy of State Governance under the President of Uzbekistan. I returned to London with paintings from talented local artists called Nurillo and Kozim.
For a nation with such a colourful history, Uzbekistan should be better known in Britain. I found the Uzbeks I came across to be hospitable and open, viewing foreigners with interest rather than suspicion. It is a country where the Big Society is thriving, albeit under a different name, and a nation that has made fascinating contributions to world history and civilisation through figures such as Amir Temur and Ulugh Beg, and should enjoy the celebrity it deserves. Uzbekistan will undoubtedly gain attention on the world stage, not only because of its consistently impressive economic growth in the past decade (8.5 per cent growth in 2012), but due to the fact that it shares a border with Afghanistan and is vital to the successful withdrawal of troops in 2014. Aside from this obvious geopolitical challenge, this nation has so much to offer in terms of the arts, culture, history, academia and architecture to name a few. Uzbekistan’s rich heritage should lure both inquisitive explorers and tourists alike.