Organizational Culture of Educational

Organizational Culture of Educational

Organizational Culture of Educational
Non-Government Organizations in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan

Eddie McGee


            In August 2004, I began work as an English Language Senior Fellow with the United States Department of State’s Office of English Language Programs in Ganje, Azerbaijan.  The director of the Ganje Education Information Center (GEIC) escorted me to Ganje from the capital, Baku.  It was the beginning of my association with educational non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Ganje and throughout Azerbaijan.  A few days later a meeting was held at a local university where I was to conduct English teacher training.  At the entrance of the English department was a sign that read “Department of the English Grammar.”  The dean of the English department sputtered English with archaically formal phrases and couldn’t be bothered to listen to anyone around him, regularly interrupting as he pleased.  He and another dean repeatedly demanded that the university needed manuals.  When I suggested it was books that were needed, a tedious debate ensued--one from which I was summarily excluded--as to whether books or manuals were the correct word.  I gave a short needs assessment questionnaire to the “professors,” some of whom could not give detailed answers in writing.  Subsequent teacher training sessions were poorly attended by the faculty, some of whom discouraged their colleagues and students from associating with me.

            In general, I found that university life in Ganje ended at 2:00 p.m., with few extracurricular activities or student associations.  I rarely saw faculty outside the university setting.  During meetings aimed at the professional development of faculty through teacher training, all too often individuals uttered the phrase “May I go?” and excused themselves.  Most every formal educational institution I worked with in Ganje never gave me many classes to teach or any responsibilities.  One secondary school teacher attributed the low level of English and academic rigor at universities to some faculty wanting to do things the same way they had in the past.  With low salaries and lack of support from a central government authority, some academicians have had to seek other means of earning a living, meaning at times the exacting of bribes from students and/or earning money outside an institutional setting.  A faculty member at one university stated that the academic program was nearly the same as in Soviet times, with the older professors discouraging innovation.  In his estimation, it would take ten to twenty years to reform the system.

            In Spring  2005, an article was  published  in a  local  Ganje newspaper claiming that foreign Christian missionaries had come to Ganje, which led some educational authorities to suspect Peace Corps volunteers and me of missionary activity.  I had been visiting English classes at a local college and was abruptly told not to return.  Even a year later such rumors persisted.  One government inspector knew of my presence at another institute and seriously questioned my presence there despite my appointment to work there by the Minister of Education.  Other rumors began in Spring 2006 that related American presence in Azerbaijan to the anticipated invasion of Iran by the U.S. military.  So it was in the non-formal educational sector that I made most of my efforts in English Language Teaching, International Education, and civil society development.

            A significant problem in the Azerbaijani education system is the low salary for teachers, partly responsible for bribery that exists in some educational institutions.  It is a two-tiered, highly organized system in which 1) bribes are exacted by teachers for grades, certificates, diplomas and other favors, the money being passed upward through the organizational structure in percentage increments, and 2) teaching and administrative positions are purchased.1  At the secondary level, some students and parents willingly pay bribes for excused absences so that students can get out of class to study with private tutors.2  Freedom House reports that one of the most common types of bribery in Azerbaijan is procuring better grades for schoolchildren.  In some cases, the state education system in Azerbaijan fulfills the purposes of instilling patriotism and adherence to authority of the ruling political party, maintaining the traditions of patronage and nepotism, while serving as a platform for exacting bribes.  The system, as with other sectors in Azerbaijan, as it exists some fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, largely is not addressing economic, political, and social inequalities.  All of this brings into question whether education in Azerbaijan could any longer be considered a public good.

            In the face of static educational environments in the state sector, the bulk of my work in Azerbaijan has been in the non-formal sector, which has a much more welcoming and productive atmosphere characterized by local organizations operating more or less autonomously from the state.  From August 2004 to June 2006, I worked with the following four organizations:

Local NGOs (LNGO) Ganje, Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan Young Leaders Association (AYLA)
Azerbaijan English Teachers’ Association (AzETA)
Ganje Education Information Center (GEIC)

            It should be noted that the four organizations are for the most part separate entities, though they may work on similar projects such as civil society development, English Language Teaching, and academic and professional exchanges.


            The Association of Young Leaders of Azerbaijan as an educational institution, resource and coordinating center for NGOs was created in November 1999 in Ganje by a group of young ecologists, students, and lawyers.  Its mission is the improvement of the state of civil society, civic initiatives, active participation of citizens in the processes of building civil society, development of a free market economy, democratic principles, and the creation of a good atmosphere for the third sector in western regions of Azerbaijan.  In September 2005, I founded the Center for English Language Learning and International Education (CELLIE) at the Leaders’ School (LS), a National Endowment for Democracy (NED) funded youth program that is part of a larger organization, the Azerbaijan Young Leaders’ Association (AYLA).  AYLA registered as an NGO in 2005 under the name Young Leaders’ Education Training and Development Public Union.  Much of the data collected in this research was from the Leaders' School staff and participants as my presence there was the longest and most intense of the organizations I worked with in Ganje.


            AzETA is an NGO established and officially registered in 1996.  Since its establishment AzETA has worked closely with the British Council, Open Society Institute (OSI), and the United  States Embassy in Azerbaijan.  AzETA’s main focus is to provide support for high quality education in English Language Teaching (ELT) through the professional development of English language teachers in Azerbaijan.  AzETA has a strategy of supporting ELT through different projects: teacher training, materials development, study tours, television matinees, conversation groups, workshops, and conferences.  There are currently five branches, including one in Ganje.  I conducted teacher training sessions at the Ganje branch as well as at other branches, encouraged organizational development, assisted with materials development, organized conferences, participated in study tours, and presented at regional and national conferences.


            Bilik means knowledge.  The society is located at the Ganje Central Library and engages is an array of education and community projects, including professional development for secondary school teachers, infrastructure projects in refugee communities, computer training, and work with disabled children.  I assisted them with grant applications, donor solicitation, and English teacher training in the secondary schools.


            The GEIC, an affiliate of the OSI, advises students for study abroad, offers free Internet access and computer training, and an NGO resource center, and has a sizable library of English books and information on North American and European universities.  It is also a venue for English classes, TOEFL and GRE preparation, lectures, seminars, and training.  At the GEIC, I gave programs about American culture, showed English language films, participated in International Education Week, and advised students, teachers, and professors about opportunities for academic and professional exchange.  The GEIC offers training on a wide variety of topics including elections, organizational development, women’s issues, human rights, human trafficking, and guest speakers from international organizations such as the Eurasia Foundation, the OSI, and the U.S. Embassy.

Research Question

            The following research question is posed in order to reflect on my experience in the educational NGO sector in Azerbaijan.  “What has been the involvement of Ganje area NGOs (AYLA, AzETA, Bilik, and GEIC) on both educational and institutional reform and civil society development in Azerbaijan?”

Civil Society Development in Azerbaijan

            Factors affecting social conditions in Azerbaijan include the oil industry's ill effects on the political development of society, ethnic conflict, the Nagorno-Karabakh war, isolationist tendencies, corruption, social apathy, and dependency on centralized authority.  Some of these factors come into play in the  education sector characterized by low teacher salaries, bribery, under funding, and obsolete curricula.  In light of such conditions, it is argued that NGOs can play an advocacy role in education reform.  Finally, the influence of International Non-government Organizations (INGO) in Azerbaijan is shown to be supportive of LNGOs, though INGO efforts at times prove to be counterproductive leading to dysfunctional organizational behavior.

            The findings of a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) assessment team from 2004 that researched Azerbaijani NGOs whose activities met this definition of civil society was: “public interest advocacy organizations outside the control of the state that seek to influence the state on the behalf of public aims.”  The definition was broadened to include civic activism in the form of citizens’ action and advocacy that includes but is not limited to NGO activity.3

            An active civil society relies on the freedom of association, the ability of citizens to interact with one another for any purposes that are not illegal and do not infringe on the rights of others without fear of government interference and retribution.  Freedom of association is a right and entitlement, not something that is granted to citizens by the government.  Article 11 on Freedom of Assembly and Association of The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) guarantees freedom of association, which is further supported by ECtHR case law.  Restrictions are permitted when prescribed by law, public policy, and when necessary to achieve the intended purposes of a democratic society.4  Azerbaijan’s accession to the Council of Europe in 2001 and its ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights ostensibly underscore the freedom of association and civil society development in Azerbaijan.  The Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic guarantees the equal right of persons to gather freely and form organizations with others as well.  Since gaining independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan’s transition, not unlike that in other Newly Independent States (NIS), has encountered factors specific to civil society development, namely the processes of economic, political, and social transformation, integration into world systems, and new methods of governance.

            Bagirov cites Aristotle’s view of a  fully-fledged citizen as  one who is involved both in governance and being governed.  In the case of Azerbaijan’s transition, Bagirov sees this reflexivity in light of decentralization, a two-way street paved at the initiative of those who govern and by citizens and their associations, the latter taking over where “the helplessness and futility” of the former left off.  In addition to reconstruction of the economy and governance institutions, Bagirov points out the importance of the populace realizing that local problems can be solved independently joining one’s efforts with others in public association, a position which others concur with in the context of community development.5

            In more than fifteen years after independence from the Soviet Union, this reconstruction of the public awareness of civil society is a formidable task in the face of seventy years of Soviet rule in Azerbaijan in which the state was the ultimate source for determining the public good.  Although the associations such as trade union organizations, disability centers, women’s and youth organizations could be formed on the basis of self-initiative, wholly independent organizations were strictly prohibited in Soviet times.

Modernity and the Soviet System

            McGhee sees civil society in light of the concept of modernity, a product of ideas of the European Enlightenment including rationality and the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of the progress and improvement of humanity.  The emergence of modernity in Soviet times exercised social control through the ruling elite that promoted uniformity changing from a “gamekeeper mentality (allowing wildlife to flourish within certain boundaries) to a gardener mentality (carefully planning and managing the growth of life).  In consideration of the Soviet system, it was a “counter-paradigm of modernity” emerging under the influence of Russia’s imperial past and its interaction with the West, one that was unable to accept the plurality of domestic and global concerns.6

            The Soviet system was overly organized, but under bureaucratized leading to what Rose calls an antimodern society imbued with organizational failure.  Organizations often failed to operate impersonally, predictably, and according to the rule of law.  Rules were often subverted by politics, bribes, interinstitutional bartering, and personal contacts resulting in an uncertain social environment.  In response, the populace protected themselves from such an organizational environment through social networks that worked for the interests of a narrow circle even to the point of exploiting formal institutions.  Instead of being deployed in the spirit of cooperation and trust, social capital networks may be used against an antimodern state, and Rose claims that these unmodern networks did not end with the collapse of the Soviet Union and decentralization of the Soviet system.7

Patron-Client Relations

            Hyden warns that decentralization is no panacea.  The control of the state apparatus at lower levels by local, traditional patrons could not only be a means of strengthening the central government, but also an impediment to the emergence of civil society.8  Dudwick and others further point to the persistence of paternalistic relationships, extended family networks, and a strong ethos of reciprocity among relatives in the former Soviet Union (FSU).9  McGhee describes such relations as wealthy, influential patrons controlling exchange relations while protecting clients in a hostile environment.  The author continues by saying that patron-client relations, paradoxical in their near universal persistence in Azerbaijan as a means of influencing decisions affecting the distribution of resources, exhibit unequal relations that can be inimical to a democratic system of representation.10

            In the case of Azerbaijan, Rasizade cites boundless opportunities for black marketeering monopolized by those with connections  to the ruling clan.  In addition, clientalistic networks have privatized the state while the legislature and political opposition have become avenues for realizing private interests, a phenomenon to which civil society organizations are not immune.  A decline in the ability of the government to maintain minimal levels of public services in education, health care, pensions, and other sectors is a daily part of life in Azerbaijan.  The dependence on patronage from the regime by clients is a major reason for maintenance of the status quo for the sake of self-preservation, hardly an inducement for reform supported by civil society.11

            Sabanadze demonstrates the link between the weakness of states structures and patron-client relations in terms of ethnicity in the Caucasus:

“In the context of collapsing state structures, national economies and social security, identification with one's ethnic kin became extremely important and further strengthened the role of ethnicity as a prime source of personal identification.  Individuals were identified mainly in terms of their ethnic or other collective identities,which practically brought ethnic conflict from the public into the private sphere, blurring the distinction between the two and further encouraging a stigmatization of individuals solely in terms of their ethnic affiliations.”12

Non-Government Organizations and Civil Society

            Where strong kinship ties are the prevalent form of association and democratic values are alien to the existing political culture, the formation of weak ties in the form of social networks may aid societies in democratic transition.  NGOs conceived as weak social networks may contribute to the development of democratic values, though NGOs by no means constitute the whole of civil society or civic engagement, nor are NGOs always democratic.13

            According to USAID, The 2004 Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia lacks the capacity for advocacy on a large scale and hence has a weak impact on public policy and public opinion due to underdeveloped support structures, intersectoral competition, weak relationships with constituents, and lack of positive public image.14

            The lack of legal recognition, full-time employees, written rules, and independent funding leaves one wondering whether  some NGOs are authentic organizations.  According to one member of an INGO working in Azerbaijan, by 2005 there were 1500 registered NGOs and out of these 400 active NGOs with an office and programs in Azerbaijan. Challenges NGOs face include lack of sustainable and stable funding sources, clear goals and mission, mechanisms of support, management, planning, skills, qualifications, cooperation with other NGOs and presentation skills.  The INGO worker recommends the following for improved organizational functioning: a clear mission, focus, annual strategic planning, communicating the mission to donors, public relations, transparent and participant management systems, staff orientation, training, capacity building, local partnerships, knowing the needs of the community, income generation, and private sector relations.

Civil Society in Ganje, Azerbaijan

            The Bilik Society of Ganje, Azerbaijan, defines civil society as the elimination of obstacles to the active participation of citizens in the decision-making process in matters of importance to the country through the establishment of relations between citizens and local government.  In view of the fact that people have accepted the transition to a market economy and civil society, a main aim of Bilik is to bring about the broadest possible participation of stakeholders in the formation of civil society.  Societal problems should not be the sole responsibility of executive government  powers. NGOs, communities, municipalities, local government should play roles as well.  Bilik sees civil society not as a geographic space, but a social one (personal communication, April 10, 2006).

            The Ganje Education Information Center (GEIC) looks at civil society development through creating an open society, as explained on the GEIC website.

“The concept of open society is based on the recognition that people act on imperfect knowledge and nobody is in possession of the ultimate truth.  Open Societies are characterized by a reliance on the rule of law, the existence of a democratically elected government, a diverse and vigorous civil society, respect for minority opinions, and [a] free market economy.  A closed society expends most of its energies in preserving the existing order, whereas an open society takes law and the respect for others as its starting point and creates progress and prosperity from that base.”15

            The GEIC seeks to minimize traditional society and Soviet influences by putting no restrictions on participation, fostering inclusivity, and allowing individuals to choose whether to participate in activities.  In contrast in some other organizations, members feel pressured to follow the will of the director.  Behavior is restricted.  There is a lack of places to express oneself in society and find those of like mind.  Some members or other organizations lack of understanding of organization’s mission and a spirit of volunteerism.

            The Leaders’ School (LS) addresses the importance of civil society development in its mission statement which seeks to improve the state of the third sector, civil society, civic initiatives, the active participation of citizens in the processes of building civil society, development of the free market economy, democratic principles, and the creation of a stable atmosphere for the third sector in the western region of Azerbaijan.

            Like many other post-Soviet countries, Azerbaijan is in the transition from a totalitarian regime to democracy.  Reforms in the country have touched upon all social areas: political, social, economic and cultural.  The country also faces a number of problems similar to other post-Soviet countries.  With the closing of many industries in Ganje, unemployment is threatening the transition from a socialistic system to a market economy.  It is important for youth to have training for a useful profession, skills, abilities, and leadership which will lead to active participation in society.  Youth studying at the LS take courses in Marketing, Management, Law, Journalism, English language and Computers.

            The statement goes on to say that education plays a significant role in the transition to a democratic society, and in particular in secondary education, because schools form the consciousness of future citizens, the models of behavior, and instill certain values.  The goal of democratic education is the creation of conditions for forming of independent, free citizens, who possess profound knowledge.  Vestiges of the old Soviet education system are still present in public education.  Old teaching methods and textbooks have not changed and are inaccurately translated into Azeri, along with outdated lessons.  Not only may graduates of the public school system not be prepared well for the future, but also indigent youth with no access to education end up in the street leading to the increase of crime and drug abuse.

            Interestingly, in interviews with AzETA members the term civil society was rarely if ever used.  The national president, however, expressed the following things are encouraged.  People feel free at AzETA because the organization isn’t related to the government.  Freedom of speech exists.  There is no threat of punishment or losing one’s job.  There is a shared sense of responsibility through the delegation of authority, committees, and special interest groups, one of which is devoted to civic education.

            At the national level, officers and the executive board are elected.  The Ganje branch exhibits a more traditional management structure.  The founder’s sister has been head of the organization for two years.  No relationship exists with local government or the Department of Education even though several visits were made to establish ties.  In the branch head’s observation, local government puts walls between itself and others.  It does not want people or organizations to approach them, which was attributed to the influence of the Soviet Union.  It is a stance which persists.


            The consensus from interviews and NGO sector reports is that the overall impact of NGOs in Azerbaijan is weak.  NGOs continue to face obstacles such as government hostility, social apathy, donor dependency, counterproductive donor practices, and organizational issues.  There are some promising points for the NGO sector in Ganje.  The first is untapped LNGO potential.  The LS could easily admit five times as many students and expand programs into the western regions if it only had the resources, which will most likely not come from a single donor organization.  English teachers in the regions would like to establish more AzETA branches, but at times are hindered by local education ministries, the lack of human resources, and the fact that no one in AzETA earns a salary.  A Peace Corps volunteer observed that many teachers like the idea of having a branch, but are deterred when they see the amount of work that is involved on top of teaching loads, private tutoring, and family responsibilities.

            Research, interviews, and my own observations show that, in general, in institutional environments in Azerbaijan,  relationships take precedence over rule of law, mechanistic bureaucracy, and transparent organizational structure, decision-making, rules, goals, and policies.  As alluded to earlier in the research, family and kinship ties play an influential role in a system of patron-client relations, a complex web of asymmetrical but mutually  beneficial  social networks influencing the exchange of resources.16  In return for protection from powerful patrons, clients must show loyalty and observe subordination at all levels, especially to key figures.  One long term INGO director stated that in Azerbaijan, some NGOs are similar to government in their organizational structure: centralized with one key figure who micromanages and is the driving force of the organization.  That some organizations are like a family in Azerbaijan may be not be just a metaphor.

            Organizational structure, therefore, may be particularly relevant to LNGOs, government, and donor organizations in Ganje.  The numerous studies and interviews conducted in this research point to what Perrow in Bolman & Deal calls particularism, the intrusion of personal and political forces unrelated to organizational goals.  Rules, policies, and standard operating procedures bring about predictability and uniformity in terms of conditions of work, task completion, and personnel issues.  Vertical coordination in the form of an authority figure micromanaging employees through a strict hierarchy and subordination might be efficient in predictable situations where conformity is critical.  A weakness of this kind of structure is when the organization becomes dependent on its leader.17  For example, instead of an organization's leader handling every aspect of the grant application procedure, getting a grant could be more of a shared task.  This would mean, however that the leader would have to give up some control.  Shared tasks would lead hopefully to a shared sense of ownership so that the leader doesn't think of the organization as his or her property or investment, as is sometimes the case according to one interviewee.

            Bolman & Deal propose an alternative organizational structure with boards, committees, informal meetings, and networks that would provide lateral coordination for the completion of  complex tasks in fast-changing environments.  In this way, initiatives and strategy emerge from many places.  The challenges LNGOs face are unique and there is no one set formula for an effective organizational structure.  Whether vertical or lateral, or a blend of the two, an effective organization is one that achieves an alignment between its organizational structure and its goals.

            There are numerous donor organizations active in Azerbaijan and the Caucasus seeking to improve social conditions.  Though a relatively obscure region and to a degree isolated internationally and internally, the Caucasus is of vast geopolitical significance to larger countries on its borders (Turkey, Russia, Iran), Western countries, Central Asia, and China. Conflict in the Caucasus has and will affect a globalized, interconnected world.  Gas and oil riches, economic development, and macroeconomic stability have not led to better living standards for all, resulting in social divides and imbalances among the vulnerable, socially isolated, and voiceless.

            Managing effective humanitarian  assistance  programs in Azerbaijan requires careful consideration of local contexts.  The size of Maine, Azerbaijan has eleven climate zones, distinct regions, ethnic groups, and a cultural milieu with quite different norms between regions.  Many interviewees commented that a majority of INGO work, funding, and resources are centered in the capital, Baku.  Successful programs in Baku may not be so successful in Ganje or in other regions.  The validity of the research findings were based on attempts to gain an understanding of NGO organizational behavior in its social, cultural, political, and economic contexts through the representation of the experiences and perceptions of local actors to bring about a better understanding of local values, expectations, social norms, and networks.18


            1 Alec Rasizade, “Azerbaijan Descending Into the Third World,” Journal of Third World Studies 21:191-220, n1, 2004.

            2 Iveta Silova and E. Kazimzade, The Private Tutoring Epidemic: When Bad Teachers Become Great Tutors (Baku, Azerbaijan: Center for Innovations in Education, 2005).

            3 W. Russell et al., USAID: Azerbaijan Civil Society Sector Assessment (Washington D.C.: Management Systems International, Azerbaijan: USAID, 2005).

            4 L. Schmidt, “Developing Civil Society in Azerbaijan: Obstacles To the Freedom of Association,” Enabling Civil Society: Practical Aspects of Freedom of Association Source Book (Budapest, Hungary: Columbia University Budapest Law Center and Baku, Azerbaijan: Open Society Institute-Assistance Foundation, 2003).

            5 O. Bayulgen, “Facing the Dilemma of Global Capitalism: The Case of Azerbaijan,” Central Asian Survey 22:209-220, n2/3, June/September 2003.

            6 Raymond McGhee, “Organizational Culture in Private Higher Education: A Look at a New Private University in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan” (Ph.D. diss., UCLA, 1997).

            7 R. Rose, “Getting Things Done in an Anti-modern Society: Social Capital Networks in Russia,” P. Dasgupta and I. Serageldin, eds., Social Capital: A Multifaceted Perspective (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 1999), pp. 147-171.

            8 G. Hyden, “Civil Society, Social Capital, and Development: Dissection of a Complex Discourse,” Studies in Comparative International Development 32:3-30, n1, Spring 1997.

            9 N. Dudwick, et al., eds., When Things Fall Apart: Qualitative Studies of Poverty in the Former Soviet Union (World Bank, 2003).

            10 McGhee, loc. cit.

            11 Rasizade, loc. cit.

            12 N. Sabanadze, International Involvement in the South Caucasus. (Flensburg, Germany: European Centre for Minority Issues, ECMI Working Paper
#15, 2002), p. 30.

            13 Gibson in A. Kuchukeeva and J. O’Loughlin, “Civic Engagement and Democratic Consolidation in Kyrgyzstan, ” Eurasian Geography and Economics 44:557-587, n8, 2003.

            14 C. Ehmann, et al., eds., The 2004 Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia (USAID: Bureau for Europe and Eurasia Office of Democracy, Governance and Social Transition, 2005).

            15 GEIC Website, Civil Society. Retrieved from, March 11, 2006.

            16 McGhee, loc.cit.

            17 L. Bolman and T. Deal, Reframing Organizations (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1997).

            18 Dudwick, loc. cit.