By Christa Twyford Gibson, Duke Global Health Institute
Since they immigrated to the United States from Uzbekistan years ago, Zumrad Ahmedjanova and Ulugbek Kasimov, husband and wife leaders of the Vatandosh Uzbek-American Federation, have wanted to do something for their home country. With the inauguration of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, they saw an opening. “This year, when we found out that there are big reforms going on in Uzbekistan, it felt like a big opportunity to do something,” Ahmedjanova shared.
Studying the country’s challenges, the couple determined that child welfare reform spoke to their devotion to social justice, equality, and rights for all. According to official data, 26,532 children in Uzbekistan are currently living in various types of residential institutions. The country currently lacks sufficient community-based programs to prevent family separation, early intervention services for children with disabilities, and parental supports to decrease child abuse and neglect.
After returning to Uzbekistan to conduct a rapid assessment, Ahmedjanova and Kasimov joined forces with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab within the School of Social Work and the Duke Center for International Development within the Sanford School of Public Policy. The UNC School of Social Work and its Innovation Lab received a grant from the Oak Foundation, which allowed them to bring seven key stakeholders from the Uzbekistan child welfare system to North Carolina for a weeklong training and workshop.
The week provided the group, which consisted of leaders from the Ministry of Education, state research and family service agencies, and the Women’s Committee of Uzbekistan, the opportunity to hear from US and North Carolina experts in child and family welfare. Joel Rosch, Senior Research Scholar and Policy Liaison at Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy and an adjunct professor in the Master of International Development Policy program, was a particular hit with the group. He shared his experience in coordinating a wide variety of stakeholders to implement policy reform- a challenge that greatly resonated with the group. Disparate interests and a fragmented system are two the challenges cited by workshop participants. Diana Isayeva, a child protection expert from Uzbekistan, shared. “We realize to what extent a disproportionate and fragmented system at the macro level leads to uncoordinated and under-resourced response to child’s and family’s vulnerability at the micro level.”
Despite the challenges, the group returned to Uzbekistan full of hope for the path ahead. Participants resoundingly shared that the week outside of their usual environment allowed them to coalesce around a common mission and vision for the future. “Here we can become closer to one another as people and not government officials and this chemistry is really what can move projects forward when we return to Uzbekistan, “shared Maksim Kim, Chief Specialist, International Donors and Grants Department at the Ministry of Public Education of the Republic of Uzbekistan.
Isayeva agrees. “I believe that having a leading group of people committed to driving reform and moving forward their common vision and agenda gives us a good chance to succeed in the reform process and engage more state partners.”
 Official statistics provided by Goscomstat and administrative data collected from the line ministries for 2016, UNICEF.