By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan –Sue Savage hopes to see the day when she’s worked herself out of a job.
As Uzbekistan director for the international group Mercy Corps, the Grosse Pointe native’s projects include encouraging community development, supporting farmer cooperatives and providing micro-loans of $30 to $150 that enable women to start their own small businesses.
The nonprofit humanitarian organization also works on community-based health programming in this landlocked Central Asian country of 25 million people.
“All of development has to do with people doing things for themselves,” she said. “Successful development is when you’re not needed any more.”
Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union until 1991. But even 11 years after independence, Soviet economic, political and social legacies remain, including widespread governmental corruption, malnutrition, lack of press freedom, ethnic tensions, high unemployment and environmental threats.
“Culturally people didn’t come together” in the past, the Grosse Pointe North High School and Wayne State University alum explained. “The Soviet philosophy was divide and conquer,” the opposite of cooperation.
Mercy Corps is an Oregon-based relief and development organization with programs in more than 35 countries affected by conflict and war. It has a 65-member staff in Uzbekistan, where much of its community development activity takes place in the Ferghana Valley. That’s the country’s most heavily populated region and has been hit hard by the closing of Russian-owned plants, the departure of many factory workers, high joblessness and few economic opportunities.
“People are used to waiting for other people to take care of their problems,” she said. “They don’t know where to direct their anger or unhappiness. We’re giving them the mental tools to identify their problems, set priorities and take steps to do something.”
While some problems require money to remedy, others don’t. For example, residents in one community were upset about their children’s poor health and felt they were being ignored. They met with the hakim Ð mayor Ð and asked for a doctor to visit their community twice a month. The mayor agreed.
Savage grew up in Grosse Pointe and started college at Michigan State University, where she planned to major in hotel and restaurant management. But after a semester, she transferred to Wayne State and studied marketing.
From there, her career and home ping-ponged. She held high-tech marketing jobs in California and Illinois, launched an ecologically friendly boutique called Savage Instincts in Chicago, then headed for Uzbekistan in 1988 as a business development manager for the United Nations Development Programme.
Her major project was helping to establish a cooperative marketing and sales organization artisans in the ancient Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. She also worked on a Web site for a project concerned with the environmentally devastated Aral Sea that straddles the border with Kazakhstan.
She then became the Central Asian assistant regional director of the International Executive Service Corps, a program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. She also worked for a few months in neighboring Tajikistan, which was still feeling the effects of a civil war and where she traveled with a bodyguard and suffered frequent illnesses.
From there it was to Florida, where her mother winters, as vice president of the Naples Area Chamber of Commerce before returning to Tashkent as Mercy Corps country director last December.
She arrived only a few months after the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, and Uzbekistan Ð which borders Afghanistan Ð was suddenly in the world spotlight with U.S. troops and increased U.S. aid.
Those changes make Mercy Corps’ work easier because the Uzbek government is “way friendlier” than during her earlier time here, she said.
Her work now reflects a full swing of the pendulum away from her previous life marketing computer-related products, she said: “This is highly relevant. I like to see when we make a positive difference in people’s lives.”
How long will stay in Central Asia? “Until it stops being interesting.”
Eric Freedman, co-bureau chief of Capital News Service, taught journalism in Uzbekistan from January until June 2002.
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By ERIC FREEDMAN