On Tuesday, I reported on the Susan G. Komen Uzbekistan Race for the Cure and the apparent relationships between Susan G. Komen for the Cure in the US and various charities run by Gulnora Karimova, including Fund Forum. A representative from Komen contacted me yesterday to correct what she described as inaccuracies in that original report.
Komen’s representative stressed that their agreement is with, and only with, the National Breast Cancer Association of Uzbekistan, and that under the agreement, they provide technical assistance and allow some level of co-branding. They emphasized that they believe the National Breast Cancer Association of Uzbekistan to be a “credible organization doing good work” and that they are supporting the organization’s efforts along with the United Nations and Europa Donna, the European Breast Cancer Coalition. They also clarified that they responded to a request for assistance from Uzbekistan’s National Breast Cancer Association and that all other organizations in Uzbekistan supporting, sponsoring, or participating in the race were selected by the Breast Cancer Association. Komen said that the bottom line for them is to help fight breast cancer, that they will support international partners who meet their standards, that they lack the capacity to police every way in which their partners market their relationship with Komen, and that they avoid getting wrapped up in politics and other causes.
Say what you will about Gulnora Karimova, but she is no fool. With her ambassadorship, honorary Ph.D., fashion line, her jewelry, and Fund Forum and its empire of legally separate charities all sharing office space, she markets herself as a glamorous, cultured philanthropist. Her efforts to forge this image get a bump when she gets featured in European magazines or partners with respected international organizations. Of course, serious aid, development, or advocacy organizations would avoid working with her and she with them, but an organization like Komen seems exactly like the kind of organization with which she would seek association. Even putting aside their recent controversies, they are a well known brand that communicates care and concern whether slapped on a bucket of chicken, a football jersey, or a charity run by a dictator’s daughter.
There is nothing to indicate that Komen is anything but credible in saying that they believe the National Breast Cancer Association of Uzbekistan to be a “credible organization doing good work” and that their one and only goal in working with them was to help women in Uzbekistan fight breast cancer. However, it is clear that associating their partnership in Uzbekistan with Gulnora is fair and the result of their lack of due diligence.
Komen’s partner in Uzbekistan, as mentioned above, is the National Breast Cancer Association of Uzbekistan. The organization is, however, a subsidiary component of another charity, Women’s Assembly, that proclaims on its main page that Gulnora plays a leading role in their projects. (Sponsors of this charity include the multinational pharmaceutical companies Novartis, Hoffman La Roche, Ebewe, and Sanofi Aventis.) It is difficult to find the Breast Cancer Association’s activities on the Women’s Assembly website, but according to Europa Donna, they have a track record raising awareness about and supporting women with breast cancer.
Women’s Assembly is one of several organizations, including Fund Forum, Mehr Nuri, and the Social Initiatives Support Fund, that are all at 80 Uzbekistan Street. The registration information for women.uz lists the same Fund Forum employee, Amir Khaidarov, as fundforum.uz as its technical and billing contact. (Mr. Khaidarov is also the contact listed for Kelajak Ovozi and Fund Forum is given for Mehr Nuri.) These could all be independent organizations that are absolutely separate… but legal documents notwithstanding, they simply are not.
Additionally, it takes little effort find Gulnora’s marks all over the Uzbekistan breast cancer walks. In a story on the 2010 walk at Fund Forum, they are described as Gulnara’s brainchild. The race is showing up in news stories and in the rotating advertisements box at Fund Forum’s front page. She lists the National Breast Cancer Association as one of the organizations with which she is affiliated on her personal page, where the walks are also described as one of her charitable activities.
The Komen representative with whom I spoke suggested the organization had no knowledge of links to Gulnora Karimova and insisted that their partnership was not with her Fund Forum. She further suggested that the ways in which the National Breast Cancer Association’s partnership with Susan G. Komen for the Cure were being portrayed in Uzbekistan and the relationships that the Association made with other Uzbek partners were beyond their ability to control. Fair enough, but it is hard for them to claim no knowledge of Fund Forum’s involvement. Unless UzDaily is fabricating the story, Fund Forum employees received training from a Komen representative in Tashkent in January. Additionally, Fund Forum is linked from Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s international races page, but only because they sometimes simply post the links their partners send them, according to Komen’s spokesperson.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to help people battle a terrible disease regardless of whether or not they live under a corrupt, oppressive regime. In fact, the story here that is more important is the one about Gulnora’s constellation of charities using a well-known western organization to bolster her legitimacy. In this instance, Komen’s chief failure was to fully vet their partner in Uzbekistan, something they said they do not have the capacity to do. More importantly though, their one and only concern is fighting breast cancer, the spokesperson told me, and this is a way for them to help out in Uzbekistan.
From the Komen representative’s reaction when talking to me, the organization appears caught entirely by surprise about the negative reactions they are receiving. Wonkette and Foreign Policy picked up the story, and the reactions to it on Twitter can be summed up with the question, “What were they thinking?””
The answer is that they weren’t. Not about this anyway.
There is a lesson here, and it is not a new one. Especially when working in countries governed by oppressive regimes, organizations need to be aware of all the risks involved, including public relations risks. For whatever reason, Susan G. Komen for the Cure failed to fully vet its partner in Uzbekistan and assess the risks of working with them. The National Breast Cancer Association of Uzbekistan met the credibility and performance standards that Susan G. Komen for the Cure sets for its partners. But because they were unaware that the Association is associated with Gulnora Karimova and her empire of charitable organizations, that these organizations actively work to soften Gulnora’s and Uzbekistan’s international reputations, and that partnering with a Gulnora-affiliated organization would expose them to negative publicity, they were unprepared to respond to questions about Gulnora or the Fund Forum beyond insisting they are only associated with the National Breast Cancer Association, and that this is in line with their mission and standards. Had Komen for the Cure been aware of the risks, they may still have chosen to go forward. But then, they would at least have been better prepared to respond.