International Aid Agencies in Central Asia: Try Things Differently!
International Crisis Group | April 2011
The heritage of the Soviet Union is coming apart in Central Asia – literally. Streets and schools are falling into disrepair, and the human capital dating back to the Soviet era is dying out. In ten years, there will be hardly any doctors or teachers left. All this contributes to social tensions in a region in which corrupt elites regard the state as a convenient means of personal enrichment. For over three decades now, international aid agencies have tried to make a difference on location, but with limited results. Today it is high time for them to develop a new strategy so that their assistance finally reaches the people it is intended for and so that an already perilous situation does not deteriorate further.
Central Asia today is threatened by systemic collapse. Without proper maintenance and regular investment in its upkeep, the infrastructure dating back to Soviet times is decaying rapidly, in particular in the energy sector. In Tajikistan for example, inhabitants spend 12 hours a day without electricity during the harsh winters. The government’s main countermeasure has amounted to little more than the resumption of work on a grandiose Soviet-era project. For the purpose of finishing construction on the Rogun dam, it has exhorted contribution payments from the already impoverished local population. In addition, the dam is being built in a seismic active zone for which increased activity is expected for the period 2013 through 2015. Uzbekistan, which is located downstream from the project, is highly concerned. In case the dam breaks, a humanitarian catastrophe seems certain. Like many other conflicts in the region, this particular issue dates back to redistribution measures of the Soviet government. According to plan, Uzbekistan was supposed to deliver electricity to Dushanbe in return for its access to the water needed for its cotton plantations. Due to a high level of corruption and bad management, the Tajik budget soon found itself without means of paying for the much needed electricity. Hence its efforts to produce electricity on its own, by resurrecting the Rogun project. However, the dam holds back water needed by the Uzbek economy. As the nearly dried-up Aral Sea proves amply, water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource in the region due to insufficient water management efforts and climate change. Meanwhile, local elites live a life of luxury. Authoritarian regional political leaders appear to compete with one another in erecting ever more impressive buildings in their capital cities. The increasingly desperate economic situation and the collapsing social systems are witnessed by a numerically strong, though disillusioned young generation that has little hope of a better future. Fundamentalist though is becoming an increasingly attractive option in this type of setting.
Given the increasingly tense situation, international aid organizations would do well to review their activities to date. All too often monies end up in the pockets of corrupt officials. A study ought to be undertaken that examines the aid projects undertaken over the course of the past 20 years. Its results need to be published. Aid organizations should make future project payments contingent upon specific conditions and reforms. There is a great need for impartial control by independent agencies. Key states in the region – such as Russia and China – need to be integrated into all efforts. A good starting point would be a regional vaccination program geared toward preventing the outbreak of contagious disease. Only last summer, Russia was forced to restrict immigration because of a polio outbreak in Tajikistan. Russian language teaching also needs to be revived so that Russian can continue to serve as the region’s lingua franca. Most importantly, however, aid agencies need to foster local civil society involvement in projects to a far greater extent in the implementation of individual projects. They must encourage more open discussion regarding the usefulness of these projects. Only by ensuring greater transparency and civil society involvement can aid agencies ensure that their projects truly do contribute to improving the situation in the region.
This summary was prepared by the Atlantic Community editorial team from "Central Asia: Decay and Decline” published here by the International Crisis Group.