Central Asia Falling Apart, Literally -- Report
If you’re reading this blog in Central Asia, you might plug in your laptop and charge your battery-powered lamps before proceeding. You never know when the electricity will be gone for good. "Central Asia: Decay and Decline," a bleak new report from the International Crisis Group (ICG), says Central Asia’s human and technological infrastructure is nearing collapse, threatening the region with more political instability. Not just buildings, roads and power plants are at risk of falling apart; teachers and doctors are woefully undertrained, underpaid, and neglected by donor-dependent leaders more interested in personal gain than in helping their people. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the region’s two poorest countries, face the “increasingly likely prospect of catastrophic systemic collapse,” the wide-ranging report says, tracing most problems to the region’s endemic and mind-boggling graft. Corruption is so pervasive that, in one case, the family of Kyrgyzstan’s former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev actually stole money from a project to print school textbooks. As a result, less than 40 percent of students in Kyrgyzstan have textbooks. As energy infrastructure breaks down in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the threat of more political instability is on the rise. Bakiyev, after all, was overthrown last year largely due to his personal profiteering from the decaying energy system. He left behind a thermal plant in the capital “described as fit only for scrap metal.” But it doesn’t have to be this way. “If they [the government] just quit stealing, they would have an energy sector here,” the report quotes a foreign energy expert in Bishkek as saying. Most Soviet-trained teachers are nearing retirement and new teachers are poorly educated. All are overworked and underpaid, leaving children woefully underprepared for the modern world. Many young Tajik men, one anecdote asserts, are unable to write their own names in either Tajik or Russian when they travel to Russia as labor migrants. “Unless both morale and compensation are addressed, there may soon be no teachers left in Kyrgyz or Tajik classrooms,” says the report.Describing healthcare in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as “on its last legs,” the report warns that the region is acutely susceptible to an epidemic.
A large-scale polio outbreak in Tajikistan gives a taste of what is to come. Certified as polio free in 2002, Tajikistan confirmed 458 cases and 27 deaths from the disease in 2010. The outbreak occurred because of the wide gaps in vaccination, which were consistently ignored by the government and donors. Experts predict similar outbreaks of cholera, hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.
Healthcare is little better in hydrocarbon-rich Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Authorities in both countries routinely deny outbreaks of infectious disease and systematically prevent youth from learning HIV-prevention techniques. Medical supplies are running short. One Kyrgyz hospital visited by ICG has not received new beds or sheets since 1983. In Tajikistan, many hospitals in mountainous areas operate only in summer. “Water supplies and sanitation in almost all hospitals are neither safe nor adequate. Everything depends on chief doctors and their ability to identify gaps and fundraise from donors. Whatever is not collected through foreign grants is extorted from patients,” says the report. Donors must share the blame for Central Asia’s abysmal situation, the ICG says, because their “operations are often disorganised and frequently uncoordinated with other international organisations on the ground.”
Many development institutions, like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, have often become mere vehicles for disbursing large loans with insufficient concern about accountability or long-term impact. An international education expert says her colleagues at the World Bank seem to have only one goal – to ensure a smooth passage of funds through a programmatic cycle. A long-term vision is hard, a specialist in healthcare adds, when bank managers visit the region only on short-term missions.
In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, donors, fearful of losing access, often do more harm than good: “When widely respected international organisations abet governments in hiding and distorting reality, they not only fail to justify working in these states, but they also bear equal responsibility for the present situation and future failures.”Overall, throughout the region, the combination of infrastructure failures and poor education is clearing the way for radical ideas to take hold. “Without organised change from above, there is a growing risk of chaotic change from below,” the report concludes:
The fundamental problem is that the vital prerequisites are steps that Central Asia’s ruling elites are unwilling to take. These amount to nothing less than a total repudiation of regional leaders’ values and behaviour. They would need to purge their governments of top-to-bottom systemic corruption; cease using their countries’ resources as a source of fabulous wealth for themselves and their families. … All these changes are so far from current realities that foreign governments and donors may dismiss them as hopelessly idealistic.
The full text of the report can be found here.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.