Tajikistan Hoists Profligacy to Record Heights
Say you’re the leader of an impoverished country in a region known for bling envy. Your richer neighbors build themselves palace after palace; in twenty years of power, you’ve only managed to score one. But you’ve got well-heeled foreigner donors paying for your people’s most urgent needs. So how do you spend those extra millions sitting around? Move over Uncle Washington and Aunt Brussels: The world's tallest flagpole, calculated to cost over $32 million, is being completed this week in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe. At 165 meters, the structure takes the record from Azerbaijan (now three meters short), which took it from Turkmenistan last May. What does $32ish million -- the figure is the reported cost of the Azeri flagpole, so add three meters and do the math -- buy in Tajikistan? Let’s turn to a comparable number. The US government’s aid arm, USAID, spent $32.3 million in Tajikistan in 2010. Say what you will about the efficacy of foreign aid, but that money went to all sorts of essentials one might think a government should provide for its own citizens: things like improving irrigation so people can grow enough food; improving the health of pregnant women and infants, to staunch growing maternal and infant mortality; fixing the tax code so people can contribute to the state budget; and providing school lunches to encourage children to attend.But on with the party! Never mind that $2 billion external debt, a trifling 31.6 percent of GDP.The 60 x 30 meter flag will be officially unveiled on September 9 to celebrate Tajikistan’s 20th anniversary of independence. Sure, fostering a national identity is at least as important as taking care of your people’s basic human needs. What’s next? Dushanbe already has a dictator-chic castle in the center of town, the desolate Palace of Nations, which western diplomats whisper cost around $300 million. How about asking your people to cough up two months' pay for the world's tallest dam? But one thing should give Tajikistan’s leadership pause: When your country is facing an onslaught of Islamic militants, as the International Crisis Group warned this week, and when your trusty western patrons balk at your request for assistance to expand your sole capable military unit “from about 32 to 500” soldiers, maybe it’s time you talk to your accountant about priorities.