International Crisis Group: The infrastructure of Central Asian countries is steadily disappearing
The infrastructure in the republics of Central Asia is steadily disappearing: the roads, power plants, hospitals, and schools and the last generation of Soviet-trained specialists who have kept this all running. Post-independence regimes made little effort to maintain or replace either, and funds allocated for this purpose have largely been eaten up by corruption. This is mentioned in the report of International Crisis Group (ICG) "Central Asia: Decay and Decline), published on February 3, 2010.
According to the authors of the report, "all countries in the region are to some degree affected, but the two poorest, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are already in dire straits. Their own specialists say that in the next few years, they will have no teachers for their children and no doctors to treat their sick. Power cuts in Tajikistan each winter – twelve hours a day in the countryside, if not more – are already a tradition. Power failures in Kyrgyzstan are becoming increasingly common".
"In five-ten years there will be no teachers in the school, doctors in the hospitals while the absence of electricity will become the norm", said Paul Quinn-Judge, the director of the crisis group project for Central Asia. "We have not much time for reforms. Further cut of services will deteriorate social tensions in this turbulent region. In its turn, this may increase the possibility of future conflict".
According to the ICG report, the experts in both countries are haunted by the increasingly likely prospect of catastrophic systemic collapse, especially in the energy sector. Barring a turnaround in policies, they face a future of decaying roads, schools and medical institutions staffed by pensioners, or a new generation of teachers, doctors or engineers whose qualifications were purchased rather than earned. These problems will be exacerbated by other deep political vulnerabilities in both countries – the gradual increase of an insurgency and an aging autocrat in Tajikistan, and a dangerously weakened Kyrgyz state.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are heading in the same direction. Exactly how far they have gone is hard to say as reliable data either does not exist or is secret, while extravagantly upbeat public statements bear no resemblance to reality. But Turkmenistan’s marble-faced model hospitals and Uzbekistan’s mendacious claims of prosperity are no answer to their countries’ problems. Even Kazakhstan, the region’s only functioning state, will be severely tested by infrastructure deficiencies, particularly in transportation and training of technical cadre. Any dreams of economic diversification and modernisation will have to be put on hold for the indefinite future, said ICG report authors.
The current predicament has many causes. As part of the Soviet Union, the five countries were tightly woven into a single system, especially in energy and transport. These interdependencies have proven difficult to unravel, and have produced serious imbalances. During the Soviet era, the countries were obliged to work together. Now they no longer have to get along, and usually do not, especially as far as energy is concerned. Education and healthcare suffered with the end of the social safety net. Most importantly, governments across the region seemed to feel their Soviet inheritance would last forever, and the funds earmarked for reforms, education, training and maintenance were often misused and insufficient, the ICG report outlines.
"The consequences of this neglect are too dire to ignore. The rapid deterioration of infrastructure will deepen poverty and alienation from the state. The disappearance of basic services will provide Islamic radicals, already a serious force in many Central Asian states, with further ammunition against regional leaders and openings to establish influential support networks. Economic development and poverty reduction will become a distant dream; the poorest states will become ever more dependent on the export of labor, the ICG experts believe. Anger over a sharp decline in basic services played a significant role in the unrest that led to the overthrow of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev in April 2010. It could well play a similar role in other countries, notably Tajikistan, in the not too distant future. Besides, unstable Afghanistan may also cause negative impact on neighboring countries", the report authors wrote.
In the opinion of ICG experts, "the needs are clear, and solutions to the decline in infrastructure are available. 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 behavior. 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; and create a meritocracy with decent pay that would free officials from the need to depend on corruption to make ends meet. All these changes are so far from current realities that foreign governments and donors may dismiss them as hopelessly idealistic. Yet without organized change from above, there is a growing risk of chaotic change from below".
"Donors are doing nothing to prevent such a scenario. Their cautious approach seems driven by the desire not to upset regional leaders, rather than using the financial levers at their disposal to effect real change. Aid is often disbursed to fulfill annual plans or advance broader geopolitical aims. Donors have made no effort to form a united front to push for real reform. Without their involvement, the status quo can stumble along for a few more years, perhaps, but not much longer. Collapsing infrastructure could bring down with it enfeebled regimes, creating enormous uncertainty in one of the most fragile parts of the world. Donors need to evaluate and re-think their approach to aid delivery in the region since 1991, improve coordination, implement tougher conditions for aid disbursement, and bring information about internal problems to the rest of the world. This requires support from the international community, especially the U.S., European Union, Russia and China. These countries, in turn, should realize that tolerating the status quo will bring about the very problems they fear most – further impoverishment and instability, radicalization and latent state collapse".
However, so far they show no sign of changing the approach. Only the united efforts of national governments, donors and international community on modernizing Central Asia infrastructure may prevent the chaos in this region. The ICG researches developed the number of recommendations for the governments of Central Asia:
- Develop and implement a detailed, long-term plan to eradicate corruption based on successful examples in the post-Soviet space, such as the Baltic countries and Georgia.
- Develop a comprehensive set of policies to retain the workforce that would include pay-for-performance, opportunities for in-service training, and more generous social benefits (eg, pension, additional healthcare insurance, assistance for dependents); and follow up with local authorities to ensure that the existing benefits program for young specialists is properly financed and implemented.
- Improve the managerial and fiscal capacity of local governments through proper training, staffing and compensation.
- Stop the use of doctors and teachers for non-related government functions, such as mobilization during elections and provision of social services.
- Conduct technical reforms in each sector of infrastructure, systematic research of the degree of decay and resources, needed for modernization. The governments must publicize the results of this study and engage in an open discussion with local experts, media, donors and the general public on major solutions for each sector.
- Develop technical reform strategies that have pragmatic goals, a realistic timeline and proper financial backing through a combination of domestic and international funding and etc.
The donors are also recommended to admit that stability and security of Central Asia are very important for entire international community, to run bilateral aid programs in accordance with international support strategy, targeted at neutralization of risks for most vulnerable states in geopolitically important part of the world, coordinate aid programs and regularly consult with other donors with the purpose of causing maximum influence into reforms in this region.
The full text of ICG report "Central Asia: Decay and Decline" is available here.