Kyrgyzstan, a landlocked Central Asian country with a population of only 5.7 million, is still struggling to find its economic footing as an independent country two and a half decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The country, draped across the soaring Tien Shan and Pamir mountain ranges, remains one of the poorest in the world. Despite perennial calls for Kyrgyzstan and its neighbors to return to the glorious mercantile past of the Silk Road, it’s hard to point to many signs of that kind of economic dynamism today. Tourism, mining, hydropower and agriculture all hold a lot of potential, but effective development of those industries will require a thoughtful approach, Bohdan Krawchenko, a post-Soviet policy expert and the current director general of the University of Central Asia, told Devex.
Devex sat down with Krawchenko, who helped found Ukraine’s Institute of Public Administration in 1991, at his office in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to learn more about the disconnect between donor-led efforts to boost Kyrgyzstan’s prospects and the country’s own responsibility to chart a more considered course for development.
Here are the highlights of our conversation with Krawchenko, lightly edited for clarity.
How have foreign assistance donors’ priorities for Kyrgyzstan and the region — priorities such as international security and regional stability, for example — pushed the development agenda here in one direction or another?
This country has received all of this assistance over a very long period of time, and it’s very difficult to assess it. Obviously people come with an agenda. The agenda is not necessarily some sort of great geopolitical idea. It’s just that somebody, for example, in Washington decided that you need this kind of program, and they come here and they say this is the kind of program … maybe we wanted to do something else, but this is the program, so we’ll do it.
It’s a setting of priorities that is [external], very often, or based on some not particularly in-depth analysis of things. In the population, by and large, it hasn’t had a very good reputation. I think people should be aware of that. Individual projects have done some good things. I think you have to change the paradigm a little bit. Everybody talks about building capacity. In reality that capacity building could be done a lot better than it is.
What could be done to improve the quality of capacity development, to make development programs more effective in Kyrgyzstan?
This is also a problem for the Kyrgyz. There is no substitute for your own very careful and rigorous reflection on what is the role of your society and your economy in this tough international division of labor. You’re a small country in a tough neighborhood. What are your competitive advantages? How do you focus on these competitive advantages? The countries that have succeeded have gone through that exercise. They’ve done this kind of [internal] factor analysis — these are our strengths, this is our development plan, it’s going to take years, and this is what we’re going to do.
If you want to develop a pharmaceutical industry, you first of all develop Ph.D.’s who know things about biochemistry, who can staff the laboratories. It requires this kind of significant development plan. In its absence what you have is a patchwork of interventions. The interventions may be good, but they are individual interventions, and the sum of them is very difficult to put together.
It’s easy to voice criticism, but on the other hand, you have to help the donors and help educate them. I think that there’s got to be much more reflection on the Kyrgyz side on what the priorities are. And that presupposes a lot of capacity in government, with policy units, monitoring units, technical capacity that frankly doesn’t exist.
Is it right to characterize Kyrgyzstan as a country that’s been somewhat at the beck and call of other countries’ geopolitical agendas?
I wouldn’t say it’s at the beck and call. It’s obviously influenced very much by other agendas. But it has successfully pursued its own problems and created them. The question is not to be closed to outside influence, but to process and to have a relatively coherent vision of where your society is growing, where you want your society to go, and the steps required to get there. That is unfortunately lacking.
There are government programs after government programs that have been developed. There is no policy coherence that says, ok we’re going to, for example, develop tourism, which means better planning in [the touristic Lake Issyk-Kul region], better environmental monitoring, all sorts of things. A country that exports agriculture and did not establish, before joining the customs union, a whole series of labs to test the quality of food to get it certified, that shows a level of policy incoherence. Oh, we’re going to join the customs union and this opens up markets? But, by the way, we forgot to build laboratories. Why did we forget to build laboratories? Because somebody didn’t think of it. And by the way laboratories have to be staffed by scientists. Where do we get the scientists from?
You have a country with an educational system that produces 5,000 lawyers a year and I think three or four people that are geologists, whereas the extractive industries are a high priority. The disconnect between declarations and actually mobilizing society and building capacity in society for these declarations — there is a yawning gap in between.
Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.
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