Only a concerted effort from national governments, donors and the international community to modernise Central Asia’s infrastructure can avert the region’s decline into chaos.
Central Asia: Decay and Decline , the latest report from the International Crisis Group, analyses the erosion of infrastructure in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Almost two decades after independence, Central Asian countries have nearly run down the schools, clinics, hospitals, roads and power plants built in Soviet times. The region is entering a period when systemic collapse of infrastructure for education, healthcare, transportation and energy is becoming increasingly likely. The risk is particularly high in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
“In five to ten years there will be no teachers to lead classes, no doctors to treat the sick and the absence of electricity will become a norm”, says Paul Quinn-Judge, Crisis Group’s Central Asia Project Director. “The time for reform is running out. Continuing declines in the provision of services will exacerbate social tensions in an already volatile region. This in turn could well heighten the potential for future conflict”.
As part of the Soviet Union, the five countries were tightly woven into a single system. 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. The quality of education and healthcare has plummeted with the end of the social safety net. In some countries, notably Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, these sectors have almost ceased to exist.
Although the Central Asian countries are at different stages of development, the solutions to their infrastructure challenges are similar. Their governments need to address pervasive corruption, stop using public resources as a means of personal enrichment for the ruling elites, undertake systematic reforms, and use donor assistance to complement (not substitute for) state goals.
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 donors should realise that tolerating the status quo will bring about the very problems they fear most – further impoverishment and instability, radicalisation and state collapse. So far, however, they show no signs of changing their approach.
“Without organised change from above, there is a growing risk of chaotic change from below”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “Collapsing infrastructure could bring down with it enfeebled regimes. This would create enormous uncertainty in one of the most fragile parts of the world”.