Aidex Voices

A brief analysis of the overseas development assistance to the Central Asian Republics.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, abrupt national independence incited a sharp rise in poverty, inequality, and the disintegration of public services across Central Asia. A multitude of development challenges lay ahead for the five Stans; Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Yet, for their first decade of sovereignty the international community’s role in Central Asia’s development was largely neglectful. The focus was predominantly geopolitical than developmental due to the region’s strategic position between the natural resource giants of Russia, China and India.

Such neglect has meant the development assistance that was delivered to the Stans remains largely unexplored. Meanwhile, the effort on behalf of western actors to fill the vacuum that was left through the promotion of a shift from centralised models to more democratic socio-political models with a liberal market economy, has not bode well amongst the widely disjointed sovereign states.

A recent paper produced by Fabienne Bossuyt highlighted how although the EU was the region’s biggest donor in the first decade post-Soviet independence, providing €944 million in assistance until 2002, it was largely an invisible actor comparative to the US, UN and Asian and Muslim development agencies. Despite being absent in Central Asia in the nineties, the last fifteen years has seen China on the other hand become the leading actor in the region with high receptiveness to their assistance.

Bossuyt attributes this changing development landscape to one comprising of a mix of traditional western donors with emerging ones. The report states how where the west, ‘envisions the achievement of stability through inclusive development methods, China equates development with economic growth instigated through improved infrastructure.’ Symbolic of this is the focus on the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative and of China’s development cooperation.

In terms of impact, the EU’s approach has been generally criticised as relatively ineffective, with Bossuyt going as far as to say it has failed to make any significant difference on the ground. Contrarily, China’s assistance has been extensive, with local regimes seeing the development of infrastructure as more attractive. Cooperation is also easier for the nations when there are fewer conditions attached to aid delivery, such as human rights performance.

Although the EU can be criticised for its lack of priority in terms of overseas aid to Central Asian countries, the relative ineffectiveness of implementing western model ideals has been a result of unstable governance. The combination of natural resources with scarce accountability engendered pervasive corruption throughout the region. Tajikstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan all scored highest for corruption in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2018 (CPI). Meanwhile, Kazakhstan has declined in their CPI score. The report states:

“In many post-Soviet countries, checks and balances do not exist that would ordinarily keep powerful private individuals and groups from exerting exceptional influence over government decisions. In these settings, illicit lobbying practices take place and conflicts of interest go undisclosed.”

Western donor’s hopes for the region to achieve good governance across the board is impeded by antagonism between the states, which has for a long time dictated the narrative that regional cooperation between these hybrid regimes is required for true progress.

In May 2019 the EU set out a ‘fresh strategic vision’ for its partnership with Central Asia with the allocation of €1.1 billion for development cooperation between 2014-2020. However, for as long as the EU insists on a determination to help the region promote dialogue and cooperation at their own pace, China’s assertive economic development, non-interference in domestic affairs strategy will continue to lead the development journey of the five Stans.

And yet, there is the inexorable question of whether such an economic investment heavy approach will resolve the institutional weaknesses of the individual countries that is needed for them to achieve sustainable growth, good governance and a strong social sector.

Will China’s assistance strategy exacerbate inequalities and create new problems, or will it be the emerging trend for the international community to follow suit? Only if the west starts paying more attention to the Stans, can we find out what might work best.