My first trip to Central Asia. First impressions of Tajikistan, world’s most remittance-dependent country (and a very big flagpole)

February 5, 2014 11 By Duncan Green

Spent last week in Tajikistan, my first trip to the former underbelly of the Soviet Union, aka Central Asia. I was there to help our Tajikistancountry team think through some work on improving accountability in the water sector (more interesting than it sounds – blog tomorrow). And weatherwise, looks like I got out just in time. But today is first impressions.

Basic background: poorest country in Central Asia, average per cap income around $780 (2010). Eight million people, with about a million of them working in Russia for most of the year (see below). Independence in 1990s swiftly followed by bloody civil war, in which 50-100,000 people died, leading to victory of current president, Emomali Rahmon, whose beetle-browed, half smiling image adorns large numbers of public buildings in Dushanbe.

This is pretty restrained by Central Asian standards: ‘Niyazov (dictator of Turkmenistan for 16 years after fall of Soviet Union) outlawed ballet and opera, replaced the word ‘bread’ with his mother’s name, swapped January with his own name and built golden statues of himself, one of which rotated to continually face the sun.’ (from Understanding Central Asia.)

Skimming the websites on my return, I’m struck by the gulf between how people (villagers, NGOs, aid workers) talked to me last week, and the upbeat tone of things like the World Bank ‘snapshot’. High growth, steady progress and ‘extreme poverty rates, based on the food poverty line, declined from 73 percent in 1999 to 14 percent in 2009.’

flagpoleTajikistan has at least two global claims to fame: the tallest flagpole in the world (a gift to Freudians everywhere). And the world’s highest level of dependency on remittances from migrant workers, mainly from men going to Russia (a mind-boggling 47% of GDP in 2012, according to the World Bank’s excellent briefing). On Tuesday, the government reported a further 12% increase in remittances for 2013, bringing them to $4.2bn/49% of GDP.

Oddly, the villages we visited down South were full of men, hanging around. They were back from Russia for a couple of months, presumably because the Russian winter stops construction work. The rest of the year the villages are almost entirely made up of women, kids and ‘old people’ (over 45, ouch). The fruits of their labour are evident in nice new homes springing up at intervals in the villages.

According to the villagers, migration’s impact is mixed: ‘You hear good and bad stories all the time. Some men forget their families, women are abandoned. But others come back with money, build houses, send money – it’s good. You learn Russian, new skills.’

‘You are treated badly by the Russians, even by Tajiks who are doing well. You live with a lot of people all in one room. You don’t speak Russian so you don’t understand orders and make mistakes. I wasn’t paid for 2 months, then gave up and came home.’

What was most striking, at least for me, is that the NGOs and aid donors I talked to were hardly working on migration as a development issue. So half the economy is somehow not of interest? Some research issues that emerged:

  • Organization of migrants in Russia. Do migrants organize in any way – networks of people from the same village? Social media?
  • Transmission and management of remittances. How much of the few hundred dollars a typical migrant sends home every month flows through formal money transfer operators? What other channels are used?
  • Who decides how the money is spent – the men in Russia? The women back home? Other?

Answering these sorts of questions would be a first step to thinking how that huge flow of cash should/could be harnessed better for Tajik migrantssocial investment and poverty reduction. Eg what about donors offering to match remittances flowing into water investment, along the lines of Mexico’s 3×1 programme? If men are taking the decisions, why not get them together in December/January, when they are back in their villages with time on their hands, and discuss how best to use remittances to improve life back home?

I’m not a migration buff, but I’m sure there are dozens of other possibilities from work in other countries – v odd that more of it is not happening in Tajikistan, at least as far as my brief trip suggested (although I did subsequently stumble across this small EU-funded project to promote migrant rights). Anyone got links to good experiences of NGOs working to improve the social impact of migration, either in Tajikistan or anywhere else?

Tomorrow, back to Tajikistan’s water sector, which gives a pretty perfect insight into its institutions, history etc etc, as well as some truly dire toilets.

Update: Interested in examples of INGO work (including Oxfam!) supporting communities who rely on seasonal migration and the remittances that come from that.