Well-being in Central Asia conference

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Guten tag aus Berlin! I’m here for a conference hosted by the German Institute for Economic Research, joining 14 other researchers who are presenting on various subjects related to well-being in Central Asia.

Humboldt University Berlin

The first day of the conference was hosted yesterday at Humboldt University in central Berlin. As an aside, it’s hugely exciting for a higher education geek (me!) to be at the university named after the man who had such a strong influence on higher education. Teichler has divided the development of higher education into three phases: from the development of medieval universities (Bologna, Paris, Oxford etc), to a major period of change in the 19th century, through to the massification of the system post-World War 2. The Humboldtian model propounding unity of teaching and research was hugely influential in the second period of development.

OK, that’s enough of a history lesson! Let’s move on to the conference itself.

Conference about to start
Conference about to start

Things kicked off with a keynote speech by Nauro Campos of Brunel University/DFID. He pointed out that research on the “economics of happiness” is very much in vogue, although as a field it has been slowly developing since the 1970s. In transition countries, i.e. those which have undergone the change from being part of the Soviet Union to being post-Soviet independent countries, it’s bad news: there is “abnormally low life satisfaction in transition countries”. People are unhappy for age-related reasons (for example, because social safety nets such as health and pensions are dissolving), because there is rising income inequality and this generates unfairness, due to inequality of opportunity, and because of increased uncertainty.

The presentations that followed afforced this theory through examinations of case study populations and/or data sets. For example, Barbara Dietz of the Institute for East European Studies in Regensburg (Germany) noted that internal migration in Kazakhstan has no significant impact on wage levels. Even if someone’s salary has gone up, their expenditure is likely to have increased on higher rents and living costs.

Tobias Kraudzun of Free University Berlin (Germany) presented his group’s research into pastoralists in Murghab in the far east of Tajikistan. They found “dramatic de-development” of the region after the break up of theSoviet Union. For example, 68% of households in Murghab have monetary income of less than 400 somoni (about $20) per month, which means that the majority of people have difficulties earning a livelihood sufficient to meet their basic needs.

Migration was a major theme underlying many of the presentations. Kraudzun noted the attitudes of young people in Murghab were more open to moving away from the region for educational purposes (though interestingly, ethnic Kyrygz families were less likely to support long-term migration than ethnic Pamiri families in the area).

Kathryn Anderson of Vanderbilt University (USA) has found that migration from Kyrgyzstan (mainly toRussiato undertake low-skilled jobs) has no impact on enrolment in school education. As in, even if household members are working in Russia to earn more than they could at home, and they send some of those funds back home, the extra income does not make any difference to the number who go to school.

One small glimmer of light was that Anderson’s research found that Tajik migrants sending remittances home do make a difference to children. Secondary school students from households with a migrant worker(s) stay at school longer and more of them go. In Tajikistan, though, one of the most important impacts on children’s education is the level of their parents’ education. Combining further research on this with the data on migrant workers could produce really interesting results.

Are you suffering from capitalism?
Are you suffering from capitalism?

I very much enjoyed a presentation by Hilal Galip of the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences (Germany), which started with the image used here on the left. Hilal presented the early results of a comparison between “happy” Kyrgyz and “unhappy” Hungarians, which tries to understand why the former show higher levels of life satisfaction despite the country’s poor economic/political situation.

Day 2 of the conference had two panels, the first covering household economies and the second (including my paper) on knowledge and perceptions.

In the first panel, I was very taken by Aksana Ismailbekova‘s (Crossroads Asia Competence Network, Germany) case study approach to examining how single mothers (generally widowers) are coping in the aftermath of the summer 2010 violence in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan. Aksana’s approach was quite different from the quantitative-heavy presentations of day 1 (see image below).

The economists in full swing – I’m sure the equations make sense to some people!

Also in that panel was a presentation about women ‘doing it all’ in Tajikistan, by Mieke Meurs of the American University in Washington, D.C. (USA). Mieke’s analysis of household survey data gave some interesting propositions: for example, women in urban areas of Tajikistan spend more time on unpaid care work (childcare, looking after elderly relatives) than women in rural areas do even though they are more likely to have paid work. I’d like to see a further analysis distinguishing between women in urban and in rural areas as my perception is that patterns of women’s work (paid and unpaid) in urban areas, especially Dushanbe, are changing – fewer children per family, more paid work etc.

My presentation was the last one and I managed to cover everything I wanted to say, although I’m sure I missed out some important points. I have realised that I collected a lot of data – enough to fill several papers! This gives me the opportunity to focus future work on particular aspects of the survey results, for example comparing experiences by gender or focussing on the post-study abroad period. Here’s my presentation:

Is the grass greener Sabzalieva presentation Berlin May 12

and I’ll continue to publish parts of the paper on this blog.

I got some interesting feedback and I’ll reflect on that and how I can take this research forward in the future.

My concluding remarks – because you have to have these at a conference! – are that I have learnt a huge amount from the presentations and fellow presenters: about different research findings, about research methodologies and about the variety of research being undertaken about Central Asia. And being able to do so in Berlin, surrounded by its history, has been a huge privilege.

Berlin by the stereotype


Teichler, U. (2007), Higher Education Systems: Conceptual Frameworks, Comparative Perspectives, Empirical Findings, Sense Publishers

Postscript to What’s your brand?

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Just a few days after my post about universities’ brands, I enjoyed reading an article in the Times Higher Education, the UK’s specialist higher education publication, about Nazarbayev University.

The article “No shame in the name” explains how a Cambridge University college has (at least temporarily) withdrawn a fellowship named after Nazarbayev. As in Nazarbayev University, not the President – but that lack of clarity was enough to embarrass Cambridge, which, it should be pointed out, has a growing partnership with Nazarbayev (Uni). Along with Pennsylvania State University (USA), Cambridge will help Nazarbayev Uni launch graduate degrees in education in 2013 and is already working on English language programmes with the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools.

As such, it’s not entirely clear why the fellowship was withdrawn. But it does highlight the critical importance of a university’s brand.

It’s also worth noting that it’s a little odd that the Times Higher has chosen now to publish this article. As far as I can see, the Fellowship was advertised some months ago with one Kazakh website suggesting it closed in January. Ah well. News doesn’t always travel fast from Central Asia to the rest of the world.

Nazarbayev University: the Oxford of Kazakhstan?

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Sorry for the silence since the last post (I try to post once a week) – I have been using all my spare time to complete a full draft of my Tajik study abroad paper. Given the wealth of information I received, you can imagine that it has taken some time to analyse all the data and then translate that into findings for the paper. I will post some of my initial findings soon, and welcome comments and feedback (preferably by the end of March when I have to submit my final paper!).

Today’s post is about a university with grand ambitions to become the Oxford (or Harvard, or Cambridge – post in your own analogy here) of Kazakhstan.

I’ve been following the rise of Nazarbayev University (NU) for a while now, and my fascination for its radical mission is ever growing. Why is the mission radical? Well, have you ever come across any other university with so much state support (not just funding but also other forms of support, such as a commitment to academic freedom) that has declared that it will be world-leading in such a short space of time? For a first-hand account of NU’s ambition, it’s well worth reading an article by the University’s President Shigeo Katsu published in the UK’s Times Higher Education magazine in April 2011.

Last summer, I had the privilege of meeting Dr Kadisha Dairova, Vice-President for Academic, Student and International Affairs at NU. She reinforced the importance of quality and research excellence to the success of the university, and outlined some of the partnerships that have already been established with the likes of Harvard, Cambridge, University College London, National University of Singapore and others to assist with the design and implementation of the first degree-bearing courses.

Dr Dairova also stressed the importance of high admissions requirements and similarly high levels of financial support to ensure access is needs-blind. NU has clear vision for their graduates, and will expect the following from them:

  • high quality professional knowledge;
  • both theoretical and practical skills;
  • an understanding of the needs of the country;
  • an ability to contribute to their profession and their community;
  • a well-rounded personality: as Dr Dairova said, “just a good engineer will not make a good leader”.

The diagram below highlights the most commonly used words in NU’s vision and mission: the larger words are the ones that appear most often.

Nazarbayev University's vision and mission
Nazarbayev University's vision and mission

If you want to see what NU actually looks like, check out this report on President Nazarbayev’s recent visit to the main campus in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan. The report also features a video of Nazarbayev touring his eponymous university – including visiting a student room as further evidence of the university’s “all-mod-cons” attitude.

In trying to emulate a university of Oxford or Harvard’s standing, NU is making significant financial investment (which also extends to a series of Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools which are designed to be feeders to the university in future) as well as devising high-level partnerships with international universities. But will this be enough to create the academic excellence that is demanded?

In the case of Oxford, academic excellence is partly borne of its long history. Nazarbayev University doesn’t yet have 900 years of teaching and research (in their many forms) to draw on, but what it does share is a determined commitment to attract the very best students and staff. Whilst it might take NU more years than it would prefer to establish itself internationally, I would argue that it is going about its business in the right way. Aim high and invest, and watch this space…

20 years on: human rights in the post-Soviet countries

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I’d like to recommend a great article I’ve just read, The Soviet Fall and the Arab Spring.

By an experienced human rights researcher, the article provides six ideas “about what has to happen after the revolution to make change stick”.

The six ideas are:

1. There is nothing inevitable about transitions to democracy

2. Guard against misplaced blame (I found this a particularly interesting idea)

3. Institutionalize strong minority rights protections

4. International institutions matter

5. Establish concrete human rights benchmarks and give them teeth

6. Support a strong civil society

However, in the case of the post-Soviet countries featured in the article, it’s more of a sobering lesson in how human rights have not always been prioritised, and how motivation (political, individual) plays an important role in the success – or otherwise – of attempts to “make change stick”.

Developments in Central Asian higher education, part 3: Kazakhstan

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Today, a brief overview of the current situation for higher education in Kazakhstan, as part of my monthly series reviewing the Central Asian countries. Click on the links to read earlier posts on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Of the Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan in particular has embraced the concept of a market-driven higher education system and national policy is aimed at ‘reforming the higher education system to meet the needs of a modern competitive economy based on international experience’ (National Tempus Office Kazakhstan, October 2010: 6). Both in number and proportion, there are more private providers of higher education in Kazakhstan than other Central Asian countries, which partly reflects low government investment in education.

That said, there has been investment in in the high quality end of the market to support President Nazarbayev’s aim of creating a knowledge economy in the country. The best example of this is the 2006 creation of a brand new university in the capital Astana. Originally called simply the New University, it has now been renamed Nazarbayev University after the President. Despite neither name being interesting or original (although New College Oxford has been around since 1379 so perhaps they should have stuck with the original name!), significant state funds have been pumped into prestigious international partnerships with universities of the likes of Harvard, University College London and the National University of Singapore with the aim of creating – at high-speed – an international standard research university with a focus on science and social sciences.

Grand plans: designs for Nazarbayev University
Grand plans: designs for Nazarbayev University

In terms of subject areas, the British Council’s review of the Kazakhstan market confirms that science, engineering and technology are priorities for the country (May 2011). These subjects have been a focus for the state-funded Bolashak Scholarship Programme (which between 1995 and 2010 sent over 7,300 Kazakh students abroad to study), demonstrating a desire to improve capacity in these areas. However, with the rise of Nazarbayev University, it is likely that the Bolashak Programme will be remodelled as a smaller programme focussing exclusively on subjects not available in Kazakhstan.

The Ministry of Education and Science in Kazakhstan has ten stated priorities for the development of higher education that aim to improve quality and enable the achievement of international standards (Omirbaev, December 2009). The priorities are geared around making Kazakhstan’s education system compatible with the Bologna process, for example moving to the three-cycle Bachelor’s-Master’s-Doctorate system and introducing a credit transfer system like the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS). Vocational training is also important, with the government recently announcing that its education development programme will bring standards up to an international level.

In summary, Kazakhstan’s ‘higher education system has come a very long way from its Soviet roots since independence’ (OECD/World Bank, 2007: 24) but it is held back on a global scene because of the slower rates of development (e.g. in institution building and basic infrastructure) in the Central Asian region as a whole. It has not been immune to the global financial crisis, as Lillis noted in 2009, with subsequent effects on the student experience that are demonstrated through student quotes used in the article.


  • British Council. (May 2011). Kazakhstan Market Briefing
  • CaspioNet. (07.01.2012). Kazakhstan transmits to international standards of vocational training. Accessed on 09.01.2012 from http://caspionet.kz/eng/business/Kazakhstan_transmits_to_international_standards_of_vocational_training_1325916289.html.
  • Lillis, Joanna. (07.06.2009) Kazakhstan: Economic Crisis Crimps Astana’s Grand Plans for Higher Education. Accessed on 09.01.2012 from www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav060809.shtml
  • National Tempus Office Kazakhstan. (October 2010). Higher Education in Kazakhstan: European Commission
  • OECD/World Bank. (2007). Higher Education in Kazakhstan: Reviews of National Policies for Education
  • Omirbaev, S. M. (December 2009). Национальные приоритеты развития высшего и послевузовского образования Республики Казахстан на 2010-2012 г.г (National Priorities for the Development of Higher and Post-Higher Education in the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2010-2012)

See also blogger Kazakh Nomad’s December 2011 posts answering some important questions about Kazakhstan, including on the education system, in a series of farewell posts as she prepares to leave the country.

Happy new year!

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Happy new year! I hope you enjoyed a peaceful and happy holiday and are looking forward to what 2012 will bring.

You’ll notice I had a break from this blog too, spent with my family and friends and including a fantastic four-way Skype call on New Year’s Eve with my parents in Italy, my brother in the USA, my sister in London and my husband and me in Oxford! I also caught up with family and friends as far apart as Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Hungary and Australia as well as those closer to home. The world feels even more connected and global at times like these.

For today’s post, I thought it would be interesting to look at the new year addresses given by the leaders of the four Central Asian countries this blog covers to see if these shed any light on their hopes and plans for the year ahead.

Starting with Tajikistan, President Rakhmon makes open acknowledgement of the 1 million or so Tajiks currently living out of the country by referring to them in addition to his “co-compatriots” (i.e. the ones living in Tajikistan). He looks back on “one of the most important years” of the country’s history as it celebrated 20 years of independence, and talks several times about patriotism and national unity – signs of concern about a resurgence of the regionalism that partly led to the 1992-1997 civil war? He makes no reference to ongoing poverty in the country but instead hopes that this year will see a “growth in the authority and image of Tajikistan in the international arena.”

In Kyrgyzstan, new President Atambayev also talked about unity and how people have become more confident in themselves since showing that the country can “develop under conditions of democracy and freedom.” He spoke about the government’s accountability to the people and also the responsibility of individuals to helping ensure peace and prosperity for all. He signs off with lots of warm and wonderful wishes, including my personal favourite of the four addresses: “On this New Year’s Eve, all of us, like little children, await wonders. We believe in miracles!”

Kazakhstan‘s President Nazarbayev has a head start on the other nations due to the country’s higher levels of economic wealth and development, and this is recognised in his address. His words talk about the fact that Kazakhstan is united, and seen as a “strong, contemporary and respected nation in the world” that has one of the world’s most dynamic economies. I liked the fact that he thanked Kazakhs for their support of his “course” (i.e. pathway/decision-making) over the past year, although of course this masks underlying issues about the political system that I won’t go into right now.

President Karimov of Uzbekistan also talks about unity, so clearly this is the buzzword of the moment! He believes that 2011 was a year of wide-scale reform in the country that is recognised by the respect given by other countries (is that a reference to Hilary Clinton’s total failure to mention human rights in her recent visit?). Interestingly, he mentions climate change in a speech that seems to focus on rural issues and needs, although it is passed over quickly. Like the other leaders, he too stresses the need for his fellow citizens to help retain peace and stability but in a break from the similarity, he ends on a religious note: “may the Almighty protect us from all misfortunes and be a reliable support on our way”.

Of course, a new year’s address is never going to boldly uncover the deep and pressing problems that every country faces and I’m sure that in the coming months, the Central Asian nations will give us much to think about and that my favourite category of “bureaucratic madness” will be put to use again. But in the meantime, please enjoy this opportunity to celebrate, to think positively and to hope for a better future.

Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer

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This week, four stories that at first glance appear quite different…

Kyrgyzstan photo (c) Telegraph

The UK’s Telegraph has featured a number of articles on Central Asia recently, and  the report I’d like to bring to your attention now is about the opening of a new British Embassy in Kyrgyzstan. This is, as the newspaper notes, ‘despite budget cutbacks’. Why now, you might ask, especially as Britain’s had embassies in the other Central Asian nations for longer – even in Tajikistan since 2003. The UK’s Foreign Office claims that this is for ‘strategic’ reasons, principally the fact that it hosts a US airbase (though new President Atambayev says he might close that down, which would appease Russia) but also because of the countries it borders.

China is also very interested in its borderlands, as this article from China Daily about Kazakhstan demonstrates.

Loading up the bus from China to Kazakhstan, (c) China Daily

Despite the long queues and visa troubles, it’s essentially an upbeat story about the importance of Chinese goods to the Kazakh market.  It’s fascinating to see the way China is positioned as the ‘elder brother’ in the relationship, and Kazakhstan as the poorer younger sibling – especially when the relative wealth of Kazakhstan is set against other Central Asian nations.

Eurasia.net also ran a story recently about the importance of a neighbouring country for economic benefit. However, this was the reverse of the bullish Chinese view, as in this case it’s all about how the Russian economy is propping up Tajikistan, which is now officially (according to the World Bank) the most remittance-dependent country in the world. As we saw during the recent diplomatic incident between Russia and Tajikistan, many Russians are starting to get fed up of this.

Finally, a story from Reuters about the role of nostalgia for the Soviet Union in keeping the Commonwealth of Independent States together. It brings together some of the content of the others stories I’ve mentioned and features some interesting Central Asian case studies.

So why bring these four seemingly disparate articles together? For me, there is a connection and it’s in the title of the post, which is a quote from Sun-tzu, the Chinese general and military strategist from the 5th century BCE.  All of these articles show that even in a world of borders, visas and nationalism, no country can exist without political, cultural and economic relationships with other nations. Or to paraphrase 16th century English poet John Donne, “no country is an island entire of itself; every country is a piece of the continent…”

Political myth or reality in Kazakhstan?

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I was interested to read a story on the American Washington Post website about the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The article seems intended to be light-hearted but I actually found it a little contradictory. The title makes it clear that the newspaper believes Nazarbayev to be authoritarian and paints a negative picture of his style of rule, but then says ‘Nazarbayev enjoys genuine popularity and is widely seen as a guarantor of stability…’. Stability should not be underestimated in a country that was not able to rule itself for 80 years and at the fall of the Soviet Union was thrown into all sorts of tumult.

That is not to say the governments of Kazakhstan or other Central Asian nations are perfect (or sometimes even just “good”), but the point I’m trying to make is that Western reporting of Central Asia is generally negative and can be patronising too, often implicitly suggesting that the way things are done is inferior to the way “we” do it.

That’s why I was happier to see EurasiaNet’s story about the President’s daughter. I can’t deny that its underlying precept is somewhat cynical, but at least it doesn’t pretend that other countries do things any better – the closing quote suggests Tony Blair (whose foundation was recently appointed to advise the Kazakh government): ‘might want to offer the president a piece of advice: Don’t rewrite political history in a bid to burnish your democratic credentials’.

Whilst I’m on the topic of Kazakhstan, I’d like to draw your attention to Vox Populi, a Kazakh news website that uses photos to tell stories. They recently launched a special project looking back on 20 years of independence. It’s absolutely fascinating, not just for people who didn’t live through the fall of the Soviet Union, but also for people who did and were too young to really remember the politics of it all.

Vox Populi has got five years of photos and explanatory captions published, with more to come. Click on the years to view: 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995. Each year also has a slide show mode (on the right hand side next to the title). The comments from site users are also worth reading!

English Russia also has the 1991 photos with well translated English captions.

Have a great weekend!

Straws on a camel’s back

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The “aeroplane affair” between Russia and Tajikistan, as I suspected, shows no sign of landing (excuse the pun) anytime soon. Konstantin Parshin has – again – written an excellent article summarising what’s happened over the last few days, so if you’re not following this story elsewhere (and even if you are), do read what he has to say. He’s based in Tajikistan and clearly has his ear to the ground.

Whilst my previous post about this incident took a somewhat sardonic look at the latest episode of post-Soviet squabbling, I have since been reflecting much more seriously about the repercussions this event could have for the political scene in Tajikistan.

Think about the following sentences as a chain of events, each magnifying the impact of the one before it. The first few hundred migrants have now been sent home from Russia and there are threats that more will follow. I hear reports from Moscow-based Tajiks that they are too afraid to leave their apartments due to anti-immigrant/nationalistic feeling amongst Russians. If this continues for a while, then they will probably lose their jobs for not turning up. If they lose their jobs, they lose their source of income. They may get sent home by the Russian government in any case. So the income from migrant workers’ wages that the Tajik economy is so dependent on starts to drop. Large numbers of mainly young men, mainly from rural areas, may come back to Tajikistan, and there certainly aren’t jobs for them to go to: that’s why they left in the first place. Then consider the altered social circumstances that these men will find when they return to their villages and see how the women/old men/children have been adapting without them.

All this leaves you with a a shrinking economy and more significantly, potentially a large group of unemployed young people  with not much in the world going well for them.

And it’s not just this situation which could have longer lasting impact, as stories are circulating about a host of other issues that are making people in Tajikistan angry and frustrated:

  • an incident on the north-west border with Uzbekistan, where shots were fired over an alleged illegal border crossing with a possible fatality on the Uzbek side
  • allegations that a pensioner in the south of Tajikistan slapped the President in anger at the government initiative asking Tajiks to buy shares in the Rogun dam project when many people don’t even earn enough through salary or pension to provide basic food and shelter for themselves and their families
  • ongoing frustrations in the Gorno Badakhshan Semi-Autonomous Region in the east of the country towards the national government, where the appetite for full independence appears to be on the rise again

Now set these events and feelings against what’s happening in two other Central Asian states. Whilst the recent presidential election in Kyrgyzstan wasn’t perfect, it was at least peaceful and led to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe saying they feel “cautiously optimistic about the future of democracy in Kyrgyzstan”. And in Kazakhstan, the President – not known for his overtly democratic tendencies – has today called a snap election for January 2012 in order to try and increase the number of parties in parliament (currently just one party is represented).

And then finally consider the impact that a lot of very angry and frustrated people in other parts of the world have had over the last year, notably North Africa. No one is yet talking about whether there will be a “Libya effect” in Tajikistan, but with increasing internet literacy and access, it can be expected that many Tajiks – particularly those in urban areas – may be very knowledgeable about the events of the Arab Spring.

Add all of these parts together and you see that there are already many straws loaded on the camel’s back. The question is, just how many more straws can it take before the load will become too heavy?