Bureaucracy lives and thrives in the higher education institutions of Central Asia. It may be more than 25 years since the Soviet Union collapsed but the volokita (red tape i.e. bureaucracy) that the USSR was so well known for remains in many social institutions of the formerly Soviet states. Universities are no exception.
Opened to great aplomb in September 2017, the second campus of the University of Central Asia in Khorog, Tajikistan follows hot on the heels of the opening of the first campus in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan a year earlier.
Created in 2000, the University of Central Asia (UCA) aims to foster economic and social development in mountainous communities in Central Asia, with a novel model to open three campuses in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Each should attract people from within the countries and from further abroad, provide a “world-class” education (something, it seems, all universities now aspire to), and create a new generation of leaders, business people and so on.
That’s the grand, expensive, and truly remarkable vision for UCA.
The reality of working with the three host states has proved quite different, as recent events exemplify.
Unconfirmed rumours are circulating that UCA won’t in fact be able to run its new courses at the Khorog campus this year because they haven’t got all their documents in order.
Yes, you heard that right.
A state of the art brand new university (I was able to visit the campus shortly before it opened, and can confirm that the facilities are quite outstanding) that has been set up with the explicit purpose of trying to improve life in Tajikistan is being forced to suspend its activities because of a paperwork problem.
A story that started on independent Tajik news agency Asia-Plus’ website on October 6 claimed that not all the documents required to receive a state licence to run a university have been received and as a result, the Ministry of Education and Science has not yet formally given approval for UCA to operate in Tajikistan.
That original story now appears unavailable but another news agency, Ozodagon, took up the story on October 11 [ru], although appeared to have little to add to the facts.
UCA declined to be interviewed by Ozodagon other than to say that the story carried by Asia-Plus was incorrect.
Apparently UCA will continue teaching, either online or by transferring the first Khorog cohort to Naryn, where business continues as usual.
Whether or not it is true that UCA’s licence has not been granted (and my reading is that it is not, but that there is likely some truth around the edges), the more important point this story raises is the pervasive nature of bureaucracy in Tajikistan and the related problem of getting a job done.
Where is the incentive to innovate, to set up a small business, bring in foreign investment – or yes, even open a university – when the requirements set by the state for doing so are so difficult and extensive? Of course it’s important that enterprises operating within the jurisdiction of a state adhere to regulations laid out by that state and endeavour to do the best job they can.
But in the case of Tajikistan, the bureaucracy goes too far.
During my fieldwork this summer, I witnessed this first hand. A university administrator was attempting to get a piece of documentation signed off by a Ministry of Education official, and after many months of hard work with many colleagues across the university had the document ready. The document was significant in length and recounted in detail the curriculum plans for that particular institution for the forthcoming academic year.
Despite dotting all the ‘i’s and crossing all the ‘t’s (almost literally), the administrator returned from the visit to the Ministry crestfallen. The civil servant had refused to sign the document.
Because the document had not quite printed properly and three letters were missing from one word.
The word itself was understandable despite missing the last few letters.
Eventually, after several anguished hours of working out how to fix this without re-printing the document – which had been produced on a special size of paper – a very manual cut and paste job saved the day.
After a second trip to the Ministry, the mandatory signature and stamp were received to the great relief of my administrator colleague.
This entire spectacle appears to solve no purpose other than provide personal satisfaction to the bureaucrat at the Ministry of Education. Look under the surface and there’s a lot more at stake. Corruption – the possibility of making someone’s life so difficult that it’s easier to pay a bribe than go through the legal channels – is high up on the agenda.
The broader political agenda of the Tajik government also plays a role, which is a subject for more detailed discussion another time.
And then there’s the possibility that the two incidents mentioned above merely symbolize an extreme level of bureaucratization of the sort that Weber, in laying out his ideas about the modern rational and technical era over a century ago, could not have begun to imagine.
Regular blog readers will know that I am passionate about higher education and about Central Asia. You may also know that I have been following the trajectory of some of the region’s newest institutions with great interest, in order to better understand the motivations behind the creation of these universities and to observe what these institutions mean for the people who are directly affected by them (through being students, faculty or staff there) or those with more indirect connections (local communities, employers, families of students etc). How do these universities change the societies around them? How do the societies around them change the institutions?
One project I have a particular attachment to is the University of Central Asia (UCA), which I first learned about in the early 2000s when I worked in Tajikistan for a path-breaking project that has now become linked to UCA. After an arduous journey – which is still only just beginning – UCA will admit its very first undergraduate students this autumn/fall and the buzz around it is steadily growing. The idea behind the university is to bring high quality higher education to three remote and mountainous regions in three countries of Central Asia: Tekeli in Kazakhstan, Naryn in Kyrgyzstan, and Khorog in Tajikistan. Whilst the mountains tell much of the story, there is also an undercurrent of social and economic justice: this is also about bringing three diverse but neighbouring states together and about creating opportunities for these regions and the states they are in to prosper in the 21st century.
In this post I would like to share a recent lecture by Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, UCA Board Executive Committee Executive Chair, given in London to share the university’s vision. The webcast of the lecture is below. If you enjoy that (or don’t have time to watch it in full), take a look at this 5 minute BBC news story and UCA’s photo reportage of the lecture.
We need to find opportunities, and that comes out of the intellectual application of minds, creating research and fostering socio-economic development of Central Asia’s mountain based societies, and helping societies preserve and draw upon their rich cultural heritage.
Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, May 2016
After over 15 years in the making, I’m delighted to learn that the University of Central Asia (UCA) is finally ready to admit it first degree-level students for undergraduate courses at the Naryn campus in the Kyrgyz Republic this September. UCA’s recent news release further hints that the Khorog campus in Tajikistan will be operational from fall/autumn 2017, with the final campus in Tekeli, Kazakhstan, currently scheduled to open in 2019.
The process of creating a brand new university is riddled with challenges, and UCA’s mission is further complicated by its multi-campus, multi-country nature and the enormity of building not just a campus but making significant investment in the surrounding infrastructure as well (you want a university in remote south-east Tajikistan? OK, go build some roads to get there from the nearby town, lay the electricity lines and make sure there is running water…).
Determining the ethos of the institution: what it will teach, what kind of graduates it wants to produce, how it will operationalise mobility between the campuses and so on, has been another major challenge. I was involved in the development of curriculum materials at UCA’s outset and from my two year stint working for what was then the Aga Khan Humanities Project (AKHP), I was able to get an insight into the abundant complexities that were involved. The curriculum being created was genuinely multi-disciplinary and examined viewpoints that went well beyond the tired Western hegemonic discourses so common in university courses around the world these days. The materials that emerged were genuinely transformational and I strongly hope that the first two years of the undergraduate courses – which are billed by UCA as ‘rigorous core curriculum modelled on North American liberal arts degree programmes’ – have not diverged greatly from the AKHP model.
Taking these physical and intellectual challenges into account, it therefore comes as little surprise that the undergraduate programmes are only now being launched. The students who join the first ever UCA cohort will be true pioneers of a different model of learning and seeing the world and I am truly excited and inspired to watch their journeys unfold.
UCA’s news story on the admissions round can be found at http://www.ucentralasia.org/news.asp?Nid=1042.
This is the text of a press release I have put together based on other excellent notes written by Tajik colleagues around the world. Please, please help us raise awareness in the international community about events taking place RIGHT NOW in Khorog, south-east Tajikistan. We are all absolutely clear that we want PEACE and we want the world to help us achieve that. Thank you.
PRESS RELEASE – FOR IMMEDIATE AND URGENT CIRCULATION
Date: July 27 2012
Civilians killed in military conflict, potential humanitarian crisis in Tajikistan, Central Asia
Armed conflict in the town of Khorog, south-east Tajikistan, on the border with Afghanistan, has been continuing since the early morning of 24 July 2012. Tajik security and military forces has started an operation involving reportedly over 3,000 personnel with automatic arms, armed personnel carrying vehicles and helicopters in the densely populated areas of the town, with no prior notice to or evacuation of the population. According to the Guardian newspaper, ‘the fighting marked one of the worst outbursts of violence in the impoverished ex-Soviet nation since a 2010 government campaign to wipe out Islamist militants’. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting calls the clashes ‘unprecedented’
All lines of communication have been terminated and all roads to Khorog are also reportedly closed. More than 30,000 residents of the Khorog area, including women, children and elderly, are trapped in this conflict. The communications blackout has left many hundreds of Tajiks living outside the Khorog region without any knowledge of whether their families and loved ones are safe or have been victims of the conflict.
Reports by the BBC have suggested over 200 casualties. The Economist has reports of ‘dozens of civilian casualties’. Video footage from the region is slowly emerging, and providing evidence of heavy gunfire.
Apart from the human dimension element of the situation, it poses a risk of escalation and deterioration of the situation in the Central Asian region. There are reports of armed groups gathering on the Afghan side of the border in the area of Khorog, so there is a high potential for a cross-border conflict. Even if there are militants in the area, the lives of innocent people must not be put in danger.
Independent local news agency Asia Plus reports that as at 09.33 BST Friday 27 July, the government has called an end to a temporary ceasefire. This raises the serious possibility that fighting will resume and yet more civilians will be killed or injured in a battle that has nothing to do with them.
With no way to import food or for people to travel safely around, and with unconfirmed reports of corpses in the streets of Khorog, an international humanitarian crisis is brewing. It is not clear whether those who have been wounded received adequate medical care. The surrounding Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Region is the poorest in Tajikistan.
The actions by the Tajik authorities represent violations of the commitments and obligations of the Republic of Tajikistan under the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other UN human rights instruments, the OSCE Human Dimension Commitments and the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The European Union, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and American Embassy in Tajikistan have expressed their concern over the violent clashes and called for lines of communication to be opened.
CNN has reported on a peaceful demonstration in Washington, D.C. by Tajik-Americans. Peaceful demonstrations have also been held in Moscow and St Petersburg in Russia and London, UK. Social media networks such as the newly created Peace in Khorog group on Facebook, with nearly 1,000 members, are acting as informal support networks to the many Tajiks from the region dispersed around the world.
Citizens of Tajikistan around the world call for peace, for the immediate and permanent withdrawal of troops from Khorog and for lines of communication and humanitarian aid.
This is a plea to the international media to raise awareness of the conflict and human rights violations taking place in Tajikistan.
 The principle of proportionality (article 51(5)(b) IAP) is a basic principle that states that even if there is a clear military target it is not possible to attack it if the harm to civilians or civilian property is excessive to the expected military advantage.