The world is a different place these days as COVID-19 spreads its wings in all directions (officially reaching Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan by the time of writing on March 18).
When we look back on these unusual times, I think we will see that coronavirus achieved what no politician, activist, or movement has yet managed by forcing us to collectively question the kind of world we want to live in. When the dust has settled, will we return to the economic growth imperative that has failed to be an equalizer across and within societies? Or is now finally the time to listen to the voices that have been clamouring for change – for change to relations between peoples, between humans and the earth, between places?
This blog isn’t the place to answer these deep questions. It is, however, a space where I can use my voice to share visions for a more hopeful future. (And do so in a way that ties in with my interests in Central Asia, education, society and politics…)
It seems fitting, then, that today’s post is about young people in Central Asia who are pioneering science and technology because they think it will help the development of their country. How about that for a positive and hopeful vision.
Who are these young people? They are the Kyrgyz Space Program, a group of dedicated women in Kyrgyzstan who want to build the country’s first satellite and relaunch the space industry. Despite some really unpleasant gender stereotyping and ongoing issues in securing funding (plug: please support them on Patreon if you can), the team is persisting and is on track to launch a CubeSat satellite in 2021.
Beautifully and poignantly, they are going to name their satellite Burulai, after Burulai Turdaaly Kyzy, a 20 year old medical student who was abducted by so-called bride kidnappers and later murdered in 2018. As one of the team members says:
It will make her name immortal. I just hope that people won’t forget about her.Aidana Aidarbekova, Kyrygz Space Program team member
Find out more about the Kyrgyz Space Program and feel optimistic for the world’s future by watching this lovely 25 minute documentary recently released by AlJazeera. And please share the link to spread the joy of discovery and hope.
The blog is back for another year! 2020 represents my ninth year of blogging on education, society and politics in Central Asia. Over the lifetime of the blog, I’ve posted almost 300 stories that have been viewed over 50,000 times and earned nearly 1,500 subscribers. Thanks to everyone who reads the blog, whether occasionally or often. If you don’t yet subscribe to receive an email when new posts are published, it’s never too late to sign up! Simply enter your email address under ‘Follow blog’ on the homepage.
Kicking off a new year of blogging, let’s take a look at youth unemployment in Kazakhstan. The info below is drawn from a recent post [ru] by Central Asia Monitor.
First, who’s in work?
Despite leading with the alarming headline ‘Youth unemployment on the increase’, the article first doles out the good news that 2.1 million young people (aged 15-28) were in work at the end of 2019. This is 3.8% higher than at the end of 2018.
The top 5 professions for the age group based on the number of people in work in each field are:
- Wholesale and retail trade; car and motorcycle repair – 388,700 people / 18.3% of all 15-28 in employment
- Agriculture, forestry and fisheries – 257,200 people / 12.1%
- Education [hurray! – adds this educator author] – 236,300 people / 11.1%
- Public administration (civil service) and defence, compulsory social security – 152,000 people / 7.2%
- Manufacturing – 149,600 people / 7.1
(Some of the categories – there are 20 in total – seem rather arbitrary, such as the addition of those in receipt of social security alongside civil servants. The statistics presented by Central Asia Monitor are drawn from Ranking.kz, which in turn has used data from the Statistics Committee of the Ministry of National Economy. Thus, the numbers should be bona fide and we should assume that the categorizations are the government’s choice.)
…And who’s not in work?
Cheery news for young car mechanics and farmers aside, the article then gets to the heart of the matter: that the number of young people who are out of work also rose at the end of 2019 to 84,700 – up 3.4% from the previous year. The increase has been seen more in urban areas, whereas in rural areas the rate of unemployment actually dropped by 0.2%.
By level of education, nearly 40% of unemployed young people have completed ‘secondary vocational education’ (среднее профессиональное образование) and 37% have a higher education degree. It’s not clear to me whether these stats include students or only those who are known in some parts as ‘NEET’: not in education, employment or training.
Both of these groups saw around 2% increases in year-on-year unemployment rates – which doesn’t send a great message about the virtues of continuing in education to increase your job prospects. Indeed, unemployment rates among those with an unfinished degree, initial vocational education, (non-specialized) secondary education and basic education all decreased…
What is to be done?
In response, the government has introduced a number of policy measures design to reduce levels of youth unemployment. Last year, these were wrapped under a broader initiative that designated 2019 as the Year of Youth and which reached, according to government sources, 2 million young people.
The symbolic designation of the year is obviously in itself not going to make any difference, but underpinning the Year of Youth was a roadmap for supporting young people through information/advice (e.g. about housing, finding work) on the one hand and financial assistance (e.g. providing rental housing, start-up grants/micro-credits for new businesses) on the other.
Overall, however, the situation is not too bad, all things considered. Since 2014, youth unemployment in Kazakhstan has dropped from 4.3% of the age group to 3.8% in 2019. Both figures are significantly lower than the youth unemployment rate in other countries. In Romania, where the total population and urban population rates are similar to Kazakhstan (19.2 million and 55% in Romania, 18.8 million and 58% in Kazakhstan), youth unemployment stood at around 16% in 2019. In Ecuador (population 17.6 million, 63% urban) the rate was nearer 9%. You get the idea.
Sorry for the silence from this blog. Firstly, there hasn’t been much happening in Central Asian HE (or not that I have seen) – no high heels scandals this month! Secondly, we’re in the summer term at the University where I work and that means exams, panicking students, organising everything for next year and generally no time whatsoever to relax!
The post today is an interesting observational article about Kazakhstan, exploring whether gaps are emerging in contemporary society. I think it’s worth including here as there may be a spillover effect onto higher education. This could materialise, for example, in students joining in protests (in these cases they usually take up the left-wing anti-government side), or in a discourse around access to higher education for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
Article is (c) Eurasianet and can also be found at http://www.eurasianet.org/node/66575.
Kazakhstan: Widening Social Divide Fuels Protest Mood
A report has been published [en] [ru] today which for the first time attempts to undertake an audit of the relationship between young people and public policy in contemporary Kyrgyzstan. Whilst I haven’t been able to read it in full, it looks like a sincere and thorough attempt to map the landscape, highlight weaknesses (many, regrettably) and look at progress that has been made.
You can link to both English and Russian versions of the report at:
I have reproduced the Key Findings section below, and encourage you to peruse the whole report too.
As one of the 15 independent countries to emerge from the rubble of the former Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan still faces formidable challenges posed by the collapse of Soviet-era economic, political, and social institutions, which affect the entire population, regardless of age. The remote, mountainous country, underdeveloped even before gaining independence in 1991, is poor, relies heavily on foreign aid, and does not generate sufficient jobs for its citizens. Vital public services like schools, hospitals, and power plants are falling apart, plagued by decrepit infrastructure and a catastrophic dearth of competent workers.
Access to reliable information is poor and corruption permeates nearly every sphere of life, particularly those dominated by the state, including education and health care. The justice system barely functions, with laws flouted by those meant to ensure they work. The country serves as a major drug-trafficking route
out of Afghanistan. Between 2005 and 2010, it survived two popular uprisings and a deadly bout of interethnic violence. Understandably, public trust in government is low, and people tend to rely on informal, personal support networks more than on state institutions as such.
These burdens weigh heavily on the shoulders of Kyrgyzstan’s young people, whose prospects seem quite dim, while effective tools for achieving change are in short supply. The country lacks several ingredients crucial for meaningful improvements to the quality of life—including rule of law, meritocracy, and a widely accepted value system encouraging honesty and diligence. These circumstances often lead young people to replicate the same pernicious traits and practices that are common among their elders and that have long stymied Kyrgyzstan’s development. In a practical sense, young people’s chances for economic self-sufficiency are impeded by low-quality education, poor opportunities for employment, gender stereotypes, and cultural expectations that the young should be obedient and passive. Furthermore, the end of the Soviet Union left young people without an official ideology. The resulting vacuum has been filling over the past 20 years with a paradoxical, sometimes perplexing mix of greater individualism, greater dependence on patronage networks, heightened emphasis on ethnic identity, greater religiosity, and a resurgence of traditionalist social mores. Young people account for a large proportion of the country’s population, but have a hard time achieving upward mobility.
This ratchets up various social tensions in Kyrgyzstan. Demographically, young people, defined since 2009 as 14-to-28 years old, make up nearly one-third of the population, while children and young adults under 29 total 60 percent. About two-thirds of young people live in rural areas, many of which have little
in the way of infrastructure, services, and opportunities. This leads to widespread internal migration, particularly to the capital, Bishkek, and its environs, where migrants are often isolated, encounter problems accessing social services, and experience frictions with nonmigrant neighbors. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyzstanis—many of them young—travel abroad in search of work. The remittances they send home prop up the local economy, but wide-scale migration also rips apart
families and communities and often relegates migrants to low paid, dangerous work. Migration notwithstanding, data gathered recently by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) indicate that young people make up 50 percent of the country’s unemployed.
Ultimately, the young continue to rely economically on their parents and other relatives for protracted periods. They marry and have children relatively early in life, but building independent, sustainable families is difficult because of inadequate opportunities to make a living, exacerbated at times by gender stereotypes that limit young people’s flexibility on the job market. Meanwhile, the socioeconomic pressures are compounded by a politicized divide between the country’s north and south, as well as festering interethnic tensions, which periodically explode into violence. Over the past decade, Kyrgyzstan has developed a raft of youth policies, but few of these seem to genuinely improve young people’s access to information, rights, and opportunities. Too many of the laws, regulations, and conceptual documents
have been reactive: off-the-cuff responses to political events—particularly, young people’s participation in the popular uprisings that overthrew two presidents—rather than the enactment of a strategic vision. Worse still, many policies exist on paper only, without effective mechanisms to achieve their stated aims. Two
independent assessments, in 2006 and 2009, concluded that the country’s youth policy lacks “a comprehensive, systemic approach to existing problems” and “remains ineffective, poorly targeted and formalistic.”
Worryingly, many youth-related programs rely heavily on international donors and fluctuate together
with their priorities and resources. These weaknesses betray a deep-rooted problem: As part of its Soviet legacy, Kyrgyzstan lacks a strong, realistic policymaking tradition—one that relies on informed analysis and debate, prioritizes the well-being of citizens over the interests of a ruling elite and holds officials accountable for achieving measurable, demonstrably beneficial goals. Frequent changes in leadership and bureaucratic restructuring make the problem worse. In the past eight years, responsibility for youth policy has bounced around among six different agencies, creating a lack of continuity and further diluting officials’ accountability. Even the country’s first dedicated Ministry of Youth Affairs was created hastily, without a needs assessment or strategic planning, in response to young people’s participation in the deadly street protests of April 2010. The minister, a political appointee, had no previous policy experience, and the state budget provided almost no funding for the agency’s operations in its first year. Many of the ministry’s activities seemed to be more show than substance, while coordination with other agencies barely existed.
Moreover, after less than two years, the ministry was overhauled and partially merged with another agency. Many youth policies are currently being revised or written anew; unfortunately, this has become a perennial activity that seems to bear little fruit—in part because policy goals tend to be very broad and the means
of implementation very vague.Kyrgyzstan’s approach to creating a Youth Ministry, together with the latest wave of national youth policies, suggest that the country’s leadership has not learned from past mistakes
and that, despite vocal official commitments to young people, youth policy remains a low priority for the government. (Young people get only three cursory mentions in the 80-page national development strategy for 2012–2014.) Although youth-sector bureaucrats have justifiably complained of chronic underfunding, many of the deeper weaknesses lie elsewhere: Foundational youth policy documents adopted since 2009 contain contradictions and lack concreteness; responsibility for implementation continues to be diffuse; data collection and procedures for evaluating and monitoring policy are extremely weak; policy coherence, cross-sectoral cooperation, and creative approaches to engaging young people are also missing. Overall, Kyrgyzstan’s youth policy fails to focus on young people’s needs or future roles in society. It also retains several leftovers from Soviet times—including a paternalistic approach to young people, an emphasis on “talented youth,” and a desire to indoctrinate the young ideologically—today with a focus on pseudo-patriotic platitudes instead of communism. Although considerable rights and freedoms are guaranteed by law in Kyrgyzstan, the lack of a functioning legal system and the rigidity of certain social mores confine many of these to theory.
Predictably, the positive impact of past youth policies has been minimal. Many components of the national youth agendas in place from 2000 to 2008 were never implemented, while those that were tended to focus on entertainment and mass gatherings, genres largely inherited from the Soviet past. Specific unmet objectives fall into the categories of health care, economic independence, vocational guidance, and bridging the rural-urban divide in accessing services and opportunities. Meanwhile, the policy goal of boosting patriotism among young people has too often mutated into divisive nationalist rhetoric.
Existing policies seldom support young people in exercising their rights, accessing opportunities, or achieving autonomy. One area in which this is particularly obvious is education, where quality is notoriously below par and students’ rights, from primary school through university, are routinely violated or restricted. In the health field, too, youth policies have neither helped compensate for the generally sorry state of medical care nor done much to encourage healthy lifestyles among the young; youth friendly health services and information on reproductive health are sorely lacking. Labor policy has likewise been anemic and incoherent, doing desperately little to address unemployment among the young. Young people’s ability to avail themselves of those rights and opportunities that do exist has been stymied by a number of factors. One is a lack of knowledge, as information about youth relevant policies does not, for the most part, reach the intended beneficiaries. Two more include government dysfunction—which leads, in turn, to public distrust—and cultural traditions that put little stock in young people’s opinions. Some researchers have also pointed to internal obstacles for young people, such as a poor work ethic, weak communication skills, apathy, and fear.
Certain youth subgroups have a particularly hard time benefiting from existing policies. In various cases, these include: rural youth; physically and mentally disabled youth; homeless, abused, and institutionalized youth; young people who work; ethnic minorities; internal migrants and refugees; low-income youth; young women (especially those who have fallen victim to sexual abuse or bride-kidnapping); and young people in the hands of law enforcement or military agencies. One positive shift in youth policy over the past three years has been the explicit commitment to increase young people’s participation in decision making and public life. However, while the number of youth organizations seems to be growing and some groups of young people have shown ample energy in pursuing common aims, overall youth participation in vital sectors of the country’s life remains limited. This results both from young people’s own lack of knowledge and capacity and from a virtual absence of sustained institutional support for their meaningful participation. The most visibly active young people fall into three, sometimes overlapping categories: nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), politics, and civil service. The NGO sector includes
many impressive projects but remains quite atomized. Meanwhile, young people involved in politics have often become objects of manipulation rather than agents of positive change or the advancement of youth-relevant issues. And, though young people reportedly make up nearly one-fifth of civil servants, a fair
number of them complain that salaries are too low, future prospects are dim, and programs to train and recruit new staff have been deeply flawed, while others fall into the same patterns that have earned Kyrgyzstan’s civil service a bad reputation: corruption, nepotism, lack of professionalism, and the preeminence of personal benefit over the public good.
Finally, it is important to note that youth-related coordination and cooperation across sectors have been virtually absent. Responsibility for coordinating youth-relevant policy used to rest with the Youth Ministry, but the agency did not excel at this task. Prior to its reconfiguration and partial merger with the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Migration, the Youth Ministry was politically and financially weak and was looked at with a fair amount of skepticism by fellow government workers and NGOs alike. Often, the ministry was treated by other national agencies as a junior partner, while NGOs complained that it failed to complement their work or address pressing youth issues. Neither group had a clear understanding of the ministry’s aims and functions. At the end of 2011, the Youth Ministry proposed a number of measures to improve coordination among sectors, but they are marked by many of the same policymaking flaws that have haunted Kyrgyzstan’s youth policy for at least a decade: a lack of evidence-based planning and measurable goals; unclear responsibility for implementation; and no sanctions for non-implementation.
This excerpt (c) the authors and publishers of Youth and Public Policy in Kyrgyzstan
Hello! Long time, no see… It’s been an eventful summer with the events in Khorog, Tajikistan causing us great concern and anxiety. Life appears to be normalising again and I do hope the current calm prevails. On the home front I have been elected Chair of the Governing Body at our local primary school and that has been keeping me very busy as I get up to speed on everything from school finances to strategic planning to recruitment and retention of pupils. All this on top of my full-time job (getting even fuller as we approach the start of the Oxford term and the descent of 200 new students!) and the to-ings and fro-ings of family life.
Whilst I’ve been watching out for stories on Central Asian higher education over the last couple of months, there hasn’t been much of interest. Last week, however, a first-hand account by Temur Mengliev of the current situation in one Tajik university appeared and that’s what this posting is based on. Thanks to Alexander Sodiqov via Global Voices Online for bringing my attention to this.
Mengliev’s blog post on the brilliantly named site blogiston.tj (Russian) is called:
Высшее образование: корочки, коррупция и галстуки
which roughly translates from Russian as:
Higher education: cards*, corruption and [neck]ties
*Cards here meaning the ID-card style diploma booklet awarded to graduates. The same word is also used to describe (in vernacular) the ID cards that the police carry. It’s a shame the word doesn’t work as well in English as the title has nice alliteration and rhythm in Russian: korochki, korruptsiya i galstuki.
On to the content of the post. The original version is at http://blogiston.tj/index.php/ru/blogi/vysshee-obrazovanie-korochki-korruptsiya-i-galstuki and I encourage Russian readers to see the original. (The comments thread underneath was less interesting than some I’ve seen so don’t dwell there). Here’s a rough translation in English:
So, now everything’s changed. I’ve finished my five years at university. I got through several pairs of trousers [there is a lovely Russian verb here which makes a literal translation ‘I have sat through several pairs of trousers!’] and got through tons of science. And now it is my younger brother’s turn to become a student.
What is it exactly that’s changed? It’s that my little brother looks on university only as a place where he needs to go regularly and at the end he’ll get a much-desired degree certificate. I do mean literally ‘to go’ – studying, in principle, isn’t compulsory. He says that there are some girls and *even* one guy who genuinely study! They read books! But everyone laughs at them – it just isn’t cool to study. Especially at the Pedagogical University [which trains teachers!!]. No one wants to become a teacher once they’ve graduated. So it makes no sense to study.
What’s also changed is that bribing to pay your way in to university is no longer a last resort that you call on only when you couldn’t get in the usual way, but pretty much the only way to become a student (and get out of conscription to the army). If five years ago, students hid the fact that they’d bribed their way in to uni, well, now they actively discuss amongst themselves who paid, how much and to whom. My little brother told me that one of his coursemates was an idiot because he’d paid $1,000 [USD] more than the others.
Another changes is that many students quite happily wear (neck)ties, and this “forced labour” doesn’t drive them crazy. Their teachers honestly believe that the wearing of a tie is an obligation, and that the student in a tie studies better.
And there is a genuinely sad change: the older generation of university teachers has pretty much gone. Their places has been taken by plenty of young and inexperienced teachers, whose level of knowledge isn’t that much greater than that of their students.
So that’s what’s happened: students now bribe their way into university, study just to get the degree certificate… but wear a tie with pleasure.
Yes, this is a slighly light hearted look at the higher education scene at one particular university in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, and the author’s obsession with ties is slightly bizarre. Yes, there’s an element of nostalgia from someone who now needs to make the next step in life. But beyond the humour there are some very serious undercurrents and that’s why I felt it was important to share the post with an English-language audience.
We are told very directly about outright shameless corruption, and amongst young people too. The Tajik government has confessed that the Ministry of Education is the most corrupt department in the national government (which, as I have pointed out before, is quite some achievement) and it is well known that university teachers are paid very poorly indeed. This helps explain why teachers are taking bribes: if their own salaries don’t suffice, then you’ve got to live somehow.
Nonetheless, I’m not excusing this behaviour, and I find it desperately sad that paying your way has become commonplace. Many young people’s aspirations are raised as they go through school education to consider staying on for higher education but at what price is this for their sense of moral direction? (Whilst the lure of avoiding conscription is a strong draw for many young men, this isn’t unique to Tajikistan and that has been the same for some years so isn’t a strong argument for the growth in corruption).
What value is ascribed to higher education when you neither need to be smart to get in or work hard to do well? What example is being set for the future of these young people once they graduate? And does anyone in the national government care enough to do something about this before another generation waste their time wearing ties and visiting their campuses just so they can be seen there?