Workshops in ex-Soviet countries tend to be enlivened by reflections on the previous system. Participants are often particularly curious to learn more about Western, capitalist thinking – and sometimes this leads to awkward questions.
During a recent workshop in Tajikistan, I was questioned about when global wealth inequalities really began, and how they have altered in the period since the second world war. Spurred by this discussion, I looked up some references and found a 2012 paper by the World Bank economist Branko Milanovic to be particularly helpful. He does a great job of explaining complicated economics in an uncomplicated fashion. Noting that it is difficult to make any precise calculations, he argues that “since the Industrial Revolution, global inequalities kept on rising until the mid-20th century…followed by perhaps fifty years (between the end of the Second World War and the turn of the 21st century) when global inequality remained on a high plateau, changing very little”. However, according to him, inequalities in wealth between global citizens might, finally, be starting to decrease as a result of globalization. Although they will only do so if China, India and other populous and rapidly emerging market economies continue to grow. (Importantly, these assertions are based on household level data of limited availability, and deliberately not on national averages).
This macro-economic perspective might not entirely convince my Tajik interlocutors, who, having trained and worked under the Soviet system, remain somewhat wary of capitalist arguments. However, Milanovic also argues what they strongly suspected: that where you live in the world is by far the greatest single determinant of your wealth (corrected to purchasing power), despite there being a tiny minority of super-rich citizens belonging to almost all nations. Indeed, it’s no surprise that your chances of being economically poor are far greater if you’re born in Tajikistan than in, say Switzerland – but it’s of note that this likelihood is greater today than it was before the break-up of the Soviet Union. It’s no wonder that some people in Tajikistan now think back to Soviet times with nostalgia, recalling in particular the relative efficiency of State social support. For women, the availability of child care – as well as the expectation that they should work outside the home – contrasts strongly with current norms, especially in rural areas. That’s not to say that people have forgotten the negative aspects of communism – but today’s economic hardship bites deep for some families, even if others have prospered. As an aside, I remember on my first ever visit to Kyrgyzstan, in 1997, asking about socio-economic differences and being told by everyone I met, “there are no differences – we are all equal”. Marxist jargon, but it still had credence then; no-one says the same today.
Milanovic’s analysis shows that over the period of globalization from 1988 to the present, the broad global economic “winners” are people with a median income (not the lowest) in China, India and Brazil. The losers are mostly “people in Africa, some in Latin America, and post-communist countries”. And he rightly points out that enterprising individuals who have little option to better their lives in their own country, and who (due to today’s wide media coverage) are aware that life outside is better, are likely to try to go there. Certainly labour out-migration is a major tendency in Tajikistan, as well as in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Over the past 10-15 years, a trickle of men migrating to Russia in search of jobs has become a flood.
The life of a migrant worker in Russia, or indeed anywhere, is certainly not easy, but for the women left behind, usually in the home of their in-laws, it is often very tough indeed. Many marriages break as a result, leaving the women and children in greater poverty. This was made evident to me on a visit to one of the legal aid centres supported through the Access to Justice project managed by Helvetas. One by one, women who have availed themselves of the legal services told us about their marital break-up, of terrible violence perpetrated by their husbands or in-laws, and of their utter desperation over the future of their children. Yet not one of them wanted divorce; indeed, the available statistics show that it is almost always the men who demand this step. At least through the project, the women come to know their rights, and are supported in their claim for alimony through the courts. The project is also aiming to create greater legal awareness amongst the general public as a whole – and hopefully, a change in attitudes towards divorce and violence against women and girls.