The first time that I visited Kyrgyzstan, back in 1997, I was anxious to understand more about the social structure of the communities in which we had recently started working. Back then people were still struggling to come to terms with the break-up of the Soviet Union. The standard reply I received to questions about social and economic differentiation was, “we are all equal”. In terms of Marxist ideology, perhaps – but even then, some were more “equal” than others. A local man whom I got to know over the years later explained to me that in the Kyrgyz language, there are clear words to distinguish different degrees of well-being. In his explanation, an extremely poor person, probably best translated as a pauper (Jakyr in Kyrgyz) is “someone who only has one set of clothes to wear in both winter and summer.” Knowing that temperatures in the area that he lived could drop to minus 15 C in winter and rise to over 30 C in summer, this image had immediate resonance.
Defining poverty in Kyrgyzstan today
Nearly twenty years on, there is certainly no hesitation in Kyrgyzstan to discuss poverty. It is a fact that since the country’s independence, the gap between rich and poor has grown. The government has an official poverty alleviation programme, and clear definitions at central level of who qualifies for social support. These definitions are strongly influenced by the Soviet period, when indeed there was a strong social safety net backing the official line on “equality”. The extent to which such definitions are understood and used at municipal (Ail Okmut) level was an issue recently investigated by a student, Sara Bachman, as part of her Masters thesis from the University of Geneva. Sara’s six month research was in fact wider than this; working with our team in Kyrgyzstan, she was tasked with looking into the extent to which disadvantaged individuals are actually reached in programme activities. More specifically, she was asked to focus on the Public Services Improvement (PSI) Project, which works in 30 municipalities in the oblasts (regions) of Jalalabad in the South, and Issyk-Kul in the North. Sara focused on four such municipalities, two in the South, and two in the North.
Differing access to support and services
The first point coming out of Sara’s investigations is that local people, municipal staff, and ministry officials had quite different ideas about who is officially considered disadvantaged, and entitled to receive support. At the same time, almost all of those with whom she spoke had a common perception of who should get support: people who are poor, disabled, or old – and orphans. Support in this case refers to subsidies for essential items such as heating in winter or medicines, tax exemptions, or even shares of land.
Of course what is really important to know is who actually receives support and services, and who does not. Here it became apparent that regular service provision through municipalities is uneven, and quite often inaccessible to disadvantaged individuals. This was often not recognised by the municipal staff. For example, the provision of drinking water to all citizens was generally assessed by staff in the different municipalities to be “good”. “Good” included provision for only two hours a day, or from a walking distance of 300 – 400m, or from a pump belonging to a neighbour. Clearly an elderly or disabled person, or a woman with small children, would find this difficult. Similarly all the municipalities in question reported healthcare and child care to be available. Whilst this is free in theory, it is not in practice. One woman respondent commented, “The poor just don’t go to hospital; nobody cares about you if you don’t have money…” Overall, the situation in the Southern municipalities was worse than in the North.
Use of the findings
Whilst Sara’s findings did not come as a surprise to the PSI team, they have served to focus minds on how to best support municipalities in their duty of service provision. In particular, they are aiming to build the motivation and capacities of municipal staff to determine who amongst their citizens are disadvantaged, and to recognise and respond to their needs in a systematic manner. The team is also looking into establishing standard definitions for “good” or “poor” service provision, on which the municipalities can assess their own performance. Meanwhile, Sara herself is staying on in Kyrgyzstan as a Junior Programme Officer, thus putting her experience to continued use.