Koenraad Van Brabant in conversation with Hakim N. Feerasta, Resident Representative, the Aga Khan Development Network, Tajikistan
Koenraad Van Brabant The Aga Khan is recognised as the spiritual head (imam) of the Ismaeli community, and the majority of Ismaelis in Tajikistan live in the eastern region of Gorno-Badakshan. Are you working specifically with the Ismaelis?
Hakim N. Feerasta Well, there are an estimated 25m Ismaelis all over the world. Tajikistan is one of the countries where Ismaelis live. But the Aga Khan Development Network is a secular organisation; it does not work only for the Ismaeli community. We operate within an ethical framework that is inclusive, not exclusive. We do of course look at where we will go and work, because of the tradition of voluntarism within the Ismaeli community. Where we go we try to mobilise the communitys resources to manage and implement programmes. That is a condition of participation. But once we have chosen an area, all our programmes are open to all who live there. There are currently an estimated 210,000 people in Gorno-Badakshan, but among those there are non-Ismaeli Muslims and non-Muslims. Now there were many Badakshanis and Ismaelis outside Badakshan who came to us and said look, we are also in need. My response was: we are not working for Badakshanis or for Ismaelis, we are working in Badakshan. We are not religious-based, and are not working solely for the benefit of the Ismaeli community.
KVB I heard there is a structural food deficit in Gorno-Badakshan. What are other major problem areas?
HNF Tajikistan was the poorest of the Soviet republics, and Gorno-Badakshan was Tajikistans poorest region. In Soviet times, Tajikistan was economically dependent on resources from Moscow, and Gorno-Badakshan in turn was heavily dependent on subsidies from the capital, Dushanbe. Everything came from outside. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, that support disappeared. Then came the civil war. One of the first requirements was to help people survive, so we started a major humanitarian-assistance programme. First, we sent in an assessment mission, at the invitation of the government. We then started a dialogue with the government and with the people about the fact that we could provide humanitarian assistance, but that such an approach was not sustainable. And, more importantly, we stated our belief that there was capacity to become self-sustaining. So we started an agricultural-reform programme. This concentrated on three things: private management of land, improved inputs and technical advice. After considerable discussion, the hokamath (mayors) agreed to privatise most of the land, and we provided inputs and advice. From less than 15 per cent self-sufficiency, last year Gorno-Badakshan as a whole reached 90 per cent self-sufficiency in staple food production. I say as a whole because, given the mountainous terrain, some areas will suffer chronic food deficits. We need to look at how we can help those localities that are not self-sufficient to generate the income to become food secure. We also started a micro-credit programme to address the problem of employment and income. Our policy is to support any economic activity that creates employment and income. But because people did not have a tradition of working in a market economy, they were not familiar with business planning, management and all that. So before they get credit, they get training. One of the first loans we gave was for a private dental clinic. The government health-care system had collapsed, people needed dental care, and the dentist asked for a credit. We gave a small start-up loan, and he returned it within a few months. He then took out another loan to expand his business. Other loans have set up a public bathhouse, restaurants, a theatre, woodworking shops and all kinds of things. We also got involved in the education sector, and have been experimenting with teacher training, curriculum development and school management. This is all done in close dialogue with the community.
KVB Different communities may decide different policies. But at the same time you need a common policy framework. Does this cause tensions?
HNF The Soviet health-care system was curative and hospital-based. Health care was also provided for free. There was much unnecessary use of hospitals and a whole list of drugs that our experts thought were not required. So they sat down with health-department staff, looked at disease patterns and rationalised the drugs list. They also chose cheaper generic drugs rather than brand names. Then they provided training on the correct use of these drugs. Within that framework, we brought in the idea of a revolving fund, and our principles of community decisions, community management and cost-recovery. They then have to decide how they will spend their income. The communities established their own financing system, which differs from one place to another, but the principles of action are the same.
KVB You referred earlier to agricultural reform and land privatisation. This is typically something for national policy, yet many of the discussions seem to be taking place at local level. How does the central government look upon the fact that, in Gorno-Badakshan, privatisation is taking place, supported by an international organisation?
HNF We started agricultural reform around 1994. For the first two years it was a struggle. But then the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund came in, and started talking about reform and privatisation. Then the President himself visited Gorno-Badakshan. And if I remember rightly, it was in 1996 during a discussion in parliament about land reform, that he said: go and see what is happening in Gorno-Badakshan. Early last year, a high-level government delegation went to Gorno-Badakshan to see how things had evolved there. So it has served as a model. But people have to realise it is not a magic solution. A lot of effort and thinking have gone into the programme. It is an organic evolution, it has to be internalised, it cannot simply be done by issuing a decree.
KVB How do you prepare your staff?
HNF First, when we recruit we look at personality and inclination. Then we send recruits to northern Pakistan to see the approach being followed there. We also brought very experienced people from Pakistan here. So it is through exposure, through training, through mentoring. But most of the staff are local. We have a Mountain Societies Development Programme, which is an NGO we created over here, to implement the agricultural-reform programme. It has a large staff, but there are only three or four expatriates.
In 1996, the government asked us to consider working in the Karategin Valley, which is an opposition stronghold. The government noticed that since we had started our programme, there had been no major incidents of violence in Gorno-Badakshan. This is because the people there realize that if there is conflict and violence, they will lose this programme. We told them clearly that peace and stability were preconditions for us to work there. And they realise what the programme brings in. So we went and talked to the people, the government and the opposition in the Karategin Valley, and explained our conditions for working there. We took some people from the valley to spend a week in Gorno-Badakshan, to learn about privatisation and community participation. It is always these two things: training and exposure.
KVB If tensions arise in an area where you are working, would your staff get involved in trying to mediate and defuse the situation?
HNF Where we feel that our intervention would be useful, of course we would offer that. Violence affects everybody, and one of the purposes of our programme is to underwrite peace and to ensure that there is no violence.
KVB We earlier discussed the fact that there are areas that will remain deficit food producers and therefore will have to obtain food from surplus areas. That presupposes a functioning market and inputs, including credit and training, which is more under their control than is the market. How do you ensure that the market works to the benefit of your programmes and the people you help?
HNF Indeed, we provide inputs. But we are also facilitators. Our initial inputs to farmers were provided on a barter basis, because there was simply no money in Gorno-Badakshan. We provided in kind, and they returned it in kind, with a percentage. Then, as money began to come in, we switched to cash credit. We are finding that when there is demand and money, the market comes in. Farmers start buying from the market rather than from us. What we have to do is give information, for example the price of potatoes in various places, how many hectares of land have been planted and so on, so that farmers can start doing some planning. Second, infrastructure like marketplaces and roads has to be established, and so we get involved in infrastructure development. In northern Pakistan, for example, they produce excellent apricots, strawberries and cherries, which are very perishable. So we experimented with sorting and packaging, and with marketing. We took people from there to Rawalpindi and Lahore and elsewhere where the markets are, and introduced them to the wholesalers. Now they do business without any involvement by us.
KVB You mentioned that voluntarism was part of the ethos of the organisation. Given the state of the economy and the very low purchasing power in Tajikistan, how can people here afford to do volunteer work?
HNF Over here it is indeed a different scenario. We involve volunteer staff in India, in Pakistan, and in east Africa. Often, we had to create health and education services. Here, there are these services and the staff. What we need to do is reform, retrain and right-size. We have not had that critical need for volunteers, yet we still have a few. Even under difficult circumstances, people still contribute on a voluntary basis.
Resources: Uzbekistan and Tajikistan
Roger D. Kangas, Uzbekistan in the Twentieth Century: Political Development and the Evolution of Power
(London: Palgrave, 2001)
Human Rights in Uzbekistan (Helsinki: Human Rights Watch, 1993)
Tajikistan: Refugee Reintegration and Conflict Prevention (New York: Forced Migration Project, Open Society
Mhammad Reza Djalili (ed.), Tajikistan: The Trials of Independence (London: Palgrave, 1998)
Shirin Akiner, Tajikistan: Disintegration or Reconciliation (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2001)
Nancy Lubin, Keith Martin and Barnett Rubin, Calming the Ferghana Valley: Development and Dialogue in the
Heart of Central Asia (New York: Century Foundation Press, 1999)
Roald Z. Sagdeev and Susan Eisenhower (eds), Central Asia: Conflict, Resolution and Change (Washington DC:
Center for Political and Strategic Studies, 1995)
General news sources include:
Central Asia Monitor, Box 6880, Fair Haven, Vermont, 05743, US
RFE/RL Newsline <www.rferl.org/newsline>