In Central Asia, the ever-growing chasm of inequality is deepening

Data shows how inequality in Central Asian states cascades down, promoting poor health, limited access to education and opportunities.

Savia Hasanova Altynai Mambetova
13 October 2020, 12.01am
Illustration: Inge Snip

It is 8am in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Zafar, 39, is walking down the street to the Tajik National University, where he earns 300 USD a month as a teaching instructor. He and his wife, a school teacher who earns even less, are the only bread-winners for their family of six.

Instead of walking, Ahliddin, 44, rides a black Lexus to his office in the city centre. A father of five, Ahliddin is the CEO of a construction company, and the sole bread-winner in his family. But with a monthly salary of 5,000 USD, he can cover his children’s private secondary and university education. “Thank God I have good living conditions. My two sons are studying at good universities abroad, while the other three kids are in prestigious schools,” he tells oDR.

Ayan’s life in Nur Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, feels like miles away, literally and figuratively. A graduate of Nazarbayev University, five years ago the 26-year-old businessman created an app for delivering healthy food. It made him a millionaire. In 2019, the annual turnover for Ayan’s company was more than a million USD. “I mostly spend my funds on investment projects,” Ayan says proudly. “My monthly expenses are about 1,200-1,500 USD, and I also pay my parents 2,300 USD each as they work for me.”

In Central Asia, there are many people like Zafar, but only a few like Ahliddin, and even fewer like Ayan. Income inequality in the region is significant, both within and between countries. With $870 in 2019, Tajikistan has the lowest GDP per capita in Central Asia, approximately 40 times lower than the European Union’s. The region’s leader, oil-rich Kazakhstan, fares better with $9,731 GDP per capita.

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While the global economy is expected to enter into recession due to the COVID-19 pandemic, poor countries face an especially difficult road to recovery. With up to 30% of their GDP dependent on the remittances of migrant workers from Russia, the two small Central Asian republics of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of the virus, which risks increasing levels of inequality among their already impoverished populations.

But the COVID-19 pandemic is only exacerbating trends that have been long prevalent in the region, where assets are concentrated in the hands of the few and where anything from a quality education to clean water have become less accessible to the general population since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Global trends, local poverty

According to a 2019 Credit Suisse Wealth Report, the world’s richest 1% currently owns 44% of global net assets. Equally, the United Nations World Social Report has found that the wage gap between top and bottom earners has actually increased in most developed and several developing countries.

Central Asia is no exception. Kyrgyzstan’s National Statistics Committees reports that the richest decile earns around 12 times more than the poorest decile; in Tajikistan the ratio is nine times, decreasing to the only relatively lower six times in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

“The difference between rich and poor can be seen everywhere in Tajikistan,” Zafar explains. “Rich people enjoy living in big houses, riding posh cars and wearing the latest fashion. They buy groceries in supermarkets, not bazaars. Their children study at private schools.”

In neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Niyara, 23, rides 50 minutes to work and back on a marshrutka minibus. Despite graduating from the aviation college in Bishkek, the country’s capital, she works at a taxi call centre in the city. “I wanted to work at the airport but I wasn’t accepted. The college and the airport are full of corruption, only wealthy people can get work there.”

With her monthly income of 200 USD, Niyara can support her grandmother and her aunt, who cannot work. Half of the money is spent on groceries alone. “I am very careful about money and rarely spend it on entertainment. Lunch at work is not provided, so I try to bring food from home,” she adds. “Like all girls, sometimes it happens that I want to buy clothes or accessories, so I have to save for three months to be able to do so.”

What inequality means

Inequality seriously affects people’s ability to access quality health care and education, as well as basic services such as clean water and sanitation. Recent estimates suggest that more than 780,000 people experience multidimensional poverty in Central Asia (except Uzbekistan, for which there is no data). Of these, 678,000 are in Tajikistan alone.

“It’s women, mostly young women from conservative societies, and people from remote rural areas, who suffer the most from the effects of inequality in society,” Rafkat Khassanov, an independent consultant on economic development in Central Asia, tells oDR. “It’s also people from small towns, particularly from monocities linked to a Soviet industry that has now disappeared. They just suddenly lost their jobs and became labour migrants, one of the most vulnerable categories of people, with informal sources of income.”

During the last decade inequality in access to ante-natal care has grown dramatically between rich and poor in Tajikistan, particularly women from rural areas. Unsurprisingly, maternal mortality rates in Tajikistan are more than four times higher than in the majority of European countries, with the same situation in Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan is the region’s dubious leader, with a maternal mortality level as high as 76 per 100,00 live births.

In terms of education, more than 30,000 children every year fail to attend primary school in Central Asian countries because of a variety of reasons, including child labour and their parents’ lack of financial resources to buy them clothes and books. Speaking in Dushanbe, Zafar underscores how this is the case in Tajikistan. “Children are deprived of an education because they have to work in the household or elsewhere to help their parents. Those from poor households study at public schools and then go out in the streets and to the bazaar to earn money after school.”

Children with disabilities fare even worse, since 75% of them are left out of quality education due to the lack of assistive technologies, such as special reading devices and inexpensive wheelchairs. Likewise, the gender gap in the region is huge. In Tajikistan, the number of girls out of primary school is twice higher than that of boys (8,863 vs. 4,717). In 2018, the Committee on Elimination Discrimination against Women concluded that in the country’s remote areas the school enrolment rate for girls is low, while the dropout rate in secondary and high school is high, due to early marriages and pregnancy rates, as well as gender stereotypes that favour access to education for boys.

Finally, while most people in the region have access to basic water sources, safe drinking water is still inaccessible to large shares of the population, particularly in rural areas.

Jusup, 58, lives with his family of six in Belovodsk village near Bishkek, where there is only a spring for clean water. “The spring is 500 metres from our house”, he tells oDR. “My two sons put 15-20 litre canisters on our wheelbarrow while the girls take five-litre plastic bottles. Then they all go to the spring to fill them with clean water and back, about twice a week. There is a grandma near our house, she lives alone. She can’t carry these big canisters or plastic bottles so our family always carries water for her, too. I do not know how she would survive without us.”

Over half of rural Kyrgyzstan and slightly less than a third of rural Uzbekistan suffer from lack of access to safe drinking water, so that these populations face a higher risk of infectious diseases, malnutrition and child stunting, all contributors to multidimensional poverty.

Back in Dushanbe, Zafar worries about how to get to the end of the month. “I try to spend my money very carefully so I can live on until the next salary,” he says. During the interview, he is calm and affable, but somehow it is clear that he is constantly thinking about his work, perhaps the next lesson, a difficult student, or a new research paper.

“All I can afford is groceries, clothes and utilities. As I do not have any other sources of income, I sometimes ask for money from my brothers, who work as labour migrants in Russia,” Zafar sighs. “It is thanks to their support that I was able to pay for my education and for the house where I live with my family.”

Bahmanyer Nadirov and Zulfiya Raisova contributed reporting from Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

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