Q&A | UN warns crises may force 70% of Kyrgyzstanis into poverty

Q&A | UN warns crises may force 70% of Kyrgyzstanis into poverty
Olivier De Schutter. / Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Berlin, cc-by-sa 2.0.
By Ayzirek Imanaliyeva for Eurasianet June 7, 2022

A United Nations-appointed rapporteur on extreme poverty has sounded the alarm about the grave threats posed to Kyrgyzstan by the twin impacts of COVID-19 and, more recently, Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Olivier De Schutter, an expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate global poverty, said in a statement on June 3 that this was the moment for the country to wean itself off reliance on remittances from migrant laborers abroad. 

“With 350,000 young people set to graduate from school this year, the country must do more to provide its youth with real opportunities beyond migration. It must work to diversify its economy, provide quality jobs, and support informal workers in their transition to formal employment. Failing to do so will prolong the human capital flight crisis, which may ultimately harm the country’s development prospects,” he said.

With his 12-day tour of Kyrgyzstan having ended on June 3, De Schutter has now submitted a series of short-term recommendations to the Kyrgyz government and will, in June 2023, submit a fuller report on his findings to the UN Human Rights Council.

Earlier this week, he spoke with Eurasianet to outline some of his key areas of concern for the present and future in Kyrgyzstan. 

Eurasianet: Did COVID-19 affect poverty levels in Kyrgyzstan? What is your assessment of the impact of the pandemic?

De Schutter: Before the crisis that started with the COVID-19 pandemic, the level of poverty in Kyrgyzstan was already quite high. It was estimated at about 25% of the population, and that was with the use of a very, very low threshold. 

As a result of the pandemic and now the conflict in Ukraine, the World Bank estimates that poverty could increase by 10-12% up to 35% or even 38% of the population. And even that, I think, is an underestimate because the [threshold for assessing poverty] is far too low. If you take a realistic assessment based on how much a family needs to cover their basic needs – food, education, health, housing – you arrive at the conclusion that the poverty line really should be set at around 6,000 som ($75) per month per person. There, we have 70% of the population that is below that level. So by my estimate, almost three-quarters of the population in Kyrgyzstan is in poverty today.

Eurasianet: How is the war in Ukraine affecting life in Kyrgyzstan? After all, many hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz migrants work in Russia. Do we have any data on this yet? 

De Schutter: Today remittances represent an inflow of money equivalent to $2.4bn per year. That’s about 30% of the country's gross domestic product. That is very significant and has poverty-reducing impacts, because 50%  of this money goes to the 20% poorest households.

For the moment we haven't seen many migrants return from Russia. But in the future, if the sanctions imposed on Russia have an impact on their economy, we may see more migrants come back, just like we saw remittances fall during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The real question, however, is how viable and how sustainable it is for countries such as Kyrgyzstan to depend on remittances from migrants for such a large part of the economy. Migrants leave children behind that are often subject to neglect or even violence. Many migrants are not covered by social protection either where they work or upon coming back to Kyrgyzstan itself.

Eurasianet: On June 1, Kyrgyzstan observed International Children’s Day, a date on which it is customary to advocate for the rights of children. What is your assessment of the situation for children in this country?

De Schutter: Poverty in Kyrgyzstan is especially prevalent among families which have large numbers of children. Therefore, children are disproportionately affected by poverty. 

I think we should seriously consider strengthening the child benefits that are provided today. The yi bylogo komok (family support) scheme covers families with incomes of below 1,000 som ($12.60) per member of the household per month with a cash transfer system providing 1,200 som per month per child below the age of 16. That system is deeply deficient. And it is deficient not only because the 1,200 som provides very minimal protection, but also because many people that would normally be eligible do not receive those benefits. 

The reason may be that it is difficult to report incomes and to file documentation. You sometimes have to travel long distances to obtain the papers required in order to qualify for the scheme, so many people are left out. There is one estimate that 78% of the people who normally qualify do not receive the benefits, so I think the system should be significantly simplified. 

Eurasianet: One of your goals here is to evaluate the state of education in Kyrgyzstan? What conclusions have you reached?

De Schutter: Kyrgyzstan is investing a lot of money in education. It is in fact scoring quite well in that regard in comparison to countries at a similar level of development or other countries in the region.

But the real problem is that of quality of education. In 2006 and 2009, Kyrgyzstan was assessed [under the Program for International Student Assessment system] for the quality of education provided in math, sciences and reading. And it scored very poorly. 

Teachers should be better paid and better trained. And schools should be better equipped. There are some 179 schools in the country that should basically be demolished and rebuilt. Another 250 are in need of many repairs. 

This is not only a problem of quality of education. It also results in a system in which parents are asked to contribute to repairs in the school. For some poor families this may be an obstacle to placing their children in school.

Eurasianet: It is two years since a new set of people came into power in Kyrgyzstan, following the political turbulence in October 2020. Have you noted any positive or negative changes that have occurred since and as a result. 

De Schutter: What’s problematic is that [over a number of years] Kyrgyzstan has had a very frequent turnover in the governing elites. This makes it more difficult to implement development strategies in a multi-year prospective. 

The government responds to the urgent demands of the population because the government fears protests. But long-term planning and changing the course of development is very difficult. To implement the sustainable development goals … is difficult without multi-year planning and without commitments being followed upon for five-seven years. There needs to be continuity in the actions of the government.

Eurasianet: The question of women’s rights is particularly topical in Kyrgyzstan right now. In 2021, this country was ranked last among all Central Asian nations on the Women Peace and Security Index. What is your impression of the situation for women here?

De Schutter: The situation is worsening, and it is really problematic. Today, to give you just some figures, 71% of men are in employment, but only 42% of women are. That percentage for the employment rate of women has been declining significantly since 1995. 

There is also a very important pay gap between women and men, estimated at about 60%. And women receive lower levels of pensions because they often have a shorter career, interrupted frequently to take care of the children.

More work has to be done to fight discrimination against women and to invest in childcare facilities and preschool education so that women can be relieved from the care work that otherwise they must perform when they have children. 

Eurasianet: You will now turn to working on the report that is due to be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2023. Could you give us some early insights into what you will say there?

De Schutter: So my preliminary conclusions are presented [on June 3] to the government and it will include a number of short-term and longer-term recommendations. 

The short-term recommendations can, I hope, be implemented at least partially if not fully within the next year. As for the recommendations concerning the long term, they touch on diversification of the economy in particular. 

In the short term, the priority should be to re-examine the yi bylogo komok scheme, to adopt a law on social housing, to significantly improve the training of teachers, and to increase the levels of support that go to unemployed workers. 

And finally, some 71% of the work in Kyrgyzstan is informal. Formalisation of work should be a top priority.  

Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.

This article originally appeared on Eurasianet here.