Youth and Public Policy in Kyrgyzstan

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A report has been published [en] [ru] today which for the first time attempts to undertake an audit of the relationship between young people and public policy in contemporary Kyrgyzstan. Whilst I haven’t been able to read it in full, it looks like a sincere and thorough attempt to map the landscape, highlight weaknesses (many, regrettably) and look at progress that has been made.

You can link to both English and Russian versions of the report at: 

http://www.youthpolicy.org/blog/2012/10/youth-public-policy-audit-kyrgyzstan/

I have reproduced the Key Findings section below, and encourage you to peruse the whole report too.

Key Findings

As one of the 15 independent countries to emerge from the rubble of the former Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan still faces formidable challenges posed by the collapse of Soviet-era economic, political, and social institutions, which affect the entire population, regardless of age. The remote, mountainous country, underdeveloped even before gaining independence in 1991, is poor, relies heavily on foreign aid, and does not generate sufficient jobs for its citizens. Vital public services like schools, hospitals, and power plants are falling apart, plagued by decrepit infrastructure and a catastrophic dearth of competent workers.
Access to reliable information is poor and corruption permeates nearly every sphere of life, particularly those dominated by the state, including education and health care. The justice system barely functions, with laws flouted by those meant to ensure they work. The country serves as a major drug-trafficking route
out of Afghanistan. Between 2005 and 2010, it survived two popular uprisings and a deadly bout of interethnic violence. Understandably, public trust in government is low, and people tend to rely on informal, personal support networks more than on state institutions as such.

These burdens weigh heavily on the shoulders of Kyrgyzstan’s young people, whose prospects seem quite dim, while effective tools for achieving change are in short supply. The country lacks several ingredients crucial for meaningful improvements to the quality of life—including rule of law, meritocracy, and a widely accepted value system encouraging honesty and diligence. These circumstances often lead young people to replicate the same pernicious traits and practices that are common among their elders and that have long stymied Kyrgyzstan’s development. In a practical sense, young people’s chances for economic self-sufficiency are impeded by low-quality education, poor opportunities for employment, gender stereotypes, and cultural expectations that the young should be obedient and passive. Furthermore, the end of the Soviet Union left young people without an official ideology. The resulting vacuum has been filling over the past 20 years with a paradoxical, sometimes perplexing mix of greater individualism, greater dependence on patronage networks, heightened emphasis on ethnic identity, greater religiosity, and a resurgence of traditionalist social mores. Young people account for a large proportion of the country’s population, but have a hard time achieving upward mobility. 

This ratchets up various social tensions in Kyrgyzstan. Demographically, young people, defined since 2009 as 14-to-28 years old, make up nearly one-third of the population, while children and young adults under 29 total 60 percent. About two-thirds of young people live in rural areas, many of which have little
in the way of infrastructure, services, and opportunities. This leads to widespread internal migration, particularly to the capital, Bishkek, and its environs, where migrants are often isolated, encounter problems accessing social services, and experience frictions with nonmigrant neighbors. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyzstanis—many of them young—travel abroad in search of work. The remittances they send home prop up the local economy, but wide-scale migration also rips apart
families and communities and often relegates migrants to low paid, dangerous work. Migration notwithstanding, data gathered recently by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) indicate that young people make up 50 percent of the country’s unemployed.

Ultimately, the young continue to rely economically on their parents and other relatives for protracted periods. They marry and have children relatively early in life, but building independent, sustainable families is difficult because of inadequate opportunities to make a living, exacerbated at times by gender stereotypes that limit young people’s flexibility on the job market. Meanwhile, the socioeconomic pressures are compounded by a politicized divide between the country’s north and south, as well as festering interethnic tensions, which periodically explode into violence. Over the past decade, Kyrgyzstan has developed a raft of youth policies, but few of these seem to genuinely improve young people’s access to information, rights, and opportunities. Too many of the laws, regulations, and conceptual documents
have been reactive: off-the-cuff responses to political events—particularly, young people’s participation in the popular uprisings that overthrew two presidents—rather than the enactment of a strategic vision. Worse still, many policies exist on paper only, without effective mechanisms to achieve their stated aims. Two
independent assessments, in 2006 and 2009, concluded that the country’s youth policy lacks “a comprehensive, systemic approach to existing problems” and “remains ineffective, poorly targeted and formalistic.”

Worryingly, many youth-related programs rely heavily on international donors and fluctuate together
with their priorities and resources. These weaknesses betray a deep-rooted problem: As part of its Soviet legacy, Kyrgyzstan lacks a strong, realistic policymaking tradition—one that relies on informed analysis and debate, prioritizes the well-being of citizens over the interests of a ruling elite and holds officials accountable for achieving measurable, demonstrably beneficial goals. Frequent changes in leadership and bureaucratic restructuring make the problem worse. In the past eight years, responsibility for youth policy has bounced around among six different agencies, creating a lack of continuity and further diluting officials’ accountability. Even the country’s first dedicated Ministry of Youth Affairs was created hastily, without a needs assessment or strategic planning, in response to young people’s participation in the deadly street protests of April 2010. The minister, a political appointee, had no previous policy experience, and the state budget provided almost no funding for the agency’s operations in its first year. Many of the ministry’s activities seemed to be more show than substance, while coordination with other agencies barely existed. 

Moreover, after less than two years, the ministry was overhauled and partially merged with another agency. Many youth policies are currently being revised or written anew; unfortunately, this has become a perennial activity that seems to bear little fruit—in part because policy goals tend to be very broad and the means
of implementation very vague.Kyrgyzstan’s approach to creating a Youth Ministry, together with the latest wave of national youth policies, suggest that the country’s leadership has not learned from past mistakes
and that, despite vocal official commitments to young people, youth policy remains a low priority for the government. (Young people get only three cursory mentions in the 80-page national development strategy for 2012–2014.) Although youth-sector bureaucrats have justifiably complained of chronic underfunding, many of the deeper weaknesses lie elsewhere: Foundational youth policy documents adopted since 2009 contain contradictions and lack concreteness; responsibility for implementation continues to be diffuse; data collection and procedures for evaluating and monitoring policy are extremely weak; policy coherence, cross-sectoral cooperation, and creative approaches to engaging young people are also missing. Overall, Kyrgyzstan’s youth policy fails to focus on young people’s needs or future roles in society. It also retains several leftovers from Soviet times—including a paternalistic approach to young people, an emphasis on “talented youth,” and a desire to indoctrinate the young ideologically—today with a focus on pseudo-patriotic platitudes instead of communism. Although considerable rights and freedoms are guaranteed by law in Kyrgyzstan, the lack of a functioning legal system and the rigidity of certain social mores confine many of these to theory.

Predictably, the positive impact of past youth policies has been minimal. Many components of the national youth agendas in place from 2000 to 2008 were never implemented, while those that were tended to focus on entertainment and mass gatherings, genres largely inherited from the Soviet past. Specific unmet objectives fall into the categories of health care, economic independence, vocational guidance, and bridging the rural-urban divide in accessing services and opportunities. Meanwhile, the policy goal of boosting patriotism among young people has too often mutated into divisive nationalist rhetoric.
Existing policies seldom support young people in exercising their rights, accessing opportunities, or achieving autonomy. One area in which this is particularly obvious is education, where quality is notoriously below par and students’ rights, from primary school through university, are routinely violated or restricted. In the health field, too, youth policies have neither helped compensate for the generally sorry state of medical care nor done much to encourage healthy lifestyles among the young; youth friendly health services and information on reproductive health are sorely lacking. Labor policy has likewise been anemic and incoherent, doing desperately little to address unemployment among the young. Young people’s ability to avail themselves of those rights and opportunities that do exist has been stymied by a number of factors. One is a lack of knowledge, as information about youth relevant policies does not, for the most part, reach the intended beneficiaries. Two more include government dysfunction—which leads, in turn, to public distrust—and cultural traditions that put little stock in young people’s opinions. Some researchers have also pointed to internal obstacles for young people, such as a poor work ethic, weak communication skills, apathy, and fear.

Certain youth subgroups have a particularly hard time benefiting from existing policies. In various cases, these include:  rural youth; physically and mentally disabled youth; homeless, abused, and institutionalized youth; young people who work; ethnic minorities; internal migrants and refugees; low-income youth; young women (especially those who have fallen victim to sexual abuse or bride-kidnapping); and young people in the hands of law enforcement or military agencies. One positive shift in youth policy over the past three years has been the explicit commitment to increase young people’s participation in decision making and public life. However, while the number of youth organizations seems to be growing and some groups of young people have shown ample energy in pursuing common aims, overall youth participation in vital sectors of the country’s life remains limited. This results both from young people’s own lack of knowledge and capacity and from a virtual absence of sustained institutional support for their meaningful participation. The most visibly active young people fall into three, sometimes overlapping categories: nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), politics, and civil service. The NGO sector includes
many impressive projects but remains quite atomized. Meanwhile, young people involved in politics have often become objects of manipulation rather than agents of positive change or the advancement of youth-relevant issues. And, though young people reportedly make up nearly one-fifth of civil servants, a fair
number of them complain that salaries are too low, future prospects are dim, and programs to train and recruit new staff have been deeply flawed, while others fall into the same patterns that have earned Kyrgyzstan’s civil service a bad reputation: corruption, nepotism, lack of professionalism, and the preeminence of personal benefit over the public good.

Finally, it is important to note that youth-related coordination and cooperation across sectors have been virtually absent. Responsibility for coordinating youth-relevant policy used to rest with the Youth Ministry, but the agency did not excel at this task. Prior to its reconfiguration and partial merger with the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Migration, the Youth Ministry was politically and financially weak and was looked at with a fair amount of skepticism by fellow government workers and NGOs alike. Often, the ministry was treated by other national agencies as a junior partner, while NGOs complained that it failed to complement their work or address pressing youth issues. Neither group had a clear understanding of the ministry’s aims and functions. At the end of 2011, the Youth Ministry proposed a number of measures to improve coordination among sectors, but they are marked by many of the same policymaking flaws that have haunted Kyrgyzstan’s youth policy for at least a decade: a lack of evidence-based planning and measurable goals; unclear responsibility for implementation; and no sanctions for non-implementation.

This excerpt (c) the authors and publishers of Youth and Public Policy in Kyrgyzstan

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