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Youth in Central Asia: Losing the New Generation


More international involvement is needed in all spheres of youth activity in Central Asia, where around half the population is under 30. In a world where many people expect progress with each generation, most of the young in this region are worse off than their parents. They have higher rates of illiteracy, unemployment, poor health, and drug use and are more likely to be victims or perpetrators of violence. Few regions have seen such sharp declines in the welfare of their youth, and the combination of declining living standards with a demographic bulge brings increased risks of political instability and conflict. Current trends must be reversed if the region is to avoid more serious economic and political problems.

Central Asian states inherited widespread literacy and relatively high educational standards from the USSR. But education systems are in serious financial crisis. Teachers are underpaid, and their social status has plummeted. Few schools are maintained, and many lack basic facilities. Corruption has devalued qualifications, and economic pressures mean that families are better off allowing children to work than attend school. In some areas of Tajikistan, secondary school attendance has dropped from nearly 100 per cent to below 50 per cent. Young girls are increasingly likely to receive little education.

Most young people with limited schooling end up in casual labour or subsistence agriculture. Work is hard to find even for the educated, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have stifled entrepreneurial development. Parents are left supporting their children well into their twenties. Youth organisations are run by remote elder officials, and most leisure and sports facilities are either closed or affordable only to a privileged few.

It is not surprising that young people increasingly seek solutions outside mainstream society through alternative options of religion, violence, extremism or migration.

Religion serves both as an escape from everyday problems and a channel through which to criticise the present system. Radical Islamist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir have been successful in recruiting the disillusioned, providing simplistic answers to questions about the grim reality of their lives. Equal numbers have moved away from Islam to new Christian churches that offer a Western-oriented alternative.

Crime, whether in the forms of drug abuse, prostitution or gang membership, is affecting the health and life expectancy of young people. The number injecting drugs has been growing rapidly, accompanied by a sharp rise in HIV infection. Governments have been slow to react, and often do not fully acknowledge the risks.

Two thirds of young people say they want to leave the region, and a growing number do migrate, mostly to Russia or Kazakhstan. While this provides an immediate solution to frustrations, it is not without problems. Illegal migrants are easy targets for human trafficking, forced drug-smuggling and prostitution, deadly work accidents, racist harassment, extortion and kidnapping.

Responding to the demands of young people means giving them a say in how things are run and understanding that they will challenge the present generation of leaders. But most Central Asian governments regard young people as a group to be controlled rather than included. Their views are neglected in decisions on education, employment and crime. The most extreme response has come in Turkmenistan, where the government has introduced an education system designed to produce a generation of automatons who know nothing but state propaganda. Ideology also dominates education in Uzbekistan, and critical thinking is discouraged.

Quality bilingual education is essential to promote integration of ethnic minorities and access to political and economic power. Greater efforts to reduce obstacles to business development and the economic exploitation of young people are needed, particularly in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Efforts by Central Asian governments to eradicate religious extremism through heavy-handed security policies have failed, and there is a danger that state restrictions on religious expression will only increase the attractiveness of underground and fringe movements. Governments should adopt a policy of greater openness by allowing wider and better Islamic education and should also improve knowledge of Islam among religious and government officials.

Governments must recognise the extent of drug consumption and allow an open discussion on the issue, include parents in the debate and promote needle exchange and methadone use. Likewise, the HIV/AIDS pandemic must be publicly acknowledged, and education prioritised.

Given the contribution migrants make to the GDP of most Central Asian states, it would be only fair that governments enhance their protection through risk awareness campaigns and provide better support in Kazakhstan and Russia via diplomatic representations and cooperation with NGOs.

Donors have too often been happy to propose quick fixes such as school reconstruction and new computers without the necessary follow-up and conditioning of aid to changes in teaching standards, real access to decision-making for youth, a greater will to fight discrimination and introduction of open discourse on religion. Considerable financial and political commitments are needed to improve the situation of young people, but the pay-off in future stability would be in the interests not just of Central Asia, but of the international community as well.


To the governments of Central Asia:


1. Aim to raise education spending to pre-independence levels of 5-6 per cent of GDP.

2. Improve basic school infrastructures, such as buildings, heating, and power, particularly in rural areas.

3. Make retraining of teachers a higher priority, including new teaching methodologies such as bilingual education.

4. Increase teaching resources available to schools, such as improved classroom materials and textbooks, and real access to computers.

5. Encourage critical thinking in students by improving the quality of teaching, textbooks and methodologies, including the use of classroom interaction instead of rote learning.

6. Tackle corruption by enforcing greater transparency in examinations through national examination systems outside the control of individual teachers.

7. Balance the rising financial strain on parents with increased involvement in school management by parent groups.

Social Integration

8. Allow the formation of youth-based organisations free of state control and with real access to decision-making.

9. Allow and encourage the formation of youth-oriented electronic and print media dealing with issues from the viewpoint of young people.

Economic prospects

10. Develop training opportunities and strong economic incentives for young entrepreneurs and ease restrictions on registration of businesses and access to financing.

11. Encourage links between higher education and the job market, including work experience programs and incentives for companies to hire students.

To donors:

12. Provide greater resources for improved school infrastructure (with tighter control over expenditure).

13. Provide greater resources for improved teacher retraining, particularly in new methodologies that are designed to boost critical thinking and involve more open methods of interacting with students.

14. Provide greater resources for teaching, including textbooks, classroom materials, and equipment, and link provision of computers and other equipment with follow-up and training.

15. Increase programs designed to boost school attendance in poor, rural areas, including school food programs, and design incentives for female students to complete schooling.

16. Minimise risk of a complete collapse in higher education for young Turkmens by establishing special study abroad educational programs for them, including those who have already left the country.

17. Provide greater resources for sports and leisure facilities for youth, focusing on local, low-cost initiatives, and support efforts to establish young groups, youth clubs and youth NGOs.

Osh/Brussels, 31 October 2003

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